“So many women from my country are being mistreated. It’s the needy ones that I felt I couldn’t turn my back on. So I decided to find a way to reach out” Image Credit: Supplied picture

March 8 is International Woman's Day, a day of celebration but also a reminder to women's rights campaigner Kristie Mae Templa that there is still much work to be done. Secretary General of Gabriela UAE, this 27-year-old represents the new generation of progressive women. Taking a break before visiting a housemaid in prison, she tells us about her commitment to helping Dubai's Filipina domestic workers.

Before… "My mother, a social worker in Davao in the Philippines, is one of the most progressive women I know. Although we were considered middle class in my hometown, my younger sister and I were brought up from a very young age to be socially aware and to respect those less fortunate. My mother was vice-president of the international non-profit organisation Gabriela - the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action. As a child, my sister and I often accompanied her on home visits and campaigns helping local women and children. We grew up witnessing the reality of a harsh life.

It all changed when… "At 13 years old I became actively involved in Gabriela Youth. I educated my friends at high school about women's rights and drew their attention to exploitation of women around us. But it wasn't until I was 20 and attending college that I got my first real taste of the hardship some women endure. I went to the remote Maco Compostela Valley in the Philippines and lived in a slum with farm labourers and their families. We had no electricity or running water, there was little education and many women were victims of abuse. Life was tough. By living with them I was not just giving my support, but sharing their experiences. I came to fully understand their struggles. From then on I vowed to make empowerment of women my lifelong mission.

As a result… "In 2005 I graduated from Ateneo de Davao University in the Philippines with a mass communications degree. In 2008 I moved to Dubai to seek work, becoming another of the UAE's 600,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). It took some time but eventually I found the job I am in now - PR coordinator for a public relations and events company. I'm very grateful; it's taken more than three years to get to this position, I feel valued and am treated fairly. But, it's also made me very aware that many around me are not as privileged as I am.

"There are some 25,000 Filipinos in Dubai employed as domestic staff. Due to the nature of the work, which is private and often ‘invisible', these women are especially vulnerable. Some are happy but others suffer exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers. We hear cases of physical violence, sexual abuse, withholding of passports, restrictions on mobility and communication, and even human trafficking. So many women from my country are being mistreated. It's the needy ones that I felt I couldn't turn my back on, so I found a way to reach out.

Since then… "In July 2011 I met Melca Perez, the chairperson and founder of Gabriela UAE. By November a handful of us had joined together to help with the support group's official launch. We started in Satwa by handing out leaflets highlighting our ‘I Vow to fight VAW (Violence Against Women)' campaign. This helped raise public awareness and let women know that we are here and ready to support them. Gabriela UAE now has 30 volunteer members, all with professional backgrounds, from law to teaching, social work to psychology. We also have valued members who are domestic helpers themselves.

As an alliance we offer support, advice and solidarity to fellow women in need. As well as educating OFWs on women's issues, I also assist the welfare committee in handling cases, from runaways to victims of physical and emotional abuse. I provide emotional comfort and support, and through liaison with the Philippine Consulate, I provide practical assistance. We have handled hundreds of cases in the past seven months alone.

Moving on… "Over the course of 2012 Gabriela UAE will hold a series of seminars - for the Filipina media, domestic workers and Filipina women - teaching about women's rights and reaching out to offer support.

"If I had my way, every day would be International Woman's Day. I would like my own family one day and, just as my mother taught me, I'll do all I can to ensure my daughters' futures are bright, equal and safe. We all deserve that." A

If you wish to know more, or would like to volunteer, visit the Facebook page Gabriela - UAE, email gabrielauae@googlemail.com or call Kristie 050-8831483.

Do you know an inspirational woman? Let us know, by emailing us at aquariusedit@gulfnews.com