KASAMA Vol. 24 No. 1 / January-February-March 2010 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

‘MAKING A DIFFERENCE’ — how one’s past shapes a person’s achievement is something of a mystery. Philippines-born Australian, JOAN BARREDO DICKA was shortlisted for the 2009 Australian Human Rights Awards and Medals in the Individual Community Award category.[1] DEBORAH RUIZ WALL caught up with Joan during her brief Sydney visit to attend the Human Rights Awards ceremony and they had a chance to chat a bit about how Joan’s past foreshadowed her future. Joan had to rush back to Adelaide after the ceremony, so we asked her to fill in more details about her work and life in the Philippines before she took up residence in Australia.

Joan Dicka - shortlisted for a 2009 Australian Human Rights Award

Joan Dicka In November, Joan Dicka was acknowledged by The Honourable Gail Gago MLC, South Australian Minister for the Status of Women at a reception in Government House as an “Outstanding Nominee” in the 2009 South Australian Women’s Honour Roll for her role in disclosing abuses of Human Rights within cross-cultural relationships in the 1980s. For many years she was an advocate for the rights and welfare of migrant women victims of domestic violence. Today, even in retirement, she still gets called upon on occasion to assist women in accessing appropriate services.[2]

Joan arrived in Australia in 1981 when services for Asian migrants hardly existed. When she heard of the murder of a Filipino woman, Teresita Andalis,[3] she committed herself to finding support for migrant women experiencing grave difficulty with their relationships.

The energy and zeal behind the support services she established in South Australia had a precedent: her own long involvement with difficult and challenging social work cases in the Philippines. These cases prepared her for confronting the many domestic violence and spousal homicide cases of Filipino women here in Australia.

Back in 1962 in the Philippines, Joan worked with the Jesuit Missions in Bukidnon, Mindanao where she had to reach the Indigenous Peoples who lived in remote areas as they were being evicted and driven further to the hinterlands by logging and farming interests. To reach them required a lot of travelling, climbing mountains and crossing rivers. She used a horse for transport and this was how she got the name ‘Joan’. Her mass communications trainer and employer, Fr. James B. Reuter, SJ, called her “the Joan of Arc of Mindanao”. So the name ‘Joan’ stuck, although her birth name is Evangeline and her family name is Barredo.

In 1965, Bishop Gerard Mongeau, OMI offered Joan a job in his diocese. The Bishop envisioned a housing project for the homeless, both Moslems and Christians, in Cotabato City. Joan accepted the position and soon after she joined the Oblates of Notre Dame and became a nun, but she still continued working with the Bishop. Joan’s holistic approach to the project incorporated capacity building as well as infrastructure support. Male residents learned carpentry and engaged in house construction. The women trained in sewing, weaving and gardening. Cottage industries were organised and the produce marketed locally and overseas. The vegetable gardens were so productive that there was an abundance of good food to share on the family table and they supplied the city market by the truckloads. Little wonder that the development and success of this housing project for the poor received public acknowledgement and was featured in local and national media. It was given the “Panday Pera” NACIDA (National Cottage Industries Development Authority) government award.

The success of the housing project was also illustrated in the comment made by a well-known communist leader Luis Taruc who said, “If all the nuns are like her, there wouldn’t be HUKBALAHAP.”[4]

The challenges Joan faced were enormous as politicians attempted to infiltrate the housing project by pushing for their own housing applicants. Joan, however, made sure that the applicants were truly “the homeless and poorest among the poor”. Screening the applications thoroughly for authenticity, she often struck friction with authorities and, as she was the only nun assigned in the project, the rules of the convent were stretched to accommodate the demand and complexity of Joan’s work and involvement with the ‘outside world’. She used the media to reach more people through a regular radio program that promoted peace and harmony, honoured human rights and respected and accepted the differences in beliefs. The program aired information about available government and non-government welfare services. She used drama as a tool to evaluate the effectiveness of policies, programs and services for the needy.

Joan’s work included young offenders’ rehabilitation. Although not a lawyer, she went to court to represent the welfare of teenagers involved in petty crime. She fought against the practice of detaining young offenders with convicted adults as she wanted to prevent their ending up as hardened criminals. She introduced individual and family counselling and organised productive activities for their livelihood programs. For example, a duck-raising venture through which the young offenders sold fresh duck eggs, balut and salted eggs kept them from engaging in petty crimes again. Their energies were channelled into positive and productive activities to the amazement of the court judge.

Joan was successful with fundraising too. She was granted a donation from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes amounting to more than 10,000 pesos (a great deal of money in the 1960’s). The money was deposited with the Notre Dame Hospital for patients who could not afford to pay their hospital bills. She wrote religious songs which were recorded and sold. She also taught at the University of Notre Dame in Cotabato City. Joan disagreed with the practice that nuns should go begging for the church and their subsistence. She believed they should be professionally and skilfully employed to earn money for themselves and the church, like anyone else in the community.

In 1972, Joan left the religious order and the housing project and moved to Baguio Pelletier High School, run by the Good Shepherd nuns. She was a case worker for the troubled children of the elite and politicians, such as young unwed mothers or students with drug problems. This was a temporary job obtained through Fr. James Reuter. Joan was then referred to Estefania Aldaba-Lim, Secretary of the Department of Social Welfare, to work with the government. As part of her orientation and training, she experienced what Imelda Marcos’ housing project was like in the slums of Tondo in Manila. At that time, President Marcos’ wife was the Minister for Human Settlement.

During Martial Law, Joan was back in Mindanao working for the Department of Social Welfare. At this time, there was a massive disaster operation in Mindanao. She was assigned to establish the General Santos City branch separate from its mother branch – the South Cotabato Provincial branch office. Starting with only one full time worker and a couple of emergency workers and with no official budget for the branch, she succeeded in establishing the office with the assistance of local resources. Office staff were recruited and trained and this foundation paid off as the branch later bagged the yearly award for the best city branch in two consecutive years. The honour had been partly attributed by the present staff to Joan, who laid the foundation for their work.

In 1973-74, as the Provincial Social Welfare Officer, Joan was transferred to the Cotabato Branch to initiate the division of the mother province into three: The provincial branches of North Cotabato, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat. Concurrent to this was her designation as a Special Disbursing Officer to facilitate the funding for the massive relief, relocation and rehabilitation services needed in the disaster-torn areas. In 1974 she was promoted to the position of Social Welfare Specialist to handle the programs of the Bureau of Assistance in Region XI in Davao City. In 1975, Joan was again sent on a special assignment to establish Region XII where she became the Regional Officer-in-Charge until she recruited and supported a Moslem to be the Regional Director. She believed and argued that a local Moslem Regional Director would be more effective in working with his or her own community. Joan also worked with the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) under Regional Integrated Development Planning in a concurrent capacity. She believed in decentralisation, that social planning and policy-making must not be imposed from above and that the participation from the grassroots and other levels must always be considered.

Joan was elected President of the Philippine Association of Social Workers in the region for four consecutive years. In its Biennial National Conference held in Dumaguete City, she led the preparation and distribution of a manifesto demanding for Philippine reference books in universities for the study of social work. She further insisted that social work practice in the Philippines must be properly recorded and evaluated and come up with models for study. The previously available reference books in social work were solely American and British and were not relevant in the Philippine setting. All her demands were based on her experience as a Bachelor Degree holder in Social Work with some units in Masters. The authorities viewed this action negatively. As a result, Joan’s accommodation with her group of delegates was raided by the military and all the copies of their manifesto were confiscated. They were interrogated and branded as subversive activists. Joan later discovered that she had been under surveillance by the Martial Law regime since her entrance into government service in 1972.

From then on, Joan was controlled in her use of media which she commonly employed in raising awareness on issues to promote social development. She was misunderstood in her use of social action to introduce changes and reforms. There was to be no involvement in street theatre, publications and radio. Joan left the government service in 1981, tired and disappointed with the ongoing graft and corruption. She also felt helpless about the man-made disaster operations in Mindanao where families were displaced and made homeless.

In January 1981, Joan moved to Australia to join Stefan Dicka whom she married in the Philippines in 1980. Stefan was an Australian resident of Slovakian origin.

She started work in Australia in 1982 as a volunteer counsellor through the Filipino International Club of Adelaide. But she soon discovered that the club’s Australian-Filipino president ran a marriage brokerage with fees involved – it was a “business” which raised her concerns. Joan then contacted the Bureau of Catholic Services (now Centacare) and requested to join their counselling services facility. In 1984 she was appointed head of the Filipino-Australian marriage and family counselling service.

This experience eventually provided Joan access to some solid statistical data that gave her authoritative knowledge to call the attention of non-governmental and governmental bodies to address the problems faced by the so-called “Mail-Order-Brides”. A working party was formed, the appointment of a Filipino Social Worker recommended, and a work plan and budget proposal was submitted to the grant-in-aid program of the Department of Immigration. Finally, it was approved and Joan was appointed to the position.

Using media to promote the services available for victims of domestic violence, Joan organised radio and television interviews and newspaper articles with the affected women. Then a series of cultural action workshops in 1993, where the women could address issues of violence and develop a drama production based on their own experiences, resulted in the formation of a theatre group Buklod Kababaihang Filipina. The play was performed locally in South Australia’s country areas as well as in Sydney, Melbourne and for an international conference on narrative therapy and community work held in Adelaide. This form of theatrical production, in which the majority of the actors portraying the experiences of victims are survivors themselves, is a powerful way to raise public awareness and expose the mythology that Filipino women are passive, subservient and uneducated.

Joan was also involved in a video produced by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. Entitled “Marrying and Migrating to Australia: The Filipino-Australian Experience”, the film depicts a bride’s life in Australia.[5]

Active involvement in support work for women and children escaping family and domestic violence can be problematic for a social worker. Joan has had to face threats from some perpetrators. Some even stalked her. One broke into her house and made threats which put her own safety at risk. One disappointment Joan had was the criticism of her work from within the Filipino community. Some Pinoys felt offended by the national media coverage that linked cases of domestic violence with the “Mail-Order-Brides” issue. They regarded the publicity as tantamount to “washing dirty linen in public” or needlessly “rocking the boat”.

During 1994-95 a research for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, was conducted by the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney. Their report released in 1996, confirmed that Philippines-born women aged between 20 and 39 had a homicide victimisation rate 5.6 times that of other Australian women in the same age group.[6]

Deborah summed up the answer to her question thus: ‘MAKING A DIFFERENCE’ — how Joan’s past experience provided solid ground for facing the challenges of community work in her adopted country, Australia. Ultimately her achievement, I believe, comes from her tenacity and her fearless struggle to fight for human rights and social justice, wherever she may be.

End Notes:

[1] The 2009 Human Rights Medals and Awards were presented at a gala luncheon ceremony in the Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel in Sydney on 10 December.
[3] The death of Teresita Beatriz Andalis was reported to the police as a “drowning accident in a boat” on 10 August 1980 off Tippler’s Resort in Queensland. David Mathiesen, her employer, had insured Teresita’s life for $400,000. On 16 April 1981 after 8 months of investigation, Mathiesen was convicted of her murder and given a life sentence with hard labour.
[4] The Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (HUKBALAHAP, also known as “Huks”) was an illegal Filipino Communist Soviet-influenced people’s liberation army formed in 1942 to fight the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. The HUKBALAHAP aligned themselves with the American forces but shortly after liberation went underground again.
[5] “Marrying and Migrating to Australia: The Filipino-Australian Experience”, Government of Australia, Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, May 1995, was developed specifically for Filipino women. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas in Manila made this video mandatory viewing as part of their counselling service for prospective Filipino migrants.
[6] Cunneen & Stubbs, “Violence Against Filipino Women”, a report for the Race Discrimination Commissioner and the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, 1995.