Let Them Be

Told that a group of prostituted women were praying the novena to bring a lot of customers for the night, [Sister Sol] is reported to have said: Hayaan mo lnag sila. (Let them be).

Religion and the international HIV/AIDS community butt heads on a regular basis. The public battle that often boils down to condoms vs. abstinence and fidelity (for women) during marriage is real. But it is not the whole story.

Over the years, I have come to see that it is institutions, ideology, public policy, and “in the name of” arguments rather than religion itself (if any single thing can lay claim to that title) that stands in the way. Vatican policy, for example, is not always put into practice on the ground, and there are numerous instances (both individuals and organizations) of those who go quietly about their business without attracting attention or questioning their own beliefs. Sister Sol is a good example, though she has not been doing it so quietly.

Sister Mary Soledad Perpinan, known as Sister Sol, is a member of the congregation of Good Shepherd from the Philippines. We met and talked in Washington where she came for a leadership meeting to plan for the 25th anniversary of the International HIV/AIDS Candlelight Memorial. Learning about her life and her practice led straight to the obvious question: “How does she get away with it?” Sister Sol sees herself as a pioneer, an international and public figure, a feminist, an eco-feminist, a peace and social activist, even a radical. But she insists that she has never challenged church doctrine and has even been praised by the church for her work. Pointing out the subordinate role of women in the church was “just stating the facts,” and never brought any censure.

Sister Sol entered the Convent in 1959 and was a student activist during the 1960s, supporting strikes and social justice during the autocratic regime of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In the 1970s, she was invited by the Jesuits to travel around the world to meetings in Santo Domingo, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Oceana, Spain, England, and Rome. She remembers with a smile that travel was one of the “worldly” things she would have to give up when she entered a convent.

In 1980, Sister Sol founded—and is still CEO of—the Third World Movement against Exploitation of Women (TW-MAE-W). Japanese women journalists challenged her to address the issue of sex tourists flocking to the Philippines from their country. She agreed to write a letter to the Japanese Ambassador and thought that would end it. But it was just another beginning: of a series of protests and demonstrations, of an international movement, and of Sister Sol’s undeviating longterm commitment to prostitutes, mail-order brides, incest survivors, dancers, bar girls, and other exploited women.

Rheumatoid arthritis in 1987 pushed Sister Sol into direct service back home where she promptly opened the first of eleven drop-in centers and homes that help thousands of exploited women to heal and find new livelihoods. They also learn about their rights and about reproductive issues such as HIV/AIDS, as well as the use of condoms to protect them from STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Naming the centers Nazareth and Galilee, Bethany and Belen, (for Bethlehem where the baby Jesus welcomed his first guests, the good for nothing shepherds) she drew directly from the Bible.

Sister Sol never viewed prostitutes as “fallen” women, but as women “pushed—by men—down the manhole of society.” Her mission was to help them choose a “better” life, but without judgment and accepting their pace for decision making. Told that a group of prostituted women were praying the novena to bring a lot of customers for the night, she is reported to have said: Hayaan mo lnag sila. (Let them be).

Plunged into the Battle Against HIV/AIDS

Already known worldwide as a human rights activist, Sister Sol was plunged into the battle against AIDS in 1989 when most of the Catholic and other seats of religious power were denying its existence or railing against its victims as deviants and sinners deserving of the punishment being heaped on them by God.

“Because of my involvement in ministering to prostitutes,” Sister Sol was invited by human rights champion, Jonathan Mann of the World Health Organization, to Australia for a conference on the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS and prostitution. “This, in turn, led to another chain of international invitations to Cameroon, Melbourne, Berlin, Paris, Yokahama, and others.” As in most events of her life, Sister Sol claims that she was led, that it “just happened.” Without much pressure, she will also admit to being “chosen” to advocate for an issue way before it becomes the “in thing.”

Campaigning against AIDS for the Candlelight Memorial, the TW-MAE-W has spread the message through preventive education and advocacy throughout the Philippines. Peer educators, formerly and currently prostituted women, distribute information in the field, teach women how to protect themselves, set limits, assert their rights, promote voluntary testing, and run workshops on STDs and HIV/AIDS. “We have made friends with bar owners,” Sister Sol tells me, “who order all their employees, from dancers to janitors, to attend the health sessions.”

Her AIDS involvement stems “from the gut level”: “My special ministry to the sexually exploited and abused gave me the opportunity to understand and accept the marginalized groups, including those with other sexual orientations.” Starting with those who have been prostituted, she then came to know and befriend the gay crowd. “One of the best articles about me was written by one of them for METRO, a slick Manila magazine,” she says.

Highly educated with several degrees, Sister Sol has written and been written about, spoken out, or advocated for nearly every hot-button topic “peace, feminism and eco- feminism,” comparing the rape of the earth to rape of women, and contributing a chapter called “Muffled Voices” to a book on the role of women in the church. Sister Sol was one of the 1000 peace-women from more than 150 countries who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has been compared by a German magazine to Mother Theresa, a comparison that does not entirely displease her.

As for condoms, Sister Sol says: “You can be married and well-heeled; you don’t have to be a prostitute—if your husband is philandering, you still have to protect yourself.” She pulls out a paper she has written that cites a number of Catholic clergy from priest to Cardinal who concur that condoms may be the lesser evil than death, either to oneself or to others. “You can even demand to use a condom because you have a right to life. You don’t practice murder for the sake of morality.” Her own practice, however, is more along the lines of don’t ask, don’t tell, “but I’m not the one who distributes them,” she adds. “It’s our field workers who are with the women. I don’t put my head on the chopping block indiscreetly.” Persistently questioned, Sister Sol sticks to her guns and continues to dismiss out of hand my questioning the possibility that she is bucking her religion, or even church authority. “I am liked and respected by the hierarchy,” she says with some impatience. “My superior generals tell me that ‘what you do is very much in line with our charism, our heritage.’ The key is that they see I am doing what Christ would be doing.”

She does admit to being radical, but so was Christ, she affirms. In fact, she cites the gospel and uses Jesus as her model, recalling his famous “cast the first stone” admonition to the Pharisees about to stone a prostitute. (Jesus did not condemn her, but did suggest that she seek another line of work.) Meeting Sister Sol today, it is hard to imagine that anything in her life “just happened” or even that she was “chosen” by God rather than by the force of her personality, compassion and sharp intelligence. It is doubtful that her voice can ever be muffled.

At 70, she is going strong, although she is visibly weakened and slowed by crippling chronic rheumatoid arthritis that leaves her all but unable to open, pour, or turn most objects. Her spirit, energy, and a touch of the ornery remain intact.

But the lingering question of a devout skeptic remains: “How can Sister Sol be so radical if she doesn’t ruffle the feathers of the church?”

Sara Friedman is a journalist who is currently the editor of  Global AIDSLink, a bi-monthly newspaper published by the Global Health Council. Previously, she  worked for 12 years with UNICEF and the NGO community on issues of human rights of women and children. Ms. Friedman has published four books and numerous articles.