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Overcoming Indebtedness and Challenges of Long-Distance Relationship

Augustus T. Añonuevo

Jhocelyn Onceno, a 39-year old wife of an Overseas Filipino worker (OFW) lives in Barotac Viejo, Iloilo in the Philippines with her five children. Her husband, Dionel, has been working as cow breeder in New Zealand for six years now. Prior to that, Dionel worked as a cow breeder also for six years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Although Dionel earned a relatively higher income compared to other OFWs, it did not prevent the financial woes that he and Jhocelyn faced in 2020.

The year 2020 was difficult for the Onceno family particularly for Jho, as Jhocelyn is fondly called, to the point where she contemplated suicide because she felt that she could no longer bear the problems that she was facing then. She was all alone in taking care of her five children, one of which, was a newborn baby, and in attending to their family’s financial concerns.

Various financial and personal problems piled up on top of one another. She was heavily indebted to a loan shark to whom she borrowed money to pay off her husband’s car loan.  Additionally, she had to pay the medical bills of her two children afflicted with heart disease. She narrated: “Nabaon kami sa utang. PhP 350,000 sa car loan sa China Bank at PhP 310,000 ang inutang ko sa 5/6 para mabayaran ang utang sa China Bank. Lumaki nang lumaki ang utang namin dahil sa interests, kaya siguro PhP 660,000, hindi pa kasama ang ginastos ko sa pagpapagamot sa mga anak ko.” (We were deeply indebted. We had to pay China Bank the car loan of PhP 350,000 (USD 7,070). I incurred PhP 310,000 (USD 6,262) debt from a loan shark (5/6, the term used in the Philippines to refer to loan sharks). Our debts ballooned because of the high interests. At a time, we owed a total of PhP 660,00 (USD 13,332). Our debts got bigger because of the imposed interest rates by the bank and loan shark. Not included were the medical bills of my children that I had to pay.)

On top of the enormous financial difficulties and the serious illnesses of her children, her relationship with her husband was crumbling due to nasty infidelity rumors peddled against her.  She said: “Hindi na kami nag-uusap noon. Naniwala siya sa mga tsismis na me relasyon akong iba. Hindi lang niya alam kung gaano ako umiiwas sa mga nagpaparamdam sa akin.” (We were not talking to each other anymore. He believed in the rumors that I was into extramarital affairs. He did not know how I shied away from romantic advances of other men.”

Jho was really hurt because she has consciously avoided illicit advances from men and focused herself in earning extra income for the family. She was always out of the house, day and night, not because she was into an extramarital relationship but was peddling items to sell in the different towns of Iloilo.

Jho had no one to turn to for her problems and had no idea what to do to overcome her predicament until the Reintegration and Financial Planning Training on June 2022 in Barotac Viejo, Iloilo that she attended. The financial literacy training was conducted by the staff of Barotac Viejo Municipal Government and Ekolife OFW Cooperative. The staff of the local government and the cooperative were trained as trainers by Atikha, an NGO in the Philippines that provides economic and social services for migrant families and returned migrants in the province of Iloilo. The conduct of the training of trainers and financial literacy trainings were part of the implementation in the Philippines of the Safe and Fair Project: Realizing Women Migrant Workers’ Rights and Opportunities in ASEAN Region Programme, with funding from the European Union, led by the ILO with UN Women in collaboration with UNODC. The trainings sought to empower not only migrant women workers but also their families, prospective migrants and migrant returnees. Empowerment meant capacitating migrants, prospective migrants and their families to manage their finances and at the same time, to handle familial concerns that drain their resources and strain relationships.

Jho was more than grateful for what she learned from the training. For Jho, the financial literacy training came at the right time. She acknowledged that had she not participated in the training, she could have given up and remained overwhelmed by the difficulties that she and her family faced.  The training gave her hope and strengthened her resolve to overcome her and her family’s difficulties. She said she had to get her wits together and act with purpose for the sake of her children who have remained responsible and even excelled in school despite the family’s difficulties.

Jho immediately applied the knowledge and skills that she acquired from the training. She learned the importance of systematically allocating earnings, paying off debts and investing any extra money. Furthermore, she learned that she had to involve her husband and children and the family must decide and take actions collectively.

After the training sessions, Jho took photos of the slide presentations and other training materials on financial management, this includes taking stock of resources, savings and investments, getting out of debt, and computing goals among others, and sent them to her husband.  That eventually led for Jho and her husband to come to terms on how to address and finally solve their financial predicament. Insights from the training materials put their minds together and aided them to devise a plan to get out of debt. Jho and Dionel agreed to pay off first the car loan and afterwards, the debt from the loan shark. Dionel took care of the car loan. He asked his employer in New Zealand to help them pay off their car loan without interest. After some time, Dionel and Jho also paid off the debt from loan shark.

The training encouraged the sharing of responsibility in earning income for the family. It discouraged family’s dependency on migrant remittances. Jho learned from the training not to be dependent on her husband. She helped raise what was needed for her and her children’s living expenses. To save more and earn extra family income, Jho tightened on their expenses and engaged in small businesses like peddling grocery and cooking items and selling ornamental plants online at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She worked hard to earn from her businesses while taking care of her youngest, who was still nursing, and her other children. 

Her elder twin 18-year-old children, fully aware of their family’s predicament, helped to augment the family income to cover all their expenses and financial obligations. Jho narrated: “Yung kambal, kasama yung banda nila, kumakanta sa birthdays, sa piyesta, binyag at iba pang celebrations sa bayan. Grade 8 yata sila noon pero tumulong na sila. Proud talaga ako sa kanila at tumulong sila. Naiintidihan nila ang problema namin. Natutuwa ako at may anak akong katulad nila.” (My twins earned by singing with their youth band during wedding, birthday, fiesta, baptismal and other celebrations in the town center. They were only in Grade 8 then but they helped in augmenting the family income. They understood well our financial predicament. I am grateful that I have children like them.)

In just a year, Jho and her family successfully got out of debt. As things financially got better for her family, so was Jho’s relationship with her husband. She and her husband eventually patched up their differences, made up, and rekindled their affection with each other. Their children played a crucial role in making their father and mother get back together. They painstakingly explained to their father that Jho was always out of the house not because she had illicit extramarital affairs as portrayed by nasty rumors but because she was working days and nights to earn extra money for the family.

After a year, all was well in the family so much so that Jho and her husband planned to live together again literally in one roof. Initially, they planned for Jho and her children to join Dionel in New Zealand and live there. But the plan was deferred indefinitely because Jho reckoned that it will be too costly for all of them to live in New Zealand which they could not yet afford. Financially smart after the training, she calculated the costs of moving to New Zealand against the costs of remaining in the Philippines.  So instead of going to New Zealand, Jho insisted that instead, they prepare for the possible permanent return of Dionel to the Philippines. Learning from the training, Jho said that they should make sure that they can raise what the family needs when Dionel no longer works in a foreign country. Jho reiterated that they should set achievable goals upon her husband’s permanent return to the country, clearly identify the possible sources of family income and designate the roles that they all, she and her husband and their children, should play to ensure the successful reintegration of Dionel to the country. 

Jho is more than pleased that she and her family has overcome the struggles that they contended with. She was grateful for the training that helped her succeed in solving her financial woes and marital problems. She is grateful that she has become financially literate and has applied what she learned from the training and that to her has turned things for the better. She could not have succeeded without the benefit of Reintegration and Financial Planning Training.

It was amazing how a financially literacy seminar could spell a difference to the lives of migrant families. Relatives of migrants like Jho are capacitated to manage properly not only the family’s finances but also how to handle their families’ affairs and concerns. The financial literacy and reintegration planning seminars strengthen their resolve to carve a better future for their families. Jho knows fully well that these trainings will benefit other relatives of migrants just as it has benefitted her and her family. She is confident that these trainings will help migrants and their families overcome their current financial difficulties and familial relationship challenges.