Digital Reporter

“Wnever spend enough time to listen to women,” said Ambassador of the Republic of France to the Philippines Thiery Mathou—a man—before an audience of female powerhouses.

Last May, the embassy he helms staged a forum entitled “She for She” at Century Mall, Makati, to commemorate the 70th year of Franco‑Philippine friendship, and also to uphold an endeavor shared by the two countries: the defense of women’s rights. Not to be confused with the UN Women solidarity campaign called HeforShe, which engages men and boys as agents of change for gender equality, this forum gave women a chance to talk to women about women.

“The Philippines ranks even higher than France,” the ambassador pointed out, referring to the 2016 Global Gender Gap report where the Philippines ranked first in gender equality in Asia, and seventh in the world. “But if we compare the situation between the global index and the reality at the grassroots level, we know that there are discrepancies.”

Art Samantha Gonzales

Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros, chair of the Senate committee on women, and sponsor of the Anti‑Discrimination Act, emphasized that politics is still a male-dominated field.

“From 1998 to 2013, there has been a steady increase in women’s participation. But when compared to men, the gap is overwhelming,” she said in her speech, citing as an example that there are only six women in the Senate today (with one of them in jail).

“The political language, behavior and values of our beloved country are still beset by a culture of misogyny and sexism that belies any statistic,” she noted.

“It is completely unacceptable that we have elected officials who profess to love their wives, sisters and daughters, and yet flagrantly defend cheating on them,” Ms. Hontiveros said. “How can we ever claim to be a nation that stands for equality when our leaders make offhand references to a woman’s legs and fully expect that to be regarded as a compliment, without the woman’s consent? How can we have officials catcalling a reporter in the middle of a press conference and not acknowledge such disrespect? How can we have a head of state that treats rape as a laughing matter, or for that matter, other government leaders who apologize on behalf of his sexism?”

“The short answer is,” she continued, “we can’t.”

“Anyone familiar with the cycle of abuse knows that violence begins with language. It is when we allow one, two, or three offhand remarks to pass and say, ‘well, he doesn’t mean it,’ that we give another power over us,” Ms. Hontiveros added. “This is where victim‑blaming comes from. One cannot claim to work for the welfare of a woman, and, at the same turn, silence her for speaking her mind.”

Aside from the Anti‑Discrimination bill, two other bills filed by Ms. Hontiveros—the Safe Streets and Public Spaces Act of 2017 and amendments to the Anti‑Rape of 1997 to raise the age of statutory consent from 12 years old to 18 years old—are now in the plenary.

The political language, behavior and values of our beloved country are still beset by a culture of misogyny and sexism that belies any statistic.

—Senator Risa Hontiveros

For her part, Diwa Partylist Representative Emmeline Aglipay&Villar, chair of the House committee on women and gender equality, said: “In Congress, we have filed bills that seek to repeal or amend discriminatory provisions in existing laws or propose new laws that promote women empowerment and gender equality.“

Yet, she also noted, that some of these bills, like the expanded maternity leave law, are opposed by fellow women. “This speaks a lot of how far we have to go,” Ms. Villar said.

“Legislation is, in a very real sense, nation‑building. And if you want to build a nation where women are both free from active discrimination and the inertia of prejudice then we must create and support laws that belong to this nation,” said Ms. Villar. “What you can do is to put pressure on our Representatives to take up these bills and make them move in the plenary.”

On the other hand, Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) Executive Director Emmeline Verzosa said that in the House of Representatives, women’s participation is increasing. “In the House of Representatives, representation is constantly increasing, there are now 68 women. In terms of the Cabinet, there are now four, it used to be five but Environment Secretary Gina Lopez was not confirmed. And in the career executive service, or third level deputy level up to the undersecretary level, we only have a 43% composition of women, short of the Magna Carta of Women mandate to have 50‑50. There’s still a lot of work that need to be done for women to take more courage to take managerial positions and also for appointing authorities like the President to consciously appoint women to such decisions.” To recall, the PCW is under the Office of the President.

Lots of laws protect women. We’re very good at making laws but it’s the implementation part that we really need to work on.

—Emmeline Verzosa, Philippine Commission on Women Executive Director

“Participation of women in politics and decision making is still hindered by reproductive roles, conservative mindsets, and also because of the high cost of running a political campaign,” Ms. Verzosa explained. She added that there is still no law that requires a quota for women representatives in the legislature.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in media, especially in social media,” Ms. Versoza said. “We do have laws that protect women and children but these are not enough and enforcement is still wanting.”

She also flagged the issue of women migrant workers. “More women contribute to the remittances (by) migrant workers but we still hear incidents of exploitation, of economic and sexual abuse, inhumane treatment. Although the government is currently addressing reintigration programs, a lot still has to be done.” Locally, she added that rural women still live in poverty.

“Lots of laws protect women. We’re very good at making laws but it’s the implementation part that we really need to work on,” Ms. Versoza said.

Vice‑President Leni Robredo delivered the closing remarks to the forum. “Witnessing the struggles of these (abused) Filipinas allowed me to understand that true independence comes from economic empowerment,” said Ms. Robredo. “I believe that when women are liberated from fear and self‑doubt, they thrive and flourish and, most importantly, they become instruments for other women to achieve their own independence.”

Ms. Robredo added that gender empowerment is not about competing with men. “Gender should not hinder anyone from taking on opportunities for growth and development. Gender should not dictate who has a seat at the table nor should it dictate anyone’s limitations.”

“Let us not be afraid,“ she said. “Sometimes, fear can freeze us into inaction,” she said. “When that happens, remember that the Filipina today is stronger and smarter than she has ever been.”

Art Samantha Gonzales

“A feminist theology is succeeding in making religion work for, not against, women,“ said Sister Mary John Mananzan, current executive director of St. Scholastica College’s Institute of Women’s Studies and former chairperson of Gabriela. “Feminist theology deconstructs what is oppressive and reconstructs what is liberating in religion.”

Sr. Mananzan put in very comprehensive terms what makes a feminist. “First, are you aware that there is a discrimination, oppression and exploitation women as women, and that this cuts across class, race, creed and nationality? We call this the woman question. Second, if you recognize that there is a woman question, are you willing to change the situation in any way you can? If your answer is yes to both to them, you are a feminist, even if you are a man.”

She added that what the clergy and bishops say about reproductive rights (“I am a nun, but I am for reproductive rights,” she said.) should not be confused with the assorted opinion(s) in the Philippine Catholic Church. “The clergy and the bishops are only 2% of the Catholic church.”

In her presentation, Sr. Mananzan explained that because the Church has set up schools for women, a lot of religious women tend to be educated. “Almost all women leaders were graduates of Catholic schools,” she said. Religious women have also provided medical missions, spoke out against issues harming women, and have aided in mobilizing people when the abuse of human rights by the government has become intolerable.

This is a huge turnaround from the status of women in the Philippines during the Spanish era, when Catholicism became a tradition among Filipinos. “The coming of the Spaniards did not enhance the status of the Filipino woman,“ she said. During the Pre‑Hispanic period, Sr. Mananzan explained, a woman’s value did not rely on her virginity, and that she had enjoyed equal status, importance, inheritance, and education as men did.

If you do not educate the men, they will be perpetrators of abuse of women.

—Sister Mary John Mananzan, Executive Director, St. Scholastica’s College Institute of Women’s Studies

The Filipina, even before the identity of the ‘Filipino’ was established, has always been strong.

“There has been a lot of progress to feminism in the Philippines. I am the oldest feminist here in this forum so I can say this,” she added. “When we were starting in 1970s, people were saying we were destroying the family. Now, we are (the) having a gender mainstreaming in all universities. Isn’t that awesome?”

Sometimes, she is not always for she and he is sometimes for she. “We should differentiate between education of women and conscientization of women,” Sr. Mananzan said on how some women perpetuate the harmful gender roles that feminism seeks to abolish. “But when the men are really enlightened about their own patriarchal conditioning, they become the partners of women in enhancing both the good of the men and the women. If you do not educate the men, they will be perpetrators of abuse of women.”

Art Samantha Gonzales

There are many non‑government organizations (NGOs) for women’s rights. Attending the forum were some organizations supported by the French Embassy. “We’ve long been involved in cooperation projects and activities in the humanitarian sector,” said French Embassy Press Attache Camille Conde in an email to SparkUp. “Each year, we launch a call for project proposals for funding (amount varies every year), and we regularly host gatherings that promote the aims of the NGOs. Also, it would be interesting to add that the largest number of French volunteers in Asia is based in the Philippines.”

Maria Irene Divina Lopez, human resources officer of ACAY Missions Philippines, was one of the first beneficiaries of the organization in 2000. Now a graduate of business administration, she shared her experience with the forum’s audience, including her beginnings as a street child who begged, stole and did drugs: “I needed to survive. That’s the only thing I wanted to do. That’s the only thing I knew had to do.”

She was detained briefly when she was twelve but was soon released because she was a minor. “But it’s so hard to change if you don’t have any place to go or anyone to be with to help you,” Ms. Lopez said. “You will go back to the same routine everyday.“

“I met the sisters (of ACAY) and I told them that I want to study. Because education is really important,” she said. Still, she remembered the temptation of going back to the streets, calling the organization of the world outside “too structured” which conflicted with the need to be independent was cultivated by her being a streetchild. She is thankful now to the nuns from ACAY who would run after her whenever she escaped. If not for their persistent guidance, she would never have finished her studies.

“It’s a healing process that we are doing with our young people, listening to their trauma, crisis, deep pain and wounds,” Ms. Lopez said about her work with ACAY. “If they are sexually or physically abused, if there is violence at home, whoever wants to talk about it. The first thing that we ask is if they want to be helped.”

“Change starts within. We cannot help anyone if they don’t have any desire to be helped.” Beneficiaries of ACAY, all young men and women, cheered for Ms. Lopez as she delivered her speech.

Another organization helping abused women is Cameleon Philippines, based in the Visayas. Currently enrolled in a Personal Reconstruction Program are 110 young women ‘age 6 to 23 years old’ from Negros and Panay islands who are survivors of sexual abuse, some by their own family members.

To help these girls, Cameleon conducts individual and group counselling, empowerment workshops as well as assists in filing cases.

“In Cameleon, we help them understand that their bodies, spirits, and minds belong to them,” said Cameleon director Sabine Claudio.

Perhaps unique to Cameleon’s approach is rehabilitation through—get ready—circus training. “The circus is an innovative way of reconciling her with her own body,” Ms. Claudo said.

She shared quotes from some of the girls in the circus program: “It developed my self‑confidence, it also empowered me to face audience, people, it learnt me how to control my fear (like [stage fright]),” said a certain Ana. “When I entered Cameleon, I was broken. It’s like you have negative energy… that feeling of being so alone, useless, that you’ve been shattered… but when I performed circus, when the audience clapped their hands, when other people smiled at me, shook my hands, congratulated me, it was like I regained myself… I regained my identity. And at the back of my mind, in my imagination, a little light of hope begun to come out, and little by little, I constructed myself again.”

The girls of Cameleon performed in a Circus Show entitled “Metamorphosis” on May 29 at the Mall of Asia Music Hall.

Art Samantha Gonzales

Lawyer Jazz Tamayo, President of Rainbow Rights Philippines, pointed out that another challenge faced by the LGBT are stereotypes in the work place. “Most people look at me and think that I should be driving a tricycle because lesbians drive tricycles,” Ms. Tamayo said. “It’s a very good job but we’re not all in the TODA.”

She said that there are many workplace stereotypes that need to be shattered, for example, that individuals who belong to the LGBT spectrum are not promoted because they “don’t have a family.”

Other challenges cited by Ms. Tamayo are the difficulty of gathering data (“You can’t just knock on doors and ask how many people in your family are gay or lesbian,” she said.) and the absence of LGBT in the law. “If we’re in the law, it’s usually to prohibit, like how homosexuality is a ground for legal separation,” she said. “What we need is protection.”

“We are tolerated, not accepted,” said Ging Cristobal, Project Coordinator for the Asia and the Pacific International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “They say it’s okay for you to be human but don’t ask for your rights.“

“To families of LGBT couples, we don’t have rights,“ she added. “If my partner would pass away, my daughter goes to my partner’s family. If she gets sick, I don’t have any right to bring her to the hospital, and if she dies, even her family can say stay away.”

The forum also shed light on transwomen.

“The essence of my womanhood is my self‑determined gender identity,” said Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas Executive Director Naomi Fontanos for her part. “There are many issues that transwomen in the Philippines face, one of them is the violence. The violence that we experience as trans and women are people who deny who we are.”

Ms. Fontanos criticized the reaction of some people to the case of Jennifer Laude, who was killed by US Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton in 2014 upon discovering that Ms. Laude was a transwoman. “When people found out that she was trans, her gender identity was denied. The tendency of most people who were looking outside‑in was blaming her for what happened to her. This is something that transwomen need to challenge and deal with as women in Philippine society.”

Misogyny right now is a great challenge that every woman faces, especially the danger of misogyny being placed in a position of power, like in Malacañang.

—Meggan Evangelista, Executive Director, Babaylanes

Babaylanes Executive Director Meggan Evangelista cited the discrimination transwomen face in the workplace.“Misogyny right now is a great challenge that every woman faces, especially the danger of misogyny being placed in a position of power, like in Malacañang.” She did not hold back in her criticism of the President. “We cannot let Rodrigo Duterte get away with his misogyny, as feminists. We also cannot allow women who pretend to be for women and then enable misogynysts in positions of power.”

The identity of woman is not restricted to the gender that we were born with. “A common factor on what makes us women is identity. We all identify as women,” she said. “If you’re a woman and you enable a misogynist then, girl—you cannot sit with us.”