Gender and Maternal Health

Gender and Maternal Health

Kaka J. Bag-ao, AKBAYAN Partylist

October 14, 2011 / Hyatt Hotel (Asean Conference on Promoting Maternal Health)



Newsweek has recently ranked the Philippines as the 17th best country for women, giving it a score of 86 out of 100. The Philippines was the only Asian country in the top 20, and it looked into the situation of women in the following areas: justice and treatment under the law; access to health; access to education; economics and workforce participation; and political power.


The Newsweek list provides a certain perspective to where Filipino women stand nowadays. The basis of the ranking may be crude, and the gap between the top countries like Sweden, Norway, and Canada and the Philippines may be vast, but the inclusion of the Philippines in the list pays tribute to the heroines of our country. It honors the Filipino women: those crazy enough to think that the status quo is unacceptable, those who sacrificed to give birth to change.


We must not cease to draw inspiration from Filipino women who dared to build their own paths. From the women of Malolos that challenged the friars in their passion and desire to learn and improve their lot to the progressive women of Gota de Leche, the origin of the women’s movement in the Philippines, Filipino women never refused to push the envelope further. From Cory Aquino to the women of Sumilao farmers, one could only be amazed by how, despite the struggle and the battles that Filipino women constantly face, we have managed to do our part in building our nation.


But recognizing and honoring our triumphs is different from taking comfort from such country ranking by the media or by any institution for that matter. In fact, my first agenda in this meeting is to question the rank of the Philippines in the list. As a lady legislator, I believe that we should not fall into a sense of complacency because of standards that could have used a different lens. The only yardstick that matters is the dignity of Filipino women, and not Newsweek’s ranking: that Filipino women are able to reach their full potentials, that they enjoy the same entitlements and rights, and that they live free of fear and abuse – these, for me, are the real barometer of the state of Filipino women.


For our gathering today, let me focus on three aspects: the issue of human rights, in particular violence against women; the issue of women in governance and the political participation of women; and reproductive health, especially maternal health.


By criminalizing violence against women, and through other legislative gains like the enactment of the anti-rape law and the Magna Carta of Women, we have established a policy environment where the prevention and remedy of violence against women could be accomplished. We have significantly harmonized our domestic laws on violence against women with our international and constitutional commitments to eliminate gender-based violence.


Yet the impact of our policy gains in this area remains to be seen. Reported cases of rape has not significantly gone down, with 770 incidents in 2009 from 811 in 2008. Wife battering is still common, with almost 1,500 reported cases in 2009. Law enforcers have likewise noted an increase in reported acts of lasciviousness.[1]


Note that these are reported cases. In our society, a climate of invisibility still surround violence against women, an indication that gender-based violence is still committed with impunity because of perceived second-class status of women. It also points to the challenges we face in dealing with violence against women with a more holistic approach. Clearly, legislation is not enough. The redress mechanisms that we have established by law could only be effective as the gender empowerment program that would help women to speak out against violence. VAW doesn’t end with law making or even law enforcement.


The more fundamental problem is the climate that made it conducive for violence against women to proliferate. A few days ago, a female UPLB student was reportedly raped and killed, a harrowing incident that should not have happened. While the law maybe sufficient in ensuring that justice is served, the more crucial issue is how we should address the vulnerabilities of women that allow violence to happen. It is not a simple security question, or even a morality question. Violence begins with dehumanization, a problem that requires educating the public and changing the consciousness that makes it easy for others to think that it is ok to commit gender-based violence.


On political participation, that two women politicians have become president is seen by many a big accomplishment. Indeed, compared to countries where the political participation of women is curtailed through draconian rules and oppressive laws, our accomplishment seems astounding. Women representation in politics has gradually increased, with 17% of elective posts won by female candidates after the 2010 elections.


But the number of women presidents or elected female politicians doesn’t complete the picture. Public service and politics remain to be a macho country. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo may have been the second woman President of the Philippines, but one could hardly call her administration as pro-women. It was under GMA’s watch that the RH bill’s enactment was prevented, with GMA giving up the bill in favor of getting the support of the Bishops. In that regard, GMA was more macho and anti-women than other male Presidents.


In the judiciary, the participation of women is also dismal, with women comprising only 26% of judges in the country. While the top most political positions mainly reserved for men, women dominate the bureaucracy, with females holding 58% of the total appointive government position. This shows that we still need to break the glass ceiling that has prevented the empowerment of women politically.


One concrete proposal is the enactment of the gender quota bill, an affirmative action that progressively increases the quota of women in elective and appointive positions. In many countries, from Scandinavian countries to developing countries like India and Nepal, this strategy contributed in mainstreaming women politically. We practice the same approach in Akbayan and we could attest to its impact.


The biggest gap in terms of women’s welfare is the absence of an RH policy and program. No woman rights advocate should rest easy until the RH bill is enacted.  The quality of debate in Congress and Senate has deteriorated into dilatory sectarianism. Abortion is an apt metaphor: what’s being aborted by the continuing refusal of many anti-RH legislators to see the necessity of approving the bill, and approving it now, is common sense. They are aborting common sense.


The bill is not just about common sense, it is about human sense. We can debate forever whether it’s really seven or eleven maternal deaths that take place every day, but one death is one too many. If we wish to curb maternal death, then let’s pass the RH bill. If we want to lessen abortion, then lessen unwanted pregnancy. If we wish to fully integrate women in our own development, then give women the choice to plan their family.


These challenges are not easy. Machismo and patriarchy still create barriers to women empowerment and gender equality. But if we look at the lives of our heroines,   from Gabriela Silang to Lorena Barros, we’d realize that nobody said that it’s going to be easy. But if we are keen enough to learn from their lives, we’d discover this lesson: that in the end, we shall triumph.

[1] Source: 2010 Factsheet on Filipino Men and Women (PCW).

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