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A Celebration of Herstory: Filipino Women in Legislation and Politics

October 27, 2003

In a conference on women’s role in Philippine history in March 1989, feminist historians were excited over discussions on the etymology of the word bayani. They said the word bayani comes from the combination of two words – bayan which means community or village or settlement and babayi woman. This affirms of course the present day notion of usually referring to country in feminine terms – motherland , etc. More significant perhaps is the implication that the notion of woman in the Philippines is also affixed to the concept of nation, of heroism and valor – a revelation which seems to defy the western notion of referring to heroism, patriotism and valor usually in masculine terms.

The historical revelation on the word bayani is supported by a cursory review of the history of the Philippines. From pre-colonial Philippines to the present, women have played an important role in the development of the village and town until the emergence of the Filipino nation . From the pre-hispanic babaylan or katalonan – the chief priestess in the barangay to the women leader and advocate of recent times , history presents a tableau of the Filipinas bravely asserting their inherent rights to participate in the shaping of the community and nation equal to Filipino men.

The Suffragists

In the arena of politics and legislation, the role of women was first heightened by the Suffragist Movement (1898-1937) which gained for the Filipino women the right to vote and be voted upon. The suffragist movement brought to the fore the activism of such women as Concepcion Felix de Calderon who formed the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in June 1905, Rosa Sevilla de Alvero and a young Trinidad Almeda, Miss Constancia Poblete, founder of Liga Femenina de la Paz, Pura Villanueva Kalaw and Paz Mendoza Guazon, Pilar Hidalgo Lim, President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs and Josefa Llanes Escoda, president of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines. Province-based women were represented by Maria C. Manzano of Pangasinan.

Organizations like the Woman’s Club of Manila later convened into the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National League of Filipino Women and the Philippine Association of University Women. The members of these groups attended the public hearings of the Committee on Suffrage of the Constitutional Convention of 1934, as well as published informative articles in the Liwayway and Taliba. To coordinate their activities, they formed a General Council of Women with Mrs. Escoda as secretary and Mrs. Hidalgo-Lim, president of the Federation of Women’s Clubs which was spearheading the suffragist movement, as head. Incidentally, it was with the Federation where the young Minerva Guysako-Laudico worked right after her master of arts degree in social work.

The advocates succeeded in their campaign because Article V of the 1934 Constitution extended suffrage to women, provided that 300,000 women qualified to vote would vote for the right. Of course, this meant another round of intensive campaigning by the General Council of Women for the plebiscite on April 30, 1937 but they managed to exceed the 300,000 ‘yes’ votes required by the Constitution. They rounded up a full 447, 725 ‘yes’ against 44, 307 ‘no’ votes. And so on September 17, 1937, Filipino women finally gained universal suffrage when its legal basis was signed by Manuel L. Quezon, President of the Philippine Commonwealth.

The Legislative Phase

The law-making body of our government underwent many periods of development, starting from the American Period when the First Philippine Legislature convened in 1907. Within these 27 years, ten Philippine Legislatures came and went without producing any woman member. It took the Philippine Commonwealth to get a woman elected to the National Assembly – the second of three such assemblies at that. In 1938, the Honorable Elisa Ochoa from the province of Agusan was elected to the House of Representatives. We should also note that in the national election of December 14, 1937, no less than 24 women were elected to various positions. Among them was Carmen Planas – “Manila’s Darling” – who became the first woman to be elected to the city council of Manila.

But soon after women broke into electoral politics, World War II broke out. The Filipinos had another government, this time formed by the Japanese. In 1943 a Constitutional Commission composed of 20 members drafted a new Constitution but again, there was no woman member in the Commission or in the National Assembly that soon convened.

With the end of World War II, the First Congress of the Republic came together. Since then, a total of 10 Congresses have convened and the number of women getting elected

has increased from one in the First Congress – in the person of the Honorable Remedios O. Fortich, lawyer, banker, rancher and social worker – but there were Congresses when there were no women elected to office. The highest number of Congresswomen: 22 in the Tenth Congress .

In the Senate there was only one woman senator in both the Third and Fourth Congresses – educator Geronima Pecson and social worker Pacita Madrigal-Gonzales; this number increased to three during the Sixth Congress of 1965-69 in the persons of Honorables Eva Estrada-Kalaw, her sister-in-law Maria Kalaw-Katigbak and Tecla San

Andres-Ziga- the first woman bar topnotcher in the Philippines and the first congresswoman to be re-elected.

In the Senate the honor of re-election goes to Sen. Eva Estrada Kalaw who was re-elected in 1969 to the Seventh Congress even without the endorsement of the Marcos administration, a strong testimony to her political leadership and legislative achievements. Also in 1969, the Senate welcomed two more women: the Honorables Magnolia Wellborn Antonino and Helena Zoila Benitez. As some of us will recall, Congresswoman Antonino took over the candidacy of her husband when Sen. Gaudencio Antonino died in an aircrash as he was campaigning for re-election. Although she had only one stint, Mrs. Antonino did well as a senator. One of her successes was a law transforming private schools into tax-exempt foundations whose profits should fund the professional development of teachers and the improvement of facilities. Sen. Helena Benitez, on the otherhand was a tall figure in the Senate introducing a series of laws on rent control, housing development and early legislation on protecting the environment.

The Eighth Congress resumed after the period of martial law and its unicameral legislative body known as the Batasang Pambansa. There were two women elected to the Senate of the Eighth Congress – the Honorables Senators Santanina Rasul and Leticia Ramos-Shahani , the first woman President Protempore in the Senate. The number doubled in the next Congress with Senators Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Anna Dominique `Nikki’ Coseteng joining our senior senators. And in the just-concluded Tenth Congress, elected were the Honorable Miriam Defensor-Santiago joining Senators Shahani, Arroyo and Coseteng.

Since 1935 the Philippines had already two Constitutions where women have participated as members. The first was the 1971 Constitution, the product of the Constitutional Convention composed of 320 delegates directly elected by the people. A number of women were elected to this body, including Congresswoman Mercedes Teodoro and Carmencita Reyes. The second Constitution was the 1987 Constitution, the product of a Constitutional Commission composed of 48 members appointed by President Corazon Aquino after the 1986 People Power Revolution. A number of women were again in the body. In fact, a woman became its President – Supreme Court Justice Cecilia Munoz Palma. The other women commissioners were Dr. Florangel Rosario-Braid, Sr. Christine Tan. women’s right advocates Ma. Teresa Feria-Nieva and Felicitas Aquino, and the late health activist-public health professor Minda Luz Quesada.

Our 1987 Constitution is unique for a number of reasons. For one, it guarantees equality between men and women – a right which is not enshrined in the United States Constitution and those of many other countries. Article II, Section 14, of the 1987 Constitution provides that ” The State recognizes the role of women in nation-building, and shall ensure the fundamental equality before the law of women and men.”

Secondly, 1987 Constitution enshrines the representation of marginalized sectors, including women, through the sectoral representatives and the Party-List System. Thirdly, it institutionalizes the role of nongovernment organizations and peoples organizations.

Women’s Legislative Agenda

We looked into the legislative contributions of women lawmakers of the post-war Congress by scrutinizing the bills and laws they had framed. We looked at the work of around 130 women legislators who had been elected to Congress in the 80 years of this legislative body and the Constitutional Commissions. Indeed the number is so few, through the years, only about 10 percent of the total number of men elected into office In fact women’s representation in policy-making from the start of our legislative history to the 1950s seems to be totally negligible. Until the start of the United Nations Women’s Decade (1976-1985) – congresswomen advocated generally for education and social amelioration rather than what are presently considered specific gender issues and concerns.

The earliest congressional records are on Rep. Medina Lacson de Leon of Bataan, and they show that she filed bills for social amelioration – to update the nursing profession; grant benefits to veterans; and establish the Women and Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor and Employment (at the Third Congress this became a reality with RA 2714, which was authored by Sen. Ziga). Still on social amelioration, in the Sixth Congress , Sen. Kalaw pushed for the conversion of the Social Welfare Administration into a Department of Social Work, and Sen. Katigbak authored the Consumer Protection Act (RA 3765) as well as an law regulating financing companies.

At the Seventh Congress (1969-72) Sen. Benitez authored the Medicare Law (RA 6111) and provided for the uplift of dislocated families (RA 6026). However, she started veering away from traditional concerns by a legislative agenda on housing, resettlement, forestry, energy and the environment. She filed laws amending the Home Financing Act (RA 5488); establishing forests, tree parks and watersheds in every city and municipality; widening the mandate of the People’s Homesite and Housing Corporation (RA 6091); establishing the Rental Control Law (RA 6124); and authorizing the Office of the President to contract loans for development projects (RA 6142). She followed these up at the Batasan Pambansa with laws on the National Building Code, the Ministry on Human Settlements and Ecology, the Oil Exploration Incentives and the Omnibus Mining Act, as well as laws protecting the monkey-eating eagle (RA 6147) and the tamaraw.

The concerns of the senators for social amelioration were paralleled by the congresswomen. For instance, during the Fifth Congress from 1961 to 1965, Rep. Juanita Nepomuceno of Pampanga sponsored a major bill authorizing the construction of multi-tenement buildings for the poor and the homeless. For her home province, Congresswoman Aurora Abad provided Batanes with electricity, hospitals, schools, recreation centers and opportunities for economic development.

Education was the other concern of the lawmakers before 1975. In the Second Congress Rep. de Leon filed bills creating the Mindanao Institute of Technology and the Bataan School of Arts and Trades. In the same vein, the first woman senator – the Honorable Geronima Pecson — was responsible for the Free and Compulsory Education Act as well as for the Vocational Educational Act. She also worked for a law on training instructors in schools of arts and trades; upgrading the UP School of Forestry into a College; and establishing the Roxas Memorial Agricultural School, a fisheries school in Albay, local libraries through the Municipal Libraries Act and lastly, the UNESCO National Commission.

The woman senator who came after Mrs. Pecson, Sen. Ziga, continued the legislative emphasis on education by filing a law regulating the practice of dietetics (RA 2674). One of the two colleagues of Mrs. Ziga in the Sixth Congress, Senator Kalaw, worked for salary increases of public school teachers (RA 5158); the creation of Local School Boards (RA 5447) and of the Barrio High School Charter/Magna Carta for Private Schools (RA 6054); the Educational Financing Act (RA 6728) and the inclusion of the presidents of student councils in the Board of Regents of all state colleges and universities.

The third woman senator on the Sixth Congress, Sen. Katigbak, worked for the creation of the National Commission on Culture and the Philippine Executive Academy. In the Seventh Congress (1969-72) Sen. Benitez authored RA 5462, establishing the National Manpower and Youth Development Center and Program; RA 5919, giving the Philippine College of Commerce ownership of the land on which it stands; and RA 6014, creating the Student Loan Fund Authority. At the Batasan Pambansa she continued this concern for education with the Education for Development Act.

A Sea of Change: The International Women’s Decade

As we all know, the Philippines responded to the call of the United Nations for a decade-long action for the full development of women by a presidential decree in 1975 establishing the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW) in preparation for the UN International Conference on Women which was held in Mexico City. Also in response to the women’s decade, the government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and committed to implement the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women.

With the impetus of other UN conferences in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s – notably those hosted by Nairobi, Copenhagen, Cairo, Vienna and Beijing and the parallel conferences run by NGOs – and with the globalization of issues, women activists started widening their concerns and issues.

To their credit, women in the post-People Power Congress promoted a legislative agenda that reflected these concerns – women in development, gender and development, gender equality, women’s reproductive health, the indivisibility of women’s rights and human rights, action on various forms of violence against women – rape, sexual harassment and trafficking in women, and the protection of and increasing number of women in overseas contract work.

True, some of the laws took almost a decade and three Congresses to pass – but this only stresses the tenacity, solidarity and creativeness of women legislators in shepherding key bills through the legislative treadmill. To their credit too, women in the post-EDSA Congress worked to establish a Commitee on Women with its own secretariat staff as well as to exercise an oversight function over the implementation of laws they had painstakingly passed. Last but not the least, they established with their male colleagues a network of women’s resource and livelihood training centers strategically placed throughout the country.

The Eighth Congress was notable for a number of things but one of the most notable was for giving women a day for celebrating their achievements – the Women’s Day Law (RA 6949) which was sponsored in 1990 by Senator Santanina Rasul. The Eighth Congress also passed the Women in Development and Nation-Building Act of 1995 (RA 7192) which recognizes the role of women in nation building; gives women the right to enter into contracts without having to seek their husbands’ permission; opens the Philippine Military Academy to women; and reserves for women’s projects 5% of the budget of government departments.

Each year and each Congress have brought legislative gains for women – among them, increasing maternity benefits for women in the private sector (RA 7322) in 1992, the Accessibility Act filed by the late Rep. Estelita Juco on behalf of the disabled, the Women in Small Business Enterprises Act (RA 7882) in 1995, Anti-Sexual Harassment Law (RA 7877) and the Overseas Workers’ Rights Protection in 1996, the Anti-Rape Law in 1997 (RA 8353) , the Child and Family Courts Act, the Rape Victim Assistance and Protection Act and the National AIDS Policy Act – all in 1998.

These laws have limitations, as has been rightfully pointed out by the Oversight Sub-Committee of the Committee on Women of the House of Representatives . For instance, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law applies only to employer-employee situations in office and school settings but not to colleagues. The Anti-Rape Law implicitly recognizes that rape may occur within marriage but its forgiveness clause absolves husbands of the crime of rape once they are forgiven by their wives.

Limited as they night be, these laws are victories for women and guideposts for future legislation. For indeed, Congress could not pass certain bills even with the vigilance and diligence of its women members – the National Commission on Women bill, the new population policy bill, a comprehensive program on wife beating, the bill against the trafficking and commercial exploitation of women, the Women Empowerment Act of 1993 reserving for qualified women at least of third of appointive positions in national and local government; and an enabling bill for elections to local board

Indeed, herstory is a great teacher. For women in legislation and politics, there are still many lessons to learn, obstacles to overcome, challenges to confront and gains to reap. There are persistent demands for electoral reform and further democratization of the political system that seems to favor men and the socio-economic elite for political positions. There is still so much poverty and underdevelopment among majority of our women and rampant violence is a common feature of daily life for an increasing number. In sum , there is still so much to be done and it is for the women legislators and women in politics of the future to respond to the expectations of our people which have remained great and unfulfilled.