Advancing the Women’s Agenda in Congress

Speech delivered by Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan in a forum sponsored by the House of Representatives Committee on Women and Gender Equality, Philippine Commission on Women and Association of Women Legislators Foundation, Inc. in commemoration of the National Consciousness Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Children
25 November 2014|House of Representatives

For nine years now, the Philippines has been one of the top 10 best places for women to live according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap. This year we ranked 9th in terms of bridging gender disparities in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

What does this mean? Indeed we have always been a pioneer when it comes to crafting laws in compliance with international conventions on the promotion and protection of women’s rights and welfare. We are among the first countries to pass a law that institutionalizes gender mainstreaming as a strategy and to require that at least 5% of the national budget be allocated for activities that will advance gender equality.

These laws, however, often do not translate to improvements in women’s lives at the grassroots level.

Last week, I attended an international gathering of women to preparing for the review the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the 20th year of which will be commemorated next year. Twenty years ago, the following were identified as Critical Areas of Concern: Women and Poverty; Education and Training of Women; Women and Health; Violence against Women; Women and Armed Conflict; Women and the Economy; Women in Power and Decision Making; Human Rights of Women; Women and the Media; Women and Environment; and The Girl Child.

Twenty years later, these concerns remain critical in the Philippine setting today.

In 2013, the Philippine government boasted of 7.2% Gross Domestic Product and $3.86B foreign direct investment. This “economic success”, however, did not trickle down to the general masses, most especially to women. Women still suffer from chronic unemployment, low wages, lack of basic social services, and continued increase in the prices of basic commodities.

In 2012, the poverty incidence was pegged at 25.2%, which translates to 23.7 million poor Filipinos. Poverty incidence among women in the National Capital Region was 4%; Western Visayas, 28.8%; Central Visayas, 30%; Eastern Visayas, 44.9%; and ARMM, 55% (Philippine Statistics Authority).

There are currently 1.12 million unemployed women; 2.3 million unpaid women workers; and 69% employed women receiving wages lower than P270 per day. Women are often victims of contract labor, union busting, and labor exploitation.

Women are also most vulnerable to the uncontrolled and frequent increases in the prices of basic commodities, especially rice. From June 2013 to June 2014, an average of P8 increase in the price of rice was experienced all over the country. That is equivalent to P450 additional monthly expenses. Now who bears the burden of reduced budget?

Women’s health remains always at risk. Seventy two public hospitals are facing privatization at the expense of the poor Filipinos who can barely afford basic healthcare. The Fabella Hospital is set to limit the number of beds for non-paying patients to 400. Another institution in danger of being privatized is the Philippine Children’s Medical Center which serves more than 100,000 patients a year, 60% of whom are from poor families. Also under threat of privatization are the Philippine Orthopedic Center, Ospital ng Maynila, Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Hospital, Ospital ng Tondo, and Ospital ng Sta. Ana, public hospitals all located in urban poor communities.

Despite numerous laws protecting women against different forms of abuse, women victims of violence increased from 5,180 in 2012 to 6,432 this year. This means that one woman experiences abuse every 21 minutes. Seventy five percent of the victims are minors.

The existence of laws does not assure that the rights and welfare of women will be protected and promoted. The fight against sex trafficking, for instance, is far from over. Despite the passage in 2003 of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act which Gabriela Women’s Party authored, as well as the establishment of an Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), the Philippines remains a top exporter of women to the international market through its labor export policy. This policy and the Philippine government’s increased dependence on migrant workers’ remittances has become one of the vehicles for the trafficking of women.

The super typhoon Yolanda / Haiyan and the Zamboanga siege which both happened in 2013, brought to recent attention the extreme vulnerability of women victims of natural and man-made disasters to elements of organized crimes such as illegal recruiters. Gabriela Women’s Party has called for immediate investigations on these and received positive response from the House Committee on Women and Gender Equality. In a recent meeting, the Committee Chair agreed to conduct an onsite investigation on the proliferation of sex trafficking in Yolanda-hit areas in Eastern Visayas.

Trafficking, as well as prostitution and other forms of systemic violence against women, are a product of the extreme poverty brought about by the government’s continued implementation of neo-liberal economic policies that practically nullify whatever gains we may have in the passage of laws that seek to address the gender gap. We will see no end to abuse and exploitation unless we improve the economic conditions of women.

We must thus continuously work to address the age old problem of poverty in the country. We as legislators must review macroeconomic policies and development strategies and recommend measures to address the needs and efforts of women in poverty. We can amend or even repeal laws and administrative practices to ensure women’s equal rights and access to economic resources.

We can learn from the practices of parliamentarians in Indonesia where they have a women parliamentarian’s caucus that exerts efforts to collectively review laws for women’s rights and protection.

It is necessary that we, legislators, especially the women, lead the fight for basic human rights including food, shelter, housing and education, and sources of livelihood, and access to them by the poor and marginalized women.

Gabriela Women’s Party has filed resolutions to investigate skyrocketing prices of rice. In the past Congresses we also called for an investigation on the unprecedented Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) price hikes. This gathered popular support among the people, especially women, in and out of the halls of the House of Representatives. We also called for the abolition of EVAT or the expanded value added tax which adds burden to women by adding on to the already high prices of basic commodities.

Alongside these, legislators must continuously work for equality in economic structures and policies, as well as in all forms of productive activities and in access to resources. Let us work towards improving the standard of living of the Filipino people, especially of women through the increase of minimum wages and salaries and social security.

The above-mentioned issues and possible solutions available to us legislators barely scratch the surface of what needs to be done. We can only do so much for marginalized women from the ranks of workers, indigenous communities and peasants in a venue dominated by the interest of landlords and big businesses. Women, not just legislators but primarily, women in poor marginalized communities must be part of the solution.

Let us work towards empowering women in the grassroots. Let us take part in efforts to educate women and work towards increasing women’s participation in politics, not just by enacting laws that will mandate numerical targets for women holding government offices but by encouraging women to organize and actively take part in venues where they can learn about and assert their rights.

As the women who approved the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action have said, “The advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women's issue. They are the only way to build a sustainable, just and developed society. Empowerment of women and equality between women and men are prerequisites for achieving political, social, economic, cultural and environmental security among all peoples.” #

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