Message at the International Women’s Day Summit 2019: Advancing the Rights and Representation of Filipino Women
Samsung Hall, SM Aura, BGC

Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats. 

His Excellency Harald Fries, Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines; Her Excellency Bita Rasulian, Austrian Ambassador to the Philippines and the other members of the Diplomatic Corps who are present, of course, Ambassador Delia Albert; Ms. Vicky Garchitorena, founding trustee and our friends from SPARK Philippines—we’ve been partnering with SPARK for quite some time and today is the first day that I’ve heard what SPARK stands for— [laughter]—Sorry about that; Mr. Iori Kato, UNFPA Representative in the Philippines; Dr. Natsy Vercelles, Director of the UP Center for Women and Gender Studies; Dr. Guy Claudio, Dean of the UP College of Social Work and Community Development; Mr. Jos Ortega, Chairman and CEO of Havas Ortega; representatives from our partner organizations; students; my fellow workers in government; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat! 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a dream: to create a better world for America. With limited resources, limited political experience, and zero popularity, she ran for the U.S. midterm elections. And just a few months ago, Alexandria, at 29 years old, became the youngest woman in history to be elected to the U.S. Congress. In one of Alexandria’s campaign videos, she said, and I quote: “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.“ But as she has proven, it is clear: women CAN run, and women CAN win, and women CAN break barriers. 

In different parts of the globe, women are changing the present and our future: in our businesses, in the world of technology, in the development sector, in government, and in public service. She has not just found her voice, but people listen to what she has to say. She has not just changed policies, she has occupied major leadership positions in every corner of society. Indeed, the woman of today has never been as empowered, as strong, and as remarkably confident than ever before. 

And today, we gather as one community to celebrate how far we have gone. Today, we celebrate our women‘s resilience, strength, and bravery throughout history.

Here in our country, Filipinas are fortunate to live in an empowering ecosystem for women. In 2018, the Philippines ranked 8th place out of 149 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index, maintaining its position as one of the most gender equal countries in Asia. The World Economic Forum reported that the Philippines has kept its high ranking because of efforts to close the gender gap in the world of politics and we were able to close about 80% of the total gender gap—the highest value ever recorded for our country.[1]

Not only that, in 2019, the Philippines has one of the highest percentage of women in senior management positions on record, at 37 percent.[2]

We also celebrate the recent passage of laws that benefit working Filipinas. Last February 20, the Expanded Maternity Leave was finally signed into law, granting additional maternity leave benefits to working mothers, from 60 days to 105 days, with an option to extend for an additional 30 days without pay once they give birth.[3]Sayang, hindi na ako manganganak. [laughter] Last December 20, 2018, the Telecommuting Act was also signed into law, institutionalizing work-from-home arrangements for those in the private sector.[4] These are just some of the government’s efforts to make it easier for women to thrive and succeed not just in their homes, but in the workplace.

But beneath these happy stories, there are dark narratives that we must not set aside. For as long as one woman gets threatened in the dark, raped, and blamed for it because “her knees are showing,” and suffer because “babae ka lang naman,” then we have no right to rest on our laurels. When our leaders joke about rape and normalize abuse, shouldn’t we be alarmed? When reports say that one out of two women did nothing after they were harassed and a lot of those who chose to be silent did so out of fear, shouldn’t we be more scared?

Unfortunately, society still seems kinder to men. Let me cite a simple example: why are women expected to rush home immediately after work to take care of the children or do house chores, while it is alright for men to be with friends or go out drinking? Why are wives urged to act more inferior than their husbands? Strong, aggressive women are hushed and told “kababae mong tao!” while soft-spoken women are seen as weak and incompetent. There are so many unthinking remarks that leave us trapped, with only our own insecurities as companions. 

To me, this just means that we need to work harder and smarter in ensuring that every woman can rise above her struggles. That when she walks on the street, she does not need to fear that some guy will catcall her or harass her. That when she holds significant positions in public service or in business, she does not have to apologize for the time she needs to be a mother to her children. That she does not have to depend on men to feed and to clothe her. That even though society often mistakenly equates femininity and empathy with being weak, she can embrace being a woman with pride and with no fear.

When I was still a lawyer in Naga and was not yet in politics, I worked very closely with the basic sectors—women, farmers, fisherfolk, the urban poor, etc. For more than a decade, I was very active in advocating for the rights of abused women. I would rescue battered women, listening… listen to their stories of fear, living with abuse in the hands of their partners. We would stay up all night working on their cases, but in the end, they would decide to stay silent and just bear it out. They worry that they cannot feed their children if they leave their abusive relationships.

Witnessing their struggles opened my eyes to this: Economic empowerment is the first step to real empowerment. For every woman that is economically independent, the entire family has the chance to break free from abuse and poverty.

One of the things that we did in Naga was to ensure that every woman in society is part of an organization of women, so that she would have a sanctuary every time she needed an affirmation of her worth. We then organized an NGO called Bantay Familia, that advocates for the eradication of domestic violence, protection of victims and survivors of abuses, promoting the empowerment of women, and teaching them how to provide for themselves and their children. Last January, Bantay Familia celebrated its 20th Anniversary with as many male members as there are female, a far cry from when we first organized it in 1999, where the members were mostly women. 

We also organized Barangay Councils of Women, which provided a platform where women can directly participate in governance by deciding where the barangay’s gender and development budget should be used and what programs for women to pursue. 

Eventually, we established a Women’s Crisis Center for Naga. After that center was opened, we saw a spike in the number of rape and domestic abuse cases reported, as victims became more confident that they can finally talk about their stories that they have kept inside for so long.

I’m sure many of you will agree with me that there are many women around us who seem to be tough on the outside, but are silently crying for help. They scream without words in the dead of night, hoping that someone may hear them in their silence, that someone will truly understand their fears and vulnerabilities, and meet them right where they are at. 

Even women who seem confident and strong need affirmation and support. They need to hear the words: “You can do this. You don’t have to doubt yourself. We are here to help.” 

So to everyone in this room—fellow advocates, activists, leaders, and public servants—we must not ignore the desperate pleas of our women. They deserve no less than our prompt and well-planned response.

So what can be done? First, we need to ensure that our lawmakers, our laws, and our institutions are empowering and enabling. There are so many gender equality campaigns and programs already, but we must ask ourselves if we are truly reaching out to the women at the margins and if we are truly empowering our women. 

Second, we need to focus on the outcomes, rather than the activities. I think this is the failure of many women empowerment campaigns. Rather than spending gender and development funds for Christmas parties, for socializations, and buying of t-shirts, why don’t we come up with programs that are much more relevant, sustainable, and meaningful like expanding livelihood opportunities for women?

We, at the Office of the Vice President, believe that for every woman who is given an opportunity to work, one family doubles its income. For every woman who is able to thrive and succeed, an entire community can be lifted out from poverty. This is what inspires us in the work that we do. Through our program Angat Buhay, we have been visiting the farthest, the poorest, and the smallest municipalities in the country, providing livelihood assistance and teaching women to believe in themselves. 

One of those places is Brgy. Buahan in Lamitan, a town found in the island of Basilan, where women intricately weave threads into tennun, a traditional woven textile known for its colorful and geometric patterns. 

During our visit, we met Nanay Laila Tadja, a Yakan weaver who is fighting to keep the art of tennun weaving alive by teaching her daughters the patterns handed down by her mother and grandmother. She told us how difficult life has become for women like her in Basilan because of poverty and persistent conflict in the area. Many of them are driven away from their looms, becoming hired laborers. Nanay Laila was forced to doing odd jobs for establishments in Lamitan so she can put food on the table. But despite this, she and other women in her barangay continue to weave at the mercy of torrential rains and grueling sun because they do not have a weaving facility. On a normal day, you could see Yakan weavers along a “highway barangay”, with looms stretched out in front of them on the ground or on makeshift ramps.

With tears in her eyes and a trembling voice, Nanay Laila said her dream is to establish a Lamitan weaving industry one day, starting with Brgy. Buahan, so she and the other women do not have to be forced to work outside their homes, with their production dictated by the weather. One day, she hopes that weaving will be more than just culture and tradition—it will become the key to their more prosperous future.

And thank you to our partners, especially SPARK Philippines, her dream is now closer to reality. Last September 2018, Nanay Laila joined 29 other women at the Angat Buhay Workshop for Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs in Zamboanga City. Nanay Laila learned things she never heard of before: how to record her income and expenses, how to do better in sourcing raw materials, and other ways to manage a small business better. When our Angat Buhay partner, Seaoil Foundation, handed her with a small grant to start her enterprise, along with the other participants, her smile was priceless; it’s as if her hopelessness suddenly melted away.

And there’s even more good news: there is now ongoing discussion of constructing the barangay weaving center and a social enterprise called Woven PH is now ordering tennun regularly from the women weavers, not just from Nanay Laila!

This is just one of the many inspiring stories of women who were empowered to transform their troubles into something beautiful. When they are given the chance to thrive and flourish, they allow other women to shine too. 

They say women are inherently strong and resilient. But when women help other women, they become unbreakable. Truly, we are each other’s better halves, or as they say, we are our sisters’ keepers. We are always stronger together. We may be pressed on every side, but we are never crushed. We may be perplexed by life’s troubles, but we never get overwhelmed by despair. We may be knocked down, but we are never destroyed.

So to all of you here with us today, let us continue to work together in uplifting the lives of women. This is no longer the time for fear. This is the time to make a stand. This is not the time to hide behind the curtains and let fear cave us into silence. This is the time to be who we are called to be–women who are not afraid to fight for what is right regardless of the cost.  

Let me end this talk with a poem by Lang Leav and it is called Her Time and I quote: “She has been feeling it for awhile now – that sense of awakening. There is a gentle rage simmering inside her, and it is getting stronger by the day. She will hold it close to her – she will nurture it and let it grow. She won’t let anyone take it away from her. It is her rocket fuel and finally, she is going places. She can feel it down to her very core – this is her time. She will not only climb mountains – she will move them too.”

So to all the women in this room with us this morning:  Nurture the power within you and let it grow. It is the same power that will propel you to greater heights and the same power that will let you move mountains. This is your time.

Thank you very much. Happy International Women’s Day to all of you! [applause


[1] WEF, Global Gender Gap Report 2018, https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2018

[2]Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) 2019 in Business, https://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights/women-in-business-2019/women-in-business-report-2019/

[3]Official Gazette, RA 11210, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2019/02feb/20190220-RA-11210-RRD.pdf

[4]Official Gazette, RA 11165, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2018/12dec/20181220-RA-11165-RRD.pdf