Message at the 27th Anniversary and 14th Installation of Officers and Directors and Induction of New Members of Zonta Club of Metro Rizal
Edsa Shangri-La Hotel, Mandaluyong
Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.
Ms. Merle Martinez, our incoming President; Ms. Velia Cruz, the outgoing President; Ms. Celine Bautista, the Charter President; Ms. Mita Rufino, Area 5 Director; Mayor Marivic Belena, director and former Mayor of San Jose City in Nueva Ecija, and my good friend; the directors, officers, and members, honored guests; ladies and gentlemen, magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat. [Audience: Magandang hapon!]
Pasensya na po kayo. Nagulat ako. Ako pala agad ang magsasalita. [laughs] I thought I would still be listening to the others speak.
But thank you very much for inviting me here this afternoon, to witness such an important event of your organization. I don’t know if anybody knows, I was once a member of Zonta club of Naga also until we transferred to Manila and I could not attend anymore. But allow me first to congratulate the newly inducted officers of Zonta Club of Metro Rizal, as well as new members who are joining your growing organization. As we have always said: Strong women empower other women. In today’s world, we truly need to watch out for each other.
For almost 100 years now, Zontians all over the world make the time and pour in the effort to fight for women’s seat and influence at the table. If you really think about it, this should not be difficult. Women account for half of the human population around the world. Is it too much to ask for that much influence as well? Besides, studies have shown that when women are empowered, countries develop faster and people have better quality of life. According to a report by Mckinsey and Company, advancing women’s equality in the countries in Asia and the Pacific could add $4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP by 2025—a clear sign that gender equality can unleash the economic potential of any country. Whether in sheer physical number, in economic potential, and social impact, women’s participation in society makes a lot of sense.
However, even in this so-called more enlightened world, women are still disenfranchised, discriminated, passed over for promotions, and worse, subjected to violence, harassment, and rape. According to the Asian Development Bank, less than half of women in Asia are in the workforce compared with 80 percent of men at present. Disparity in pay also exists, with women being paid almost 25 per cent less than their male counterparts. In top leadership positions, the International Labor Organization said women only occupy one in three cases. In many cultures, women are not allowed still to choose where to study, how to make a living, and who to marry. In our country, it is a very sad reality that few women can get a conviction when it comes to cases against their harassers or rapists.
No woman in any socioeconomic strata is immune to violence. Harassment and rape happens to the young and the old, the rich or the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the accomplished and those who struggle for a living. They hide their scars from society, recoiling from the ignominy of being taken against their will, as if it is their fault because society — and perhaps influential people — insinuate that it is their fault for looking the way they do. Ironically, when a woman finds the courage to go public, she is [the] one who is most harshly judged. Napanood siguro natin ito. I don’t know if anyone of you is following the American—the most celebrated case now.
Which is why we appreciate organizations like Zonta, who go the extra mile and help those who go through this darkness. I heard that you have initiated various seminars on the rights of women and girls, and even conducted livelihood trainings, not only within Rizal, but also in nearby communities, to enrich women’s skills and entrepreneurial knowledge. Your projects to provide a healing space and legal support for those afflicted by harassment and rape is critical in battling the hopelessness that other women go through. These programs, no matter how big or how small, make a world of difference in the world.
I have seen firsthand how women today bravely try to fight their way out of the shadows. Before entering politics, I worked as a human rights lawyer back in Naga City. My work in an NGO called SALIGAN exposed me to the legal battles of domestic violence victims. This was the time before Republic Act 9262, or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act, was signed into law. I would receive calls in the middle of the night from women who sought sanctuary from their abusive partners. There was very little we could do, but we offered our small home to serve as a safe place for them, where we would work on their complaints throughout the night to make their aggressors accountable.
But when the time came for us to go to court, these women would fail to show up. They were worried for the future of their children, without the financial support of their partners. In working with these women, we understood their struggles better: how they have lost their voices in their own homes, how they have allowed frustration to foil their escape, how they have lost their own sense of self-worth.
Witnessing their struggles opened my eyes to the bigger picture: the root of the problem is economic dependence. True independence can only be achieved when women are economically empowered. When they are free from self-doubt, they will be brave enough to go through the process of emancipation from those who would seek to use them and control them.
To address all these, we formed Lakas ng Kababaihan ng Naga Federation, and organized an NGO called Bantay Familia to provide training and livelihood opportunities to victims of gender violence, teaching them how to provide for themselves and their children. Bantay Familia served as a community watch group, aimed at preventing domestic abuse and protecting victims and survivors of violence. This eventually led to the establishment of a Women’s Crisis Center in all the barangays in Naga City. After the center opened, we saw a spike in the number of rape and domestic abuse cases reported, as victims became more confident that someone will listen to them.
And why am I telling you this? Because these are the women who—despite embodying strength and resilience, despite overcoming the greatest odds and proving their perpetrators wrong—are the ones who need help the most.
In fact, some of these women have become more vocal, creating a social movement that encourages others to share their stories of harassment from their peers, if only to make a point: that this culture of violence and abuse against women has to stop. The movement is as powerful online as it is on the streets, and it inspires discourses on other issues facing women: gender inequality, pay gaps, safety in the workplace, and women’s participation and contribution to policy and decision-making.
And yet, so many of our sisters continue to live in the shadows. In the news, we see stories of young girls falling victim to sexual predators. We see women in positions of power being dragged down and harassed for political gain. I myself am a victim of these vicious attacks, and even my children have been threatened with rape. What can we do to prevent these from happening again?
This is where Zonta comes in. Let us maximize our circles and create networks that will push for wider spaces for women participation in our community, in the way we govern, and in the policies we advocate. That will push, not only for empowerment, but also for protection and security against attacks and harassment. That will fight for the most vulnerable, and bravely speak up against misogyny, discrimination, and abuse.
The triumph of one Filipina is a victory claimed for her community. Because empowering one woman means the upliftment of many. Filipinas may be facing tumultuous times, but this is also their time—our time—to shine.
This is one of the many reasons why we, at the Office of the Vice President, believe that by providing women with employment and livelihood opportunities allows us to make great strides in development—not only in closing the gender gap, but in improving our economy as well.
Empowering the Filipina has become one of the pillars of our office’s antipoverty framework, Angat Buhay. Under this program, we make time to visit the farthest and the poorest municipalities at least once a week, and find ways to complement the programs of the government. Together with private partners and organizations, we bridge the gaps where we find them—in food security, in livelihood, in education, and in healthcare.
Since we launched Angat Buhay in October of 2016, we have reached out to more than 155,000 families, mobilizing P252-million worth of projects. Together with our Angat Buhay partners, we have built school buildings, playgrounds, libraries, play spaces, and even dormitories. We have also turned over fishing boats, school books, farming equipment, water pumps, multicabs, solar kits, and carabaos. We have also organized job fairs, provided free medical check-up and legal services, initiated feeding programs, and distributed relief goods. As of June of 2018, we have visited more than 176 cities and municipalities across the country.
One of the places we frequently mention is Agutaya, a small island in northern Palawan. Going there could be quite a challenge: to reach its shores, you can take an eight-hour boat ride from Coron going to Cuyo first. From Cuyo, it’s another five-hour boat ride to Barangay Algeciras, one of our communities in Agutaya.
The first time we step foot in the island in 2016, people were in tears. We were greeted by their barangay captain, and almost all of the people were crying. When we asked why, they said it was tears of joy, because they were not visited that often by government officials. Sobrang layo naman kasi. While we were walking around, we were told that some parts of the island did not have electricity; there was also limited access to potable water. There were also no hospitals in the entire town.
Our team has returned to Agutaya many times already since then, and Agutaya now tells a different story. In our succeeding visits, we have been accompanied by partners like ASA Philippines, TEAM Energy, and the Andres Soriano Foundation to provide for the needs of the community. We have already installed solar panels in various barangays, and have held several health caravans and livelihood trainings.
These solar panels have made a difference in the lives of the residents of Agutaya. This is Mer Abus, who works as a buri weaver, said that she could finish only one banig in a month, because they could only work during the day. But with the solar panels, they can already work as early as three o’clock in the morning, and as late as 10 o’clock in the evening. Mer can now make at least three banigs and other buri products a day, which she sells to tourists in Coron, in Puerto Princesa, and in nearby Amanpulo. Malapit po siya sa Amanpulo, for those of you who have been there already.
So much can be done, and so many lives can be changed if we work together. We Filipinos have a word for it: bayanihan. Our society will be in a much better position with men and women working together, side by side. Like a dance, it is all about being strong in our own different roles, no matter the rising and ebbing of tides.
It is not only about making an impact on one life, it is about creating a ripple of change—in this case, a chance for our sisters to grow, to have a voice, to be stronger. Every Filipina has to embrace and realize the fact that there are no limits to what she can do. As sisters, we are here for each other, to find one’s voice, to give each other the platform to thrive, and to see these dreams come to fruition.
Zontians are proof that in our sisterhood, we can achieve so much. It is in our solidarity that we can rise stronger than ever. The work that you do emphasizes our need for more women to speak up and be active participants in nation building.
It is my hope that you continue your legacy of enjoining countless Filipinas to claim their seat at the table and become the best versions of themselves. Imagine if we can grow your community further, changing lives, and opening more doors to our fellowmen. The possibilities are truly endless.
So, to the newly-inducted officers and members: continue to be proud of what Zonta stands for and to exude excellence in leadership and service, because our sisters deserve nothing less. As the saying goes: a rising tide raises all boats. In our partnership, in our bayanihan for the future of every Filipina, we are holding each other up—high enough for us to reach for even bigger dreams.
Thank you very much. Mabuhay po kayong lahat. [applause]