***16 May 2017
Speech at the She for She Women’s Forum***
It is a privilege to be surrounded by so many strong and beautiful women here today, seated beside men who have been supportive to our cause. When women come together for a collective purpose, something powerful truly happens. The outcomes are so much larger than ourselves.
Throughout history, we have seen women from different backgrounds move our world in so many ways. One of my favorites is Joan of Arc, a 17-year-old hero who led the French to victory in battle and inspires millions of women and girls around the world to this day. There’s the British nurse Florence Nightingale, the Albanian nun and charity worker Mother Teresa, and Eva Peron who tirelessly campaigned for the poor and women’s rights. And of course, there are many women heroes who are here today, who straddle motherhood and careers, happy relationships and professional workload, and take on causes for the powerless and voiceless.
We have broken stereotypes, fought for gender equality, enhanced women participation, and reduced injustices faced by women around the world. There is now widespread acceptance of the fact that when women are empowered, the global economy grows much faster and more people live better because of that growth. The World Bank, in its global report in 2012 said: “Gender equality is a core development objective in its own right — and is also smart economics.” If, by any chance, you need more proof of this, you may ask mothers who handle the budget at home if this is true!
The Philippines ranks 7th out of 145 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index — the Asia Pacific region’s highest-ranked country and the only one to make it to top 10. Globally, the Philippines has the least gender gap among business owners: around 55% male against 45% female.
Yet, today, the struggle for women empowerment and gender stereotypes continues. Women have to work twice as hard to be where their counterparts are in society. While more than 70% of our men are in the labor force, only half of our women have access to jobs. For every $1 a Filipina earns, a man earns $1.45 on the average.
Perhaps that shows why women in this country account for 11.2 million of our population living in poverty. They are still vulnerable to indecent working conditions, inadequate social security, and discrimination. In some homes, women suffer from fear and the ready fist of their men. New forms of violence are emerging because of new technology. Social media is emerging as the new space for harassment and unwelcome comments about looks and legs.
It is a sad reality that the culture of misogyny and sexism persists until today. We cannot let this continue.
The advocacy of women empowerment is personal to me. Way before assuming the Vice Presidency, I was a human rights lawyer fighting for women who were victims of abuse. It was not uncommon for women to knock on my door in the middle of the night to seek refuge. Our home in Naga City was the unofficial “halfway home” for abused women.
We would sometimes work on cases all night to make the abusers accountable, but when the time comes for us to go to court, women would fail to show up. They were worried that they would have nothing to feed their children once they leave their husbands.
Witnessing the struggles of these Filipinas allowed me to understand that true independence comes from economic empowerment. So, while I was in Congress, we created livelihood and entrepreneurship programs for women, link them to the market, and connect them with mentors that would help them build stronger and more sustainable businesses. We have seen a lot of them graduate from micro to bigger businesses, expanding their market to Metro Manila and even overseas, and we are replicating this approach now in our Angat Buhay sites. These are local government units that we have adopted under our anti-poverty program.
I believe that when women are liberated from fear and self-doubt, they thrive and flourish and, most importantly, they become instruments for other women to achieve their own independence. Women are more inclusive in that sense. Perhaps that comes from our nurturing and empathic nature.
Having said that, gender empowerment for me is not about competing with men. It is not about drowning out their voice. It is not about having better pay, greater wealth, faster success, or higher rank than the male population. Sometimes, it is about the quiet strength of action over words. Sometimes, it is about listening instead of speaking. Sometimes, it is about collaborating rather than leading. Sometimes, it is about following, and encouraging others to follow, as well.
I say this from personal experience. When my husband, Jesse was Mayor of Naga City for almost two decades, and even when he became Interior Secretary before he passed away, it was my choice to stay in the background, and take care of the children, while lawyering for the poor on the side. And when we would exchange notes about what we learned from our day, we would realize that our experiences helped solved challenges in both City Hall and down on the ground where the poor and marginalized live. When men and women work side by side, with our unique perspectives and different strengths, we are more powerful.
I know that you and I share similar vision: a society where every person, regardless of gender, would realize their full potential and freely become who they want to be. Gender should not hinder anyone from taking on opportunities for growth and development. Gender should not dictate who has a seat at the table nor should it dictate anyone’s limitations.
The challenges of our time call us to stand firmly upon our commitment to continue fighting for the empowerment of every Filipina. We must recognize best practices and celebrate wins and successes. We must hold up to the light those who can inspire others to advance the cause of women around the world. We must step up, do better, and communicate with more power.
But there is also no excuse for keeping quiet when somebody we know is battling misogynistic behavior, in real life or in virtual life. There is no excuse for standing back when we see injustices suffered by women in our society. We must let our voices heard.
Let us not be afraid. Sometimes, fear can freeze us into inaction. When that happens, remember that the Filipina today is stronger and smarter than she has ever seen. She has more opportunities for growth and enlightenment than those who came before her. She has more tools to face challenges than previous generations.
May we never give up in our cause to protect and speak for every living Filipina. Thank you very much and good evening.