Benchwarmers or true leaders?

Women candidates a puny
minority in nat’l, local races


ONE OUT of four senatorial bets in today’s elections is a woman, the highest rate of female participation yet in the senatorial race in the country’s history. But there is hardly a stir of excitement even among women’s rights advocates, who are apparently expecting little from these women, even if they end up winning.

“Ideally, it is expected that when there are more women (participating in politics), there are more voices (for women), and (that) they will be more gender sensitive,” says Mary Joan Guan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Resources. “But based on our observation through the years, gender alone is not a basis. It is not necessary that if the candidate or official is a woman, she’ll be the voice of the women, especially the marginalized sector.”

She also says that while it is a positive development that women are entering the political arena, people should still closely scrutinize the reasons why these individuals chose to run in the first place.

“If we analyze who these women candidates are, they are (usually) from well-known and powerful families or political families, if not wives of politicians,” Guan says.

She adds, “We are still in the traditional politics practice, so our culture dictates that whoever has the money, is in power, or is in alliance with people in office, wins.”

That may be one factor discouraging many other women from considering politics as a career. Other women’s rights advocates meanwhile say that in a patriarchal society like that in the Philippines, politics merely extends the subservient role women play in the family.

More often than not, they point out, Filipino women are prompted to run for public office only because a husband, father, or brother is unable to do so at that moment or can no longer run altogether.

Sometimes, too, female family members are recruited to run for office simply because the clan wants to either widen or consolidate its power and lacks qualified male members that it can put in public positions.

Nancy, Cynthia, Loi

Some observers say that seems to be the case with the senatorial candidacy of Nancy Binay Angeles, who has opted to use her more recognizable maiden name instead of her married name. Binay, eldest daughter of Vice President Jejomar ‘Jojo’ C. Binay — whom she has served as “personal assistant” — even has an ad that features her father prominently. (Nancy’s only brother Jejomar Jr. is the current mayor of Makati City while sister Abigail represents the city at the Lower House.)

Former Las Piñas Representative Cynthia A. Villar, meanwhile, also has an ad introducing her as “Mrs. Villar,” which probably flatters her husband, outgoing Senator Manuel ‘Manny’ B. Villar to no end. Yet it diminishes the fact that she has also been a member of the House of Representatives.

In 2001, too, former First Lady Luisa ‘Loi’ Estrada, appeared to be compelled to run for senator only because her husband, then President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, was ousted from power and then was thrown in detention along with their eldest son, Jose or Jinggoy.

Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada made a bid for a Senate slot after the plunder charges against him were dropped and he was released. He was elected senator in 2004 and became seatmates with his mother at the legislature. But the mother-and-son tandem at the Senate lasted only two years. Loi Estrada retired after finishing her first term, while Jinggoy ran and won another six-year term as senator in 2010.

The situation of having women act as “benchwarmers” for the male members of the family is even starker in local elective positions. The twist is that in all probability, there may even be fewer women at this level were it not for the “familial” push.

Fewer down the line

Commission on Elections (Comelec) data show that while the two Houses of Congress are now seeing women making up at least 20 percent of the candidates, female participation in races for local posts is at 18 percent. Curiously, women candidates are even scarcer at the provincial level, where they make up only 16 percent of those vying to be elected into office.

Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) Program Manager Jenny Lind Elmaco says that while it is natural for politicians — male and female alike — to have personal interests, particularly family or class interests, she says that these should not be the only motive for anyone to run for office.

“(You) should not be running (only) because you are protecting your family or you want to continue your family legacy,” she says. “More importantly, you seek election because you really want to have a sustainable development.”

Such thinking may help explain why Prof. Josefa ‘Gigi’ Francisco of Miriam College and company are not about to push for a gender-based quota system for elective posts to encourage more women to consider politics as a career.

More than quantity or the number of women politicians, they say that what should be emphasize is the quality or the kind of commitment and service that these politicians should offer to the people.

Francisco is the general coordinator of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a network of feminist scholars, researchers, and activists working for economic and gender justice. In her view, the unyielding influence of political dynasties has led to “substitutism” by women in politics, which in turn seems to be a mere extension of the their role in the family.

Elmaco, meanwhile, notes that when evaluating the political participation of women, discussions should not be limited to just electoral participation.

“I think it's important to define what political participation is,” she says. “It's important to recognize that political participation is not just electoral politics, it also includes influencing decisions made by the government, especially in the policy system… So for me, political participation should be embraced, expanded and recognized in a way that it is not only electoral. If we see it from that perspective, I would say that women are active in other areas.”

Making a mark

“(W)hen it comes to women making a mark in other areas, for example business, most businesses are owned by women, that's something,” continues Elmaco. “Also, when it comes to engagement, women participate. I think we should, when we talk about political participation, we have to look at how women engage, whether with government or with the private sector, or whether with themselves or the community and see that as politics…and when we talk about that, I think we have a lot of things we can be proud of.”

She says that the PCW, in its effort to get more involvement from women, conducted a program called “Young Women Leaders Initiative”, which encourages young women to get engaged in the government and propel development themselves.

“I think we have to start young,” says Elmaco. “If you break these barriers, if you break these stereotypes, then you instill values and beliefs in democracy, a belief that people can make a change. If you start them young, then we can really make a difference.” — PCIJ, May 2013