August 2007
All about Eba

Women of the House

IN 1996, in celebration of its 30th anniversary, the all-female Soroptimist International Manila was in search of a guest speaker who was known for championing women’s causes, had contributed to the women’ s struggle, and had affected the lives of millions of Filipinas in a positive way. It didn’t take its members long to come up with a unanimous choice. The only problem was, they had chosen a he.

Inviting a man as guest speaker posed a problem to the group, which had a long tradition of keeping its activities exclusive to women. But it was decided that Senator Raul Roco was it, and he was named an “honorary woman” so he could grace the group’s anniversary celebration.

Indeed, women have much to thank the late lawmaker for his pioneering pro-women legislation, including the Women in Development and Nation-Building Act, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law, the Anti-Rape Law, and the Child and Family Courts Act. But even back then, many wondered why the Soroptimists wound up with a man for their guest speaker. Were there no female legislators with the same qualifications?

Roco was a former congressman; he would also serve three terms as senator. During his years as a lawmaker — from 1987 to 2000 — a total of 106 legislative posts were held by women: 14 seats in the Upper House and 92 in the Lower House. Today 50 of the 238-member House of Representatives are women (21 percent of the total House membership), the most number of female legislators in the post-Marcos era. One of the five deputy speakers of the House is also a woman. Yet more than a decade after they picked a man to be their guest of honor, the Soroptimists may still be hard-pressed in inviting a female legislator who is as identified with women’s issues as Roco was.

Party-list representative Ana Theresia Hontiveros-Baraquel of the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party says there is a potential women’s vote in Congress that could be harnessed into a solid bloc to push for pro-women laws. But Hontiveros-Baraquel, who women’s groups say is one of the easiest to invite to their activities, is the first to admit: “The fact that the lawmaker is biologically female does not automatically mean she would have a feminist perspective. It is not biologically deterministic that way.”

In fact, of the more than a dozen laws passed between the Eighth and 12th Congresses that women’s groups consider as important to their causes, at least seven garnered a higher percentage of support from male legislators than the female lawmakers. (see Table 1) Just one of the three women members of the Lower House who are now on their fifth term can claim to have championed a pioneering pro-women law. Republic Act 7600, which provides incentives to health institutions with rooming-in and breastfeeding practices, also had no female among its authors and sponsors.

Table 1: Voting on ‘Feminist Legislation,’ By Gender
* Percentages are based on the number of male or female legislators who voted for the passage of the law over the total number of male or female legislators.
** Excluded are RAs 7688 and 7882 (Ninth Congress), as well as RA 8171(10th Congress), all of which had no voting records.

Number %* Number %*
RA 6725 8th 13 68.42 123 66.13
RA 6949 8th 15 78.95 137 73.66
RA 6955 8th 5 26.32 102 54.84
RA 6972 8th 14 73.68 135 72.58
RA 7192 8th 12 63.16 120 64.52
RA 7322 8th 16 84.21 109 58.60
RA 7600 8th 16 84.21 109 58.60
RA 7877 9th 15 65.22 131 74.43
RA 8353 10th 16 66.67 146 76.44
RA 8505 10th 12 50.00 102 53.40
RA 8972 11th 12 44.44 118 61.14
RA 9208 12th 27 65.85 140 74.87
RA 9262 12th 22 53.66 92 49.20

FOR SURE, the Philippine legislative landscape has seen some major improvements with respect to women’s rights in the last two decades, and the environment seems to have changed a lot for women. Women’s rights activist and newspaper columnist Rina Jimenez-David even says that when she was out campaigning for the party-list group Abanse! Pinay in the last elections, “a woman professor asked me if there was really still a need for a women’s party list since there are laws covering almost all women’s issues.”

Obviously, Jimenez-David and other women’s rights advocates believe there are still important pieces of legislation regarding women’s welfare that need to be passed. Carolyn Sobritchea, executive director of the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s Studies (UPCWS), cites as an example the stalled Reproductive Health Care bill, which she says recognizes the rights of women over their bodies. She also says that although legal separation and the annulment of marriage are now allowed under the Family Code, many women would like a law that could provide more protection and security for single mothers and their children. There is a need as well to look into the rights of women in the agricultural and informal sector, she says.

“We’re happy and we’re not happy,” says Sobritchea. “We have passed 16 groundbreaking laws on women, (among) the most progressive in the world. But we still have our work cut out for us.”

What some find curious, however, is that even previous “pro-women” laws got their boost not from female legislators, but from the males. For instance, it was in the Eighth Congress where so far the most laws addressing women’s concerns were passed in the post-Marcos era, among them Republic Act 6955 (which sought to make illegal matchmaking local women to foreign nationals by mail-order). RA 6955 even saw only 26 percent of the women representatives voting for it, compared to about 55 percent of the men.

At the time, there were only 19 female lawmakers in the Lower House, or a mere nine percent of the representatives — the lowest so far in the post-Marcos era. (see Table 2) Indications are these female legislators were reluctant to be too identified with women’s causes. Jimenez-David recalls, “Many of them first-timers, they confessed to feeling they had to first ‘earn their spurs’ as representatives of a general constituency, and that championing women’s issues might limit their influence and appeal.”

“But that was in the past,” she says. “(Women) in both (Houses) have in the years since been able to pass women-friendly laws and turn the legislature into women-friendly environments.”

Table 2: Members of the House of Representatives, By Gender

8th 205 19 186
9th 199 23 176
10th 215 24 191
11th 220 27 193
12th 228 41 187
13th 237 35 202
14th 238 50 188

Hontiveros-Baraquel, though, says that even today only the party-list organizations Abanse! Pinay and Gabriela Women’s Party could be counted on as a solid vote for pro-women legislation — leaving out her own organization, which supports the implementation of the 30-percent quota for women in all decision-making bodies. Hontiveros-Baraquel herself actively supported the anti-prostitution bill in the last Congress, as well as House Bill 5496, which aims to strengthen women’s participation and representation in elective and appointive positions. Yet she is more well-known for her human-rights advocacies.

Even Senator Loren Legarda, whose platform includes women’s causes, is not that identified with women’s concerns. This is even though she co-authored and sponsored the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004 (RA 9262) — the consolidated version of the Anti-Abuse of Women in Intimate Relations bill and the Anti-Domestic Violence bill — and the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, which was passed into law as RA 9208.

“Generally, the members of the Senate vote based on issues, which does not necessarily have any relation with gender,” comments Legarda. “But I believe that there is a women’s vote when the issue to be resolved is on women’s rights and welfare.”

THERE HAS been, however, at least one female legislator outside of party-list groups with women’s rights advocacies who was very vocal about her pro-women stance: Leticia Ramos Shahani. She and Santanina Rasul became the first female senators in the post-Marcos Congress. Says Shahani: “Once elected, I asked myself, for whom do I legislate and what do I legislate? I had no doubt that I had to legislate for women because I correctly felt that I represented them.”

She does clarify that “a senator cannot just be a class legislator,” and that she was not just “a senator for women.” She stresses, however, that she never forgot that women’s issues were her priority.

In fact, the first bill that Shahani authored and that was made into law was RA 6725, which sought to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against women in the workplace. She is also proud of having introduced during the debate on the national budget in 1994 the mandatory allocation of five percent of the budget of every government department and agency for gender and development. But she considers the two laws on rape — RA 8353, which redefined the crime, and RA 8505, which provides assistance to rape victims and their families — as the centerpieces of her “feminist legislation.”

Rasul, meanwhile, seemed to have been also busy with women’s issues in the Upper House. Once the chair of the Committee on Women and Family Relations in the Senate, she co-authored the Women in Development and Nation-Building Act of 1995 (RA 7192) with Senator Roco. The Act outlawed discrimination against women, opened the doors of the Philippine Military Academy to women, and mandated that a substantial portion of government funds at all levels be used for programs that would benefit and develop women’s capabilities.

Rasul also sponsored RA 6949, which declared March 8 of every year as National Women’s Day, a special working holiday, as well as RA 6955. And she is credited for having provided funds for the UPCWS building, seeking the help of her fellow senators when the center’s coffers were nearly empty.

Congress observers say few women in the Lower House seem to have matched Shahani and Rasul’s pro-women legislative efforts. One of the exceptions, they say, was Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, who was the representative of the lone district of Aurora from the 10th to the 12th Congresses. Angara-Castillo, now Aurora’s governor, was a strong advocate not only of women’s rights, but also that of gays and lesbians during her stint in Congress.

Observers agree with women’s-issues activists that female representatives oftentimes choose to be “silent” because of their lack of skills to defend bills on the floor. UPCWS’s Sobritchea also points out that women elected to Congress have “different profiles, from the most conservative to the most progressive,” and therefore will not necessarily act as one, even when it comes to laws considered by many to be in support of women’s rights.

Sobritchea remarks as well that many of today’s female legislators are “conservative.” She says that some, for instance, still believe that “no matter what has been done — you die, you are poisoned inside the house — marriage is inviolable and men and women should suffer in a very unhappy marriage.”

IN TRUTH, several female legislators ended up in their seats primarily because they belong to political families, and not because they were seen as potential supporters of women’s causes. In the current Congress, 20 of the female representatives (or 40 percent of the women legislators) directly inherited a parent/-in-law’s slot (three) or are replacements of husbands (14) or brothers (three). (see Tables 3, 4, and 5)

Table 3: Women Legislators Who Succeeded Husbands in Office

Apostol, Trinidad G. Leyte, 2nd District Apostol, Sergio
Cayetano, Ma. Laarni L. Taguig City-Pateros, 1st District Cayetano, Alan Peter S.
Clarete, Marina P. Misamis Occidental, 1st District Clarete, Ernie D.
Ponce Enrile, Sally S. Cagayan, 1st District Ponce Enrile, Juan Jr. C.
Prieto-Teodoro, Monica Louise Tarlac, 1st District Teodoro, Gilberto Jr. C.
Ramiro, Herminia M. Misamis Occidental, 3rd District Ramiro, Hilarion
Silverio, Lorna C. Bulacan, 3rd District Silverio, Ricardo
Rodriguez-Zaldarriaga, Adelina Rizal, 2nd District Rodriguez, Isidro Jr. S.
Roman, Herminia B. Bataan, 1st District Roman, Antonino P.
Sy-Alvarado, Ma. Victoria R. Bulacan, 1st District Sy-Alvarado, Wilhelmino M.
Syjuco, Judy Iloilo, 2nd District Syjuco, Augusto
Umali, Czarina D. Nueva Ecija, 3rd District Umali, Oyie
Villar, Cynthia A. Las Piñas City, Lone District Villar, Manuel
Villarosa, Ma. Amelita C. Occidental Mindoro, Lone District Villarosa, Jose

Table 4: Women Legislators Who Succeeded Siblings in Office

Bondoc, Anna York P. Pampanga, 4th District Juan Pablo Bondoc
Jalosjos-Carreon, Cecilia G. Zamboanga del Norte, 1st District Romeo Jalosjos
Seachon-Lanete, Rizalina Masbate, 3rd District Fausto Seachon Jr.

Table 5: Women Legislators Who Succeeded Parents/In-laws in Office

Antonino-Custodio, Darlene R. South Cotabato, 1st District Luwalhati Antonino (Mother)
Ermita-Buhain, Eileen Batangas, 1st District Eduardo Ermita (Father)
Garin, Janette L. Iloilo, 1st District Oscar Garin (Father-in-law)
Antonino-Custodio, Darlene R. South Cotabato, 1st District Luwalhati Antonino (Mother)
Ermita-Buhain, Eileen Batangas, 1st District Eduardo Ermita (Father)
Garin, Janette L. Iloilo, 1st District Oscar Garin (Father-in-law)

Then there are Representatives Thelma Almario of the 2nd district of Davao Oriental who had served successively in the Eighth, Ninth, and 10th Congresses, and was replaced by her son Mayo Almario, who served in the 11th, 12th, and 13th Congresses; and Carmencita Reyes of the lone district of Marinduque who had served in the Eighth, Ninth, and 10th Congresses, and was promptly replaced by her son Edmundo Reyes Jr. in the 11th, 12th, and 13th Congresses. Both Almario and Reyes have now replaced their sons, who had reached their term limits. Representative Carmen Cari of the 5th district of Leyte, meanwhile, replaced her niece Representative Ma. Catalina Loreto-Go, who served in the 11th Congress.

The newest deputy speaker of the House, Occidental Mindoro Representative Amelita Villarosa, herself took the seat vacated by her husband Jose several years ago. But when she was named deputy speaker, no less than Speaker Jose De Venecia said that Villarosa was chosen “to address the gender imbalance in the House, so that women legislators will be represented in the House leadership.” Villarosa, though, has since taken pains to explain that “I was elected as a deputy speaker, period, not a deputy speaker for women. There is no such position in the House.”

“The job of the deputy speaker is to help the speaker carry out the functions of his office,” she adds. “I am deputy speaker for everyone, not just for a particular sector.”

At the very least, Villarosa is not known for women’s causes. Of the 57 house bills she filed during her previous term, only one could be described as being pro-women: House Bill 4948, which seeks to expand the grounds for legal separation and to amend the definition of psychological incapacity under the Family Code.

IT’S A performance that she shares with other veteran female legislators, including those who have been in Congress for far longer than the rest. Three current congresswomen are now on their fifth term: Representative Belma Cabilao (who has served both in the 1st and 3rd districts of Zamboanga Sibugay), Representative Glenda Ecleo (who is currently serving in the newly-created lone district of Dinagat Islands and has previously served in Surigao del Norte, 1st district), and Representative Nerissa Corazon Soon-Ruiz (Cebu, 6th district).

Of the three, only Ecleo can boast of having championed a pioneering pro-women legislation: the Anti-Rape Law of 1997, which she introduced in the Ninth Congress as the chairperson of the Committee on Women. Although her term expired without the bill getting passed, she, through the lobbying efforts of women’s groups, had more or less laid the groundwork for the bill’s enactment in the 10th Congress.

Soon-Ruiz, meanwhile, co-authored the proposed Reproductive Health Care Act (House Bill 4110) in the 12th Congress. But she later withdrew her signature following pressure from the Roman Catholic Church — specifically from Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, who was reported to have said he would not vote for Soon-Ruiz and would actively campaign against her in the 2004 polls if she did not do so. Soon after the opening of the 14th Congress, one newspaper quoted the lady lawmaker from Cebu as having assured Vidal that reproductive health care bills would not pass in the present Congress.

That may put her up against Villarosa who, despite her reluctance to turn her election as deputy speaker into a gender issue, promises nevertheless that she will give special attention to women. Villarosa says she co-authors two major pieces of legislation on women in the current Congress, one of them being the Reproductive Health Care bill. The other is the Magna Carta for Women, which would “operationalize” the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international women’s rights treaty to which the Philippines is signatory.

This early, Villarosa sees trouble ahead for the Reproductive Health Care bill, and this time around, the heel-digging may be evenly distributed between genders. She says that when she and other legislators tried to discuss the bill recently, “the guys stood up and said it was not yet time to talk about it.”

Villarosa’s new position as deputy speaker, however, means that women’s rights advocates expect her to fight for the bill with all her muster — and then some. Hontiveros-Baraquel even poses the challenge to the House leadership: “Villarosa’s election is a victory for women in the sense that it created gender balance. But it is yet to become a fully realizable victory (until) Representative Villarosa (lends) her position and influence to advance women’s causes.”

Senator Legarda agrees. “Women legislators have to support women-related legislation,” she says. “Women comprise half of our population, and while women in our country are considered better off than (women in other cultures) in terms of rights and welfare, there is much to be desired in terms of women’s participation in governance and decision-making. So those who have the opportunity to speak up for other women because of the positions and posts that they hold must do so with zeal and dedication.”