THERE IS no question that when it comes to laws, the rights of women are well covered in this country. But just an administration after the Philippines had its first female president, it has also become undeniable that Filipino women are in danger of losing whatever legislative gains they have achieved in the last decade.
Among the factors to blame for this are faulty legislation and implementation, as well as the public's sheer ignorance of existence of these laws. What is making the situation worse is a government that has not only declared itself financially bankrupt, but also appears to be disinterested in promoting gender equality.
Women's groups and their supporters point out that while President Joseph Estrada's love of women is legendary, he has no program for women, who make up half the country's population.
Indeed, during his inaugural speech last June, he failed to say anything even remotely close to women's concerns. All agency heads usually work to have their programs mentioned in the presidential inaugural speech to ensure these get support.
"We tried," says a frustrated official of an agency related to women's issues. "We lobbied hard that he include some—even just one—of our programs in his inaugural speech, wala talaga, ayaw (but it came to nothing, he didn't want to do it)."
Women's groups again lobbied for the inclusion of women's issues in Estrada's first State of the Nation Address (SONA). Once more, they came away disappointed. And as late as last October, Malacańang's list of priority bills had nothing on women
Given the government's apathy and the state's near empty coffers, even lawmakers sympathetic to women's concerns realize that no new gender-specific legislation that needs funding will be passed anytime soon. Observes Deputy Speaker Daisy Avance-Fuentes: "We have to deal with the realities of our times. Women's issues are the least of their (Congress and Malacańang) priorities right now."
Leaders of women's groups and their allies in the House are thus being forced to limit their legislative targets. They say for now, they will concentrate on lobbying for the approval of a law against domestic violence and the trafficking of women. But there is also an agreement among women's rights activists and their supporters to increase efforts regarding the implementation of the laws they had managed to squeeze through the legislative mill, and to push for the amendment of those in need of reworking.
They note that in 1997, the United Nations ranked the Philippines 46th out of more than 100 countries in terms of gender empowerment measures (GEM). While the ranking was one of the highest in Asia, women's rights activists say it is telling that the Philippines was only at 82nd place when it came to the gender-related development index (GDI).
This simply means, says Senator Raul Roco, that the while the country has enacted numerous statutes that promote gender equality, the implementation of these laws has been insubstantial.
It may help that awareness campaigns are in the works. Realizing their efforts in Manila are not having much impact on rural women, Beth Angsioco, National Chair of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines (DSWP) says her group will try to popularize existing gender-related laws. "We will try to do it in the form of primers, videotapes, maski komiks, the kind that most people will read," she says.
"One of the bitter learnings we had in the rounds we made during the May 1998 campaign was that women knew nothing of laws for them," adds Angsioco. "Not the anti-rape law, not the anti-sexual harassment law—they don't know what their rights are."
Roco, who was once bestowed the title of "Honorary Woman" by women's rights advocates in recognition of his support for women's issues, warns that the non-use of existing laws will rob women of their rights.
"Sa civil code, when you sleep on your rights, you lose them," he says. "You don't lose them as a matter of law, but because you don't use them, it goes that you don't have the right."
One of the least used laws, for example, is Republic Act 7192 or the Women in Development and Nation-Building Act. It is one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation ever passed addressing gender equality, with stipulations that range from allowing women to avail themselves of loans on their own to mandating men-only institutions to open their doors to women.
But few are aware of these provisions, much less their implications. Roco says even a full-blown publicity campaign failed to arouse much interest in an RA 7192 stipulation allowing full-time "house spouses" to become voluntary members of state institutions that offer pensions and loans such as the Social Security System (SSS) and the Pag-ibig Fund.
"The principle there," says the senator, "is that as the spouse who takes care of the household, you are entitled to half of what the employed spouse earns." But, he says, "after so much publicity, only a little over 900 joined SSS under the program, most of them self-employed."
The public is not the only party guilty of leaving gender-related laws generally gathering dust. According to the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW), compliance by state agencies with such legislation is dismal. For example, only 71 of the more than 300 state agencies have so far have done anything about the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 (RA 7877). An exasperated NCRFW is now coordinating with the Civil Service Commission to ensure that all government offices draft their own implementing rules and regulations regarding the Act.
The NCRFW oversees the implementation of all laws regarding women. It also helps formulate policies on women's issues, as well as advises the President on these.
Yet it is apparently clueless on how some state funds that had been set aside for women's concerns are being used. According to an RA 7192 stipulation, for example, a substantial amount of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds is to be allocated for programs and activities for women. In 1997, the National Economic Development Agency (NEDA) submitted a report to the NCRFW saying P303.5 million or 11.67 percent of that year's ODA had been used for such. But the NCRFW says it does not know exactly how the amount was used.
So far, the NCRFW has yet to demand a detailed accounting of this annual women's allocation. In fairness, though, that may well be because the Commission has its hands full trying to convince state agencies and the private sector to comply with gender-related laws—as well as thinking up ways to correct the many flaws of such legislation.
One law that the NCRFW says is in need of an overhaul is the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act. For one, the law seems to assume that sexual harassment emanates only from superiors and is silent regarding cases involving peers. For another, a case can drag on forever because the law does not stipulate any maximum period for case handling.
Congress observers say the obviously imperfect Act is probably the result of the vicious mauling gender-related bills usually get in the legislature. They add that the more prominent example of this is RA 8353, which contains a broader definition of rape and provides heavier punishment for the crime. More popularly known as the Anti-Rape Act, it had gone through debates and discussions in the Eight, Ninth and Tenth Congress before it was finally signed into law by then President Fidel Ramos in September 1997.
Months later, those who had championed it discovered that bits and pieces of what they had proposed were missing from the final version.
"There was a fiscal in my district who called me and asked me, 'Where is the provision against the use of fingers' in the anti-rape law?'" recalls Rep. Fuentes of South Cotabato. Apparently, the fiscal had a case that would have been helped by that stipulation. But the section that classifies the use of fingers as rape was not in the law.
"We had to let go of some provisions otherwise they won't pass it at all," admits Loren Umali, officer-in-charge of the NCRFW's monitoring and evaluation division. But she says she does not know who approved its removal, and at what stage this was done.
The truth is that the section was one of the more controversial provisions that had attracted the ire of some legislators. At one point, a congressman questioning the section blurted out: "Pag nadikit lang iyong daliri ko sa puwit ng sekretarya ko, rape na (If my fingers brush against my secretary's behind, is that rape)?"
Today, Fuentes says, "We have to put it back, we have to pass an amendatory bill." Indeed, women's groups are now crafting a bill that will restore "that darned finger" and other provisions—like marital rape—that had been slashed from the Anti-Rape Act.
But these groups and the rest of those seeking to improve current gender-related laws lament the fact that they have lost most of the allies they had made in the legislature since the Eighth Congress.
Women's rights activists say although the House now has the most number of female lawmakers ever—almost 12 percent of the House seats—they expect bills on women's issues to have an even harder going at the legislature.
Some observers say women's groups are right in not expecting much from most of the female lawmakers, since many of these ran simply to replace their husbands or fathers who were no longer eligible for reelection.
One congresswoman speaks of a "generation gap" between the female lawmakers in the Lower House. She relates that an older woman lawmaker being courted for support for gender-related proposals remarked, "Naku, hindi dapat kinakalaban ang mga kalalakihan, dapat sa mga iyan, minamahal (Oh, we should not fight with men, but love them).""
Says Fuentes: "Some of them are not aware of gender issues like spousal abuse, dahil sanay sila sa tratong sila iyong nasa pedestal (because they are used to being treated as if they were on a pedestal)."
But women's groups are now learning not to expect too much regarding gender issues even from the supposedly more knowledgeable female lawmakers. The DSWP's Angsioco cites news anchor-turned-Senator Loren Legarda Leviste, who she says was a disappointment in a discussion on pornography in a public affairs show.
"She was hammering on the effects of pornography on children," recalls Angsioco. "The real issue was the commodification of women, and not even she, who was in media and who's supposed to have been exposed to problems like this, was able to bring that out."
Those who were active in the corporate and legal sectors before they strayed into politics are also noticeably less interested in filing gender-related measures. Instead, these women lawmakers vie for key positions in committees they deem more suited to their experience.
"Maybe it's a form of rebellion against the usual segregation of roles in the House," muses Fuentes. "They just don't want to be relegated to traditional posts, like in the committee on women. Some women in the House are now demanding to be influential in committees that are dominated by men."
That is not necessarily a bad development. But the activists say it has only added to the decline in awareness of women's concerns among the lawmakers—male and female—and the rise of what they describe as "anti-women" proposals.
One of these, says Angsioco, is the proposal of freshman Senator Renato Cayetano to lower the marrying age. Says the DSWP chief: "It's so medieval, parang hello? Nasaan ka, anong pinanggalingan mo (Where are you, where are you from)?"
Yet another proposal that has earned the ire of women's groups is one submitted by Senator Ernesto Herrero, who wants to penalize women who refuse to report incestuous relationships. Angsioco says, "There's an increasing appreciation and seriousness in terms of reception on women's issues. On the other hand, you have legislators who still have a backward view of the issues."
House leaders are now planning to sponsor lectures for the lawmakers on
women's concerns. In the meantime, those already working on these issues
are bracing themselves for tough—maybe worse—times ahead. Predicts
Fuentes: "Again we expect heckling from some congressmen when we push for
the law against domestic violence, like what we got during the anti-rape