How are women — from the grassroots to the podium — faring in Duterte’s regime?
To live as a woman in the era of President Rodrigo Duterte is difficult. Not that it was easy with past administrations, as history shows that women have always occupied a disadvantaged position, whether in colonial or postcolonial Philippine society. Having Duterte in the country’s highest seat of power, however, has done nothing to forward the women’s movement, on the contrary even pushing it back by a couple of decades.
On January 15, 2021, Duterte shook the globe with his sexist pronouncement that presidency “is not for a woman,” and that “the emotional setup of a woman and a man are totally different.” The irony then wasn’t lost when two months later, he released a Women’s Day message calling to empower women, saying that they should be “elevated to their rightful place in society” and “breaking the barriers and backward mindset that fueled a culture of gender oppression and inequality.”
The entirety of Duterte’s agenda on women’s empowerment is shrouded with much of the same irony, or what the youth of today would call duality. He proudly declared in his Women’s Day statement that his administration has championed much legislation to create an environment where women’s rights are respected and their contributions to society are recognized. A person can take this at face value and see that there have been a few legislative victories achieved within this administration, like Republic Act (RA) №11313 or the Safe Spaces Act, the executive order that ensures the full implementation of the Reproductive Health (RH) Law; the passage of RA №10906 or the Anti-Mail Order Spouse Law; and the enactment of RA №11210 or the 105-Day Expanded Maternity Leave Law. However, these victories could not be credited to his efforts. It was gender equality activists, such as GABRIELA, who kept fighting for these laws for years. But GABRIELA, along with other National Democratic Mass Organizations (NDMOs), has often earned the ire of the Duterte administration — with some of them being charged with trumped-up cases or even killed by state agents in officially sanctioned operations. Though his supporters would add much weight to his signature, that weight is belied by his many statements and actions that promote the degradation of women in the country.
Sure, he may have signed the Safe Spaces Act into law, but Duterte’s track record when it comes to women would make anyone raise an eyebrow, especially when this has inspired his supporters to constantly rain down threats of rape and violence in the comments section of the social media posts of women oppositionists. But what else can be expected when the president himself, the highest governing official in the country, condones and displays this crude behavior?
Even before his commanding victory in the 2016 polls, Duterte had already been shown to claim one thing while doing the exact opposite when it comes to women and gender. This has only continued with his sexist “jokes” and misogynist remarks throughout his presidency, as enabled by faux feminists like Pia Cayetano, who used to champion women’s rights in her support for the RH Law. A few days after his electoral victory, he was seen signing and committing to the study of a women’s agenda formulated by his women supporters. And yet, a couple of months later, he began his witch hunt for one of his most prominent critics, woman senator Leila De Lima.
From saying “dapat mauna si Mayor (the Mayor should have a go first)” upon hearing the story of the rape of an Australian missionary to proudly kissing women without their consent while on his campaign trail, it has been made very clear that the president has no understanding of what women empowerment entails. His supporters, meanwhile, would simply brush his crudeness off as harmless jokes “meant to entertain and not to offend,” as Salvador Panelo had claimed in his short-lived stint as a spokesperson, or as a mark of Visayan humor — never mind that that sentiment downgrades women as mere jesters in Duterte’s court or that it throws an entire region under the bus just because people cannot call a spade a spade.
Duterte’s statements are far from harmless. For many years before his rise to power, the women’s movement in the Philippines had progressed steadily, winning landmark legislations like the RH law or gaining gender-based accolades in the global scale, like being part of the top ten countries in closing the gender gap. But Duterte’s crude and macho language that always put women at the tail end of verbal abuse has normalized manifestations of the country’s seemingly dormant heteropatriarchal norms, with his supporters — men, especially, but also others with internalized misogyny — emboldened to degrade, objectify, sexualize, discriminate, and oppress women. What the president has made to look cool, and that has made him seem more real and accessible, has made it all the more terrifying to be a woman today.
Duterte calls for Filipinos to “reject the backward mindset that fueled a culture of gender oppression” while encouraging soldiers to shoot rebel communists on the vagina and proudly relaying that foreigners will be welcomed with 42 virgins when they pursue tourism in the country. Then there’s the viral video of the President “playfully” trying to touch his house helper during his birthday making its rounds.
His most recent spokesperson, Harry Roque, gladly defends these misogynistic remarks, asking women to look the other way, specifically over to that proverbial chalkboard that lists all of the supposed achievements this administration has “won” for gender equality. Who cares if President Mayor believes that rape cases are high because women are beautiful? He has achieved so much! For one, the country ranks 16th globally in closing the gender gap. Ignore the fact that before he got the presidential seat, the Philippines was ranked 7th. Globally.
In the grassroots, the women’s disadvantaged position in society has not changed at all. The ill effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the country’s economy has pushed nearly 3 million Filipinos to fall into poverty by the end of 2020. And as poverty remains to bear a woman’s face in the country with more than ten million Filipino women living in absolute poverty, this downward trend only means bad news for those who are breadwinners, single mothers, or both. A grave aspect to this is the growing lack of access to reproductive health products and services, an issue that should’ve been addressed by Executive Order №12 or the Zero Unmet Need for Modern Family Planning, but non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground could only do so much when limited by ineffective COVID-19 protocols. In fact, the longer the government delays significant action in addressing the pandemic — with the Philippines seeing a major spike in cases in recent weeks — the more women, especially those in lower economic classes below the poverty line, suffer. In fact, rape cases have risen to an average of 8 women being raped each day under strict lockdown, which has been in place for over a year now.
Duterte’s war against communist insurgency has also put women at an insane disadvantage. From having a penchant for degrading his women critics — be it Vice President Leni Robredo or Senators Leila de Lima and Risa Hontiveros — he has also spent the greater half of the quarantine demonizing activists and branding them as communists or terrorists. Women farmers have been held captive under the suspicion of terrorism, while indigenous people are meaninglessly persecuted on the accusation that they are members of the New People’s Army. In 2020 alone, at least 78 deaths have been documented due to red-tagging, along with 136 arrests. Mothers have been separated from their ailing children, as in the case of Reina Mae Nasino, whose child died from state negligence while she was incarcerated for activism.
And where do these numbers bring us? In violence against women figures added from 2016 to 2020 from the Philippine Statistics Authority, a timeline spanning Duterte’s presidency, rape and attempted rape cases reported to the PNP totaled 12,273, victims of trafficking served by the DSWD is at 734, psychological or emotional abused women cases also reached 560, while recorded women victims of armed conflict taken into custody amounted to 133. And these are just the reported cases. What more of those left unheard?
Duterte’s pilot promise, the war on drugs, has been disproportionately unkind to women. Though most victims have been men, amounting to the PNP’s conservative estimate of 8,663 deaths since its beginnings in 2016 (though independent estimates would triple that number), these men have usually been breadwinners, leaving single mothers in their wake. Witnesses — mostly women — would be left shaken, fearing for their security and safety, while the bloody drug war turns them into grieving mothers, traumatized daughters, and suffering sisters.
The Philippines may have been far from the feminist ideal of solidarity and care before the era of Duterte, but the women’s movement then at least did not have a head of state that is so hostile, so degrading, and so disrespectful toward women that it has nullified decades of hopeful progress. To have a president normalize and legitimize patriarchal values and institutions long entrenched in Philippine society has done nothing to improve the situation of women in the country, no matter how many supportive legislations have been coincidentally passed during his presidency.
In order for women to truly achieve empowerment free from the backward mindset that fuels gender oppression, it is imperative to demand for a government — for a president — that sees women as people and not as ornaments, objects, enemies, nuisances, or the butt of jokes born from obsolete humor.
Bella Biscocho is a graduate of political science from the Ateneo de Manila University and will soon earn her masters degree in women and development Studies from the University of the Philippines–Diliman. She is a feminist, gender rights activist, designer, and indoor cycling enthusiast.