December 8th, 2009 14:28 EST
Women in Politics: What difference do they make?
By Olivia H. Tripon
Manila (Women`s Feature Service) - "Women in politics: What difference do they make?" This was the question put to three women legislators at a recent "pre-election conversation", part of a series of election literacy forums organised by St. Scholastica`s College (SSC), an all-girls` school in Manila. With elections scheduled to be held on May 10, 2010, in the Philippines, meets like these are being organised in an effort to enable young women to understand the role that women play in a political set up.
At SSC, Senator Pia Cayetano and party-list congresswomen Riza Hontiveros-Baraquel and Liza Masa of the Akbayan and Gabriela Party, respectively, were part of the lively discussion initiated by the politically aware nuns and students of the college. The SSC has a very illustrious alumnae, which includes the likes of the late Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, the country`s first woman president; the late Cecilia MuÃ±oz-Palma, first woman justice in the Supreme Court; and Mother Mary John Mananzan, O.S.B, one of the backbones of the feminist movement in the country.
The political structure in the Philippines is well defined. The Congress of the Philippines, the national legislature of the country, is divided into the Senate (Upper House) and the House of Representatives (Lower House). Twenty-four senators are elected by the whole electorate and they do not represent any geographical district. On the other hand, the lower house comprises a maximum of 250 representatives divided into two categories - district congressmen represent a particular geographical district of the country, while the sectoral congressmen, or the party-list congressmen, represent the minority sectors of the population like labour unions, rights groups, and other organisations. And, next year, candidates will stand for the presidential, legislative and local elections.
Beginning the proceedings at the SSC, Sr. Mary John Mananzan, a Benedictine nun and Gabriela chairperson, defined women`s style of management as being "compassionate, transparent and with the collective participation of the governed."
The three leaders present are accomplished and well-known for practicing the kind of governance described by Mananzan. Senator Cayetano is conscientious and comes from an illustrious political family - her late father was a senator and a lawyer, and one of her brothers is also currently in the Senate. She is a triathlon athlete and is passionate about health issues because she lost a child and her father to serious illnesses.
Akbayan Party-list Representative Riza Hontiveros-Baraquel, a former television broadcaster and media personality, was a member of the government peace panel and conducted negotiations with the CPP-NPA, which earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination along with 1,000 women worldwide in 2005.
Finally, Liza Masa is a two-term representative of Gabriela, the only women`s political party in the country. Before that she was the sole woman representative of Bayan Muna, a left-wing party and the only woman illegally detained in Batasan (Congress), along with five other party-list representatives, on charges of rebellion. The charges against her were eventually dismissed by the Supreme Court. She has been "inside" Congress for nine years and "outside" for 10 years, as an activist on the streets.
Curiously, all three women are also single parents. So they are able to identify with the struggles and predicaments that working mothers face, caught as they are between their families and careers. And, of course, they take their role as champions of women`s causes, especially in the Congress, very seriously. Senator Cayetano, who is also the president of the Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians of the Inter-parliamentary Union, was one of the sponsors of the recently approved Magna Carta of Women - the Gender Equality Law; Masa has been working on getting anti-trafficking and anti-violence clauses included in Women and Child laws; and Hontiveros-Baraquel has filed and co-authored the much-contested Reproductive Health Bill, the Anti-Prostitution Bill and the Gender Balance Bill.
As they work tirelessly for their country, they now want more women to join their ranks. "The idea of women`s kind of governance as `nurturing` is based on historical-social practice. This quality of a `plain housewife` like Cory (the first women president of the Philippines) can be maximised in politics," said Masa. Hontiveros-Baraquel pointed out that "women are as qualified as men, if politics is an exercise of power."
To illustrate the point, Masa related her experience in the Congress when she argued for the law to protect women and children from violence. Most of her male colleagues just dismissed her by saying: "Matapang `yan (She`s a fearless woman anyway)." Yet, Masa stuck to her stand. "They (men) tend to trivialise advocacies and disregard statistics of VAW (violence against women) or RH (reproductive health) unlike issues on the economy," shared the legislator, who is also one of the prime movers of the Purple Rose Campaign, a global initiative to end sex trafficking.
Talking about her Senate experiences, Cayetano recalled the time when five years into her term in the male-dominated upper house, "my colleagues laughed when I introduced a gender perspective in the Bills. It annoys me at displays of arrogance and ignorance." Citing the unequal representation of women in politics - 17.3 per cent women, 82.7 per cent male - Cayetano said that she believes in equalising representation so that women can have a voice. Yet, she was quick to add, "Just being a woman does not qualify you for any position. You have to make a positive difference."
But as the nation gets ready for polls next year there are very few women in the running even now. When a student pointed out that perhaps the negative public perception of the incumbent woman president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was working against the other women candidates, Cayetano said that "the people are discerning enough not to attribute her `sins` to other women."
Incidentally, there are a couple of women who have presidential ambitions for next year. There`s Senator Loren Legarda, a former broadcast media personality who ran for vice-president in 2004 and is active in the environment sector, and Senator "Jamby" Madrigal, from the rich and landed Madrigal clan, who championed the Magna Carta of Women, as head of the Senate Women`s Committee.
But can they make a difference in women`s lives? This question is begging for an answer, in the light of the much-maligned sitting President Arroyo and with the passing away of Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, fondly called "Cory".
As Filipinos gear up for the May elections, Masa`s appeal to the electorate puts things in a better perspective: "Put women in politics who will carry the interest of women; the challenge is to develop a women`s vote to change the face of politics in the Philippines." Added Hontiveros-Baraquel, "There is a new order still struggling to be born - a humanist vision for change. We have to rise to the challenge."
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)