Women in Life and in Law (Part I of II)

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I grew up surrounded by the forces of powerful women. From my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my cousins, my teachers, the activist nuns from where I attended grade school (St. Scholastica’s College), the all female faculty where I attended high school (St. Theresa’s College – Cebu), my sorority sisters in college, female Presidents, and the female heroes I read about, I knew early on how special a woman’s role is in society.

Historically and culturally, in the Philippines at least, the female wields substantial influence: we call Nature and Earth “Inang Kalikasan”, we refer to our country as our Mother Land or “Inang Bayan”. Pre-colonial Filipinas hold “babaylans” or priestesses, “catalonans” or healers, mothers and elderly women in equal societal regard as men.

Mylene Hega et al on Feminism and the Women’s Movement in the Philippines: Struggles, Advances and Challenges state that:

“The babaylan was not subservient to the datu, who was considered the wealthiest, the strongest, the wisest, and often the bravest, member of the clan – which made him the rightful head. Instead, the datu and the babaylan worked together on important social activities. Being the spiritual leader, the babaylan was in charge of rituals, including those of agricultural significance. Through her knowledge in astronomy, she determined the right time to clear the land, as well as the planting and harvest cycle. She also studied and took charge of medicine, developing her knowledge and passing this on. xxx

The persona of the babaylan embodied the traditional role of women in pre-colonial Philippine society: They performed vital functions, and were recognized for their social and cultural leadership.”

Lorna Torralba’s La Mujer Indigena – The Native: A Description of the Filipino Woman During Pre-Spanish Time, she cites Teresita Infante´s documented study, The Woman in Early Philippines and Among Tribal Minorities, where there is a description of the role of women among the Kalingas:

“Kalinga women are not barred from belonging to the highest rank of society, which entitles them to the privileges equal to those of men in similar rank. Some are recognized as pact holders and as she is the one who owns the pact, only her children or relatives have the right to inherit it.” Pact holders were those who held agreement with a prominent citizen of another tribe or community in which each party agreed to give protection and aid to all members of each other´s community while they were in his/her territory. Punishment was imposed if any harm had been done to them by his/her tribe member. This important position of being a pact holder was recognized among women in the pre-Spanish society.

In the event of divorce caused by childlessness, infidelity, failure to fulfill obligations towards family, etc. the dowry had to be returned by the bride´s family if she was at fault. However, if the husband was at fault, he lost any right of its return. The children were divided equally between the two regardless of sex. The conjugally-acquired property was also divided equally. This way, she possessed equal rights with regard to divorce according to law and custom.”

Things have shifted with the onset of colonialism (the “dalagang Pilipina” and friar oppression by the Spaniards), world wars (American and Japanese occupation and war related oppression), but the blood of indigenous Filipinos and Filipinas run deep and strong despite it.

Large strides have been taken to close the gender gap through the years. In fact, the Philippines lead all the countries of Asia in terms of gender equality.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 of the World Economic Forum shows that the Philippines is the only Asian country that made it to the top 20 list of countries based on progress towards gender parity in four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In 2020, the Philippines have closed as high as 81% of the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival. Female life expectancy in the Philippines is five (5) years longer than men, and we have a 98% literacy rate for both sexes.

Where we need more work in is female participation in politics and government, and therefore, policy development.

More women in politics and in government is NEEDED. We need more women representatives in Congress to help reframe, and amend possibly antedated or unjust provisions of the law. We need more women representatives to make discussions diverse, and more sides covered.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss the most memorable and impactful pieces of legislation that champion gender equality, the victories of the women’s movement, and how else the law could be improved to truly close the gender gap.