Message at the Federation of Asia Pacific Women’s Association’s 60th Anniversary and 23rd Convention
Hotel Jen, Manila
Madame Mary Jane Ortega, FAWA President; former Mayor Linda Gonzales, FAWA Convention Chairperson and the President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs in the Philippines; Attorney Ericson Alcovendas, who represented Mayor Joseph Estrada [who] just left; Congresswoman Juliet Marie Ferrer of the Fourth District of Negros Occidental; our FAWA past presidents, board members and delegates; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Good morning to everyone.
In Quezon City, here in the Philippines, just a few meters away from our office, stands a house along Gilmore Street with a bronze plaque on its front wall. The writings, in Filipino, describe that at one time it was the home of Senator Geronima Pecson, the founder of the Federation of Asia Pacific Women’s Association and the first Filipina senator in our country.
Many say Senator Geronima was one of the greatest women this country has ever produced. She was even called a “super social worker“ and was a prime mover of notable laws on education and social welfare. Yet while some viewed Sen. Geronima‘s candidacy as a breakthrough, there were many who questioned her capability and treated her with rancor. She was called at that time unqualified, inefficient, and even a “Malacañang cook.“ But when election day came, she won and garnered the third highest votes.
Senator Geronima challenged and overcame the dictates and norms of society during that time. Decades after, we find women shaping the world in many different ways. Gone are the days when most occupations were dominated by men. We see a growing number of women in local governance, in legislation, in company boardrooms, and in the development world. Truly, there has never been this much global recognition for the value of women than today.
Studies show that when women are empowered, countries grow faster and people live better. Mckinsey and Company claims that advancing women’s equality in the countries in Asia Pacific could add $ 4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP by 2025, a 12 percent increase over the business-as-usual trajectory. This is a clear sign that pursuing the goal of gender equality can unleash the economic potential of any country and reinforce our region’s dynamic growth story. But to make this happen, we need long-term, innovative, follow-through strategies to address the increasing complexity of gender issues, because let’s face it: the problems women face now are far more complex than we realize.
For instance, while economies in Asia and the Pacific continue to expand, women’s labor participation remains low. As of 2018, developing countries show the highest ratio of female-to-male unemployment rates across groups, at [1.3]. At the same time, entrenched gender roles and labor market discrimination continue to hamper women’s access to decent jobs. In fact, if these are not addressed, the female unemployment rate is expected to go up, increasing the gender gap by 2021.
In many developing countries, women are still vulnerable to indecent working conditions, inadequate social security, and discrimination. Social media, the very means to freely express one’s opinion, is now a space for harassment. In some respects, protecting [a] woman’s dignity and character is more difficult in the virtual sphere, where just about anyone can make irresponsible comments primarily because they can be made anonymously, with no accountability.
Not only that, there are also emerging issues in the region like the rise of violent extremism, the forced migration of refugees, heightened abduction and human trafficking, and the harmful effects of climate change, which leave women most vulnerable to conflict and abuse. Just imagine, a quarter of men surveyed in six Asia-Pacific countries admitted to committing rape! That is how widespread it is. I am sure Senator Geronima would agree with me, if I say that society should never blame widespread assault and rape on the presence of beautiful women, nor should rape even be considered a laughing matter.
We, women—and men too—should know this by heart. Men should make it their business to respect us.
This is why, we also know, that creating a heritage of lasting peace and sustainable development is impossible if we do not include women themselves as part of the solution. We need to work harder together and much more effectively in ensuring that every woman is empowered to rise above her struggles and freely live out her dreams. It is critical that we take care of our sisters, especially those who are unable to take care of themselves.
Gatherings like these have an important role to play in creating effective, innovative, and long-term solutions for our programs. If we are going to capitalize on the potential of women as key drivers of sustainable growth and long-lasting peace in the region, we need a shared vision and shared strategies to move us forward. And then, we need to actually move forward, at some point moving beyond words into real actions that benefit women around the country.
For instance, we should focus our efforts on empowering our women economically. No program to save abused women can succeed without providing them with ways to earn their own keep. This is something that I have personally learned, in my previous life as a human rights lawyer, when I met so many poor women who suffered from the cycle of abuse. In fact, our small house became an unofficial halfway home for abused women in my hometown in Naga City! Our family got used to knocks on our door in the middle of the night by women who needed sanctuary and legal help. I remember working through the night many times to help them file cases against those who caused their suffering. But you know what usually happened? Almost always, by the time we go to court, the clients no longer show up—having gone back to their places of abuse, worried that they didn’t have the financial capability to feed their own children and live on their own. It’s [a] harsh reality, and it has to be addressed.
As we go around the country and study the conditions of women in different communities, we discover the same stories all over the country. It is only when women can stand economically on their own two feet do they feel strong enough to stand against abusive relationships.
There should also be a shift in the way we create organizational structures, training designs, and activities. When I was with an NGO called SALIGAN, we conducted gender sensitivity seminars to educate women about their rights under the law. Like most NGOs, we had our way of doing things. But we observed that women immersed in poverty had very little time for meetings and trainings outside of their survival duties. We had to innovate. We went where they were, scheduled trainings when they were not washing clothes or tending to their small children, we simplified the language we used—essentially putting them front and center of all our plans instead of making them adjust to our plans.
When my husband was mayor of Naga, we organized the Naga City Council of Women, which was composed of female representatives from the local and national government, the private sector, and civil society. And because women were directly involved in the planning, the budgeting, and the implementation, the outcomes were much more effective. GAD programs became much more relevant and meaningful. We were more focused on expanding the livelihood opportunities of women, rather than spending gender and development funds for social and political events that will provide them temporarily, albeit, short-lived satisfaction.
For example, one of the things that we did was connect women micro-entrepreneurs with the City Hall. We identified services and materials that the city government had been contracting with private companies and asked the LGU to give space for women-led micro-enterprises to participate and source a portion of these needs from them. We conducted trainings on catering services, cosmetology, and dressmaking for the women in our city and they were eventually hired to handle functions in City Hall. Those who knew how to sew at home were given high-speed sewing machines and they ended up sewing curtains for the city hall, togas for public school graduations, uniforms for summer basketball tournaments and shirts during conventions. Now, even those who provide catering services for trainings and seminars source their supplies from small women micro-entrepreneurs. As a result, women in Naga obtained sustainable jobs and livelihood because of their improved access to the market.
We are now replicating this approach in the Office of the Vice President’s anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay. Through the help of our partners from various sectors, we are finding ways to create more sustainable livelihood opportunities for women who come from the poorest, farthest, and most vulnerable barangays in the country, link them to the markets, and connect them with mentors who teach them how to build stronger and more sustainable businesses.
Rose Acampong, a single mother and dressmaker from Marawi, was out for a quick trip to the market when ISIS-inspired militants attacked her hometown. In the blink of an eye, her entire life changed. She and her four children walked frantically and aimlessly for many hours amid the fighting, until finally finding refuge in a nearby town named Saguiaran. She lost her home and with it, her livelihood. Until now, more than a year after the siege, Rose and the other dressmakers of Marawi still live in temporary shelters in the Saguiaran municipal complex.
After the siege, we visited them and gave them sewing machines, cloths, and other materials so that they can at least start regaining their livelihood. Through Angat Buhay, Rose and the other dressmakers are now partnering with AKABA, a social enterprise that creates unique and stylish bags that feature handwoven fabrics from small weaving communities across the country. Last month, they attended a training on Basic Bag Making and Sewing, where they learned how to assemble different types of bags and pouches sold by AKABA. They also learned how to create a business plan and experienced pitcing their enterprises to a panel. They will also be receiving cash grants to expand their businesses.
The good news does not stop there. The barangay captain of Saguiaran’s poblacion generously lent the barangay hall to our dressmakers. They just moved into their new work space last week and the women are now very happy because they don’t have to work in cramped and dark evacuation centers anymore.
Marami pong pag-aaral ang nagpapakita na sa isang Nanay na binibigyan ng hanapbuhay, isang angkan ang gaganda ang hanapbuhay.
When women work together to achieve a common goal, something powerful truly happens. We are able to give women the chance to embrace their abilities and become the best version of themselves. And when they do, they find the strength to rise above their circumstances and turn their troubles into something really beautiful. They thrive and flourish, and most importantly, they allow other women to shine too.
As women leaders of today, you have the power to make a huge difference in the lives of so many people. For the past 60 years, the Federation of Asia Pacific Women’s Association has paved the way, not only for us, Filipinas, but for the many women from different parts of our region. You inspire us with your commitment to achieve peace and sustainable development through gender equality and women empowerment. And we hope that in the many years to come, you will continue to build on the momentum to create a better world and a better future for all of us.
The famous Madeline Albright once said, and I quote: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Well, you all have earned a special place in heaven, for taking very good care of your sisters around the world.
Thank you very much and may you have a productive convention! [applause]