07 November 2017
1st Southeast Asia Women’s Summit
Ambassador Kok Li Peng of Singapore; Ambassador Amanda Gorely of Australia; Ambassador Delia Domingo Albert, ASEAN Society Philippines; Dr. Maria Lourdes Baybay, VP for Academic Affairs; Prof. Aurora Javate-De Dios, Convenor of Southeast Asian Women’s Summit and Senior Program Director of Women and Gender Institute; Mr. Titon Mitra, UNDP Philippines Country Director; Dr. Rhodora Bucoy, Chair of PCW; Ms. Emmeline Verzosa, Executive Director of the Philippine Commission on Women; delegates from ASEAN; women leaders from the Women’s Peace Collective; representatives of NGOs, academe, labor union and peasant groups; dear faculty, students and other members of the Miriam College community; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat.
It is always good to be back here in Miriam College, home to some of the world’s bravest and strongest women. This is the best opportunity to discuss a topic that has become extremely important to men and women alike. When we approach women’s issues seriously, focusing on concrete steps to emancipate those whose rights have been trampled on, and aim for gender mainstreaming and inclusivity, then we create a better world and a better future for all of us.
As a public servant, I have worked with many strong women who have shaped our world. A growing number of women in local governance, in legislation, and in development work are transforming today’s culture of hegemonic masculinity into a more balanced, more inclusive one. Strong and skilled women in the boardrooms are changing the dynamics in business, trade, and finance. Truly, women are finding their place and there has never been so much global recognition for the value of women than today.
There is now widespread acceptance of the fact that when women are empowered, countries grow much faster and people live better. Studies show that if women achieve equality in the workplace, an additional $12 trillion will be added to global gross domestic product by 2025. (Source: Mckinsey Global Institute, 2015)
ASEAN integration is good for women. The ASEAN’s focus on micro and small medium enterprises as a tool for inclusive growth provides opportunities for women in agribusiness, tourism, services, and other sectors.
Over the past 50 years, there has been a determined effort to empower women in ASEAN. One is the inclusion of human rights in its Charter, and the establishment in 2010 of human rights mechanisms such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and the ASEAN Committee of Labor and Migration. These are increasingly important now, in light of reports of heightened abduction and trafficking of women along the borders of China, and women as victims of conflict and terror (Source: The Economist, Nov. 3 issue, “Fear on the Border”).
If there ever was a better time to strengthen ASEAN’s commitments to human rights and gender equality, it is now. We need long-term follow-through strategies to address the increasing complexity of gender issues. The problems women face now are more complex than people realize.
For example, women have to work twice as hard to be where their counterparts are in society. While more than 70 percent of our men are in the labor force, only half of our women have access to jobs. In fact, data shows that large numbers of highly educated women in ASEAN countries remain unemployed. Not only that, women are still vulnerable to indecent working conditions, inadequate social security, and discrimination. In fact, in recent weeks, we have heard a lot of controversies regarding women harassment both in the US and in Europe, proving that in today’s supposedly more enlightened world, women’s rights continue to be under attack. Catcalling, misogynistic remarks, and even violence are still considered the fault of the woman if her knees show when she sits. Social media is now a space for harassment and makes women easy targets, especially those that hold leadership positions.
How do we then create an enabling environment for our women so that they can truly “hold up half the sky?”
Way before assuming the Vice Presidency, I was a human rights lawyer fighting for women who were victims of abuse. It was not uncommon for women to knock on my door in the middle of the night to seek refuge. Our home in Naga City was the unofficial halfway house for abused women. We would sometimes work on cases all night to make the abusers accountable, but when the time comes for us to go to court, women would fail to show up. They were worried that they would have nothing to feed their children once they leave their husbands. It was increasingly apparent to me then that the solution to abuse against women is often financial empowerment.
So, while serving in Congress, we created livelihood and entrepreneurship programs for women, linked them to the market, and connected them with mentors that would help them build stronger and more sustainable businesses. We saw a lot of them scale up from micro to bigger businesses, expanding their market to major cities and even overseas. Once they gained their confidence and saw their own potential, they began standing up against abuse.
We are now replicating this approach in the Office of the Vice President’s anti-poverty program called Angat Buhay. To fulfill the mission of Angat Buhay, we went around the poorest and farthest barangays in our country, and we discovered that jobs and livelihood were the two issues that have surfaced as our people’s greatest needs. We learned that there were many jobs for our people, but employers in certain industries reported difficulties in finding workers with the required competencies and skills. It seems that we had a shortage of knowledge and skills in this knowledge economy. Isn’t that a huge tragedy?
That is why as fast-growing industries emerge, we need to strengthen our trainings and skills development programs, and make them at par with global standards. We need to take advantage of the opportunities created by the ASEAN Economic Community by making sure that our workers are ready. When we do, our people, especially our women, will not be left behind; instead, they will be equipped with competencies that are in line with the demands of the international labor market.
Second, we need to ensure that women’s issues are central to policymaking, and we are happy that men are joining this conversation. Gender equality is not a soft issue. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult and hardest issues that policy makers will face. Rape, harassment, and discrimination do not just cripple us socially, they also hurt our ability to build a better world for our people. Failure to capitalize on the potential of women to improve human resource productivity would certainly be a missed opportunity.
One of the most inspiring stories of women empowerment is that of Mayor Flora Villarosa from Siayan, Zamboanga del Norte in Northern Mindanao. I do not know if you have ever heard of Siayan but it is very difficult to get there, especially when the weather is bad. It is located in the middle of two mountain ranges and it takes so many long hours to get there. In fact, we made two attempts before we finally made it to Siayan.
Siayan has been declared as the poorest of all the municipalities in the Philippines with a poverty incidence of 97.5%. People hardly ate three meals a day. They were hungry, poor, and unable to get education and jobs. But the future of the town changed because of one woman who was willing to make the impossible, possible.
Mayor Flora already had a very flourishing business in Manila, but when she saw the suffering of her people, she went back home and ran for mayor. From the get go, she organized a consultative meeting to ask the town about the most pressing issues they face, and what they think should be done to change the future of Siayan. From these meetings, the people of Siayan decided that it was livelihood, education, and infrastructure that they needed. Slowly, roads were built, bridges were constructed and people were no longer jobless. Now, Siayan is a far cry from what it was before.
When women are given the chance to embrace their abilities and become the best version of themselves, they find the strength to rise above their circumstances and turn their troubles into something beautiful. They thrive and flourish and, most importantly, they allow other women to shine too.
The challenges of our time call us to stand firmly upon our commitment to continue fighting for the empowerment of every woman. Now, more than ever, we need women who are willing to step up, speak up, and fight for what is right.
But women cannot win this fight alone. We need men – evolved ones, kind ones, brave ones who are willing to stand up and speak up against misogyny and bigotry, and help us create spaces for our women to lead in society.
Every one of you here are women from every imaginable background, who have infinite potential for changing the world. You have the power to make a huge difference in the lives of our people.
The famous Madeline Albright once said, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That means there should be a special place in heaven for women who shine their light for others.
Thank you very much, at mabuhay kayong lahat!