Speech at the First International Conference on Gender and Adult Literacy and Active Citizenship for Social Transformation
University of Santo Tomas, España, Manila
Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.
Dr. Maribel Nonato, Vice Rector for Research and Innovation; Dr. Belinda de Castro, Director for the Research Center for Social Sciences and Education; Dr. Giovanna Fontanilla, Director for the Office of Public Affairs; Dean Michael Vasco, dean of the Graduate School; Dr. Camilla Vizconde, Conference Chair; Professor Anna Robinson-Pant, UNESCO Chair for Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation; Family Literacy Project team, led by the UNESCO Chair from UK, from Nepal, Ethiopia, Malawi, and the Philippines; members of the Organizing Committee; delegates; honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat! (Audience: “Magandang umaga po!”)
Every minute of the day, at least 250 women somewhere around the world give birth, putting their own life on the line each and every time. And yet, despite this supreme sacrifice, only six countries give women equal legal work rights as men, and women are 47% more likely to suffer severe injuries in car crashes because safety features are always designed for men, figures from the World Economic Forum show.
These numbers paint an unfortunate picture: despite the huge role of women in creating a better world, our generation is still not as kind to women as men. According to the Global Gender Gap 2018 report, it may take 108 years to close the gender gap.
Forums like this that encourage policymakers, practitioners, and the academic community to take a closer look at gender and adult literacy, as well as active citizenship for social transformation, is a massive step towards changing these numbers for good. That you are here, influential men and women in your own spheres, speaks volumes on how serious we all are in making sure no single woman suffers from unjust conditions, whether in this part of the world or in others. It’s high time that we truly see where we have gone wrong and how we can do things better.
The Philippines is one of the top 10 countries in the world where it is great to be a woman, but even here, there is more space to improve gender equality. Let me share with you some of the experiences and lessons that we have encountered at the Office of the Vice President, through stories that I have personally witnessed as we worked to fight extreme poverty in the farthest and most marginalized places across the country.
Perla Bacuna is a 75-year-old single mother from Roxas City, Capiz—also known as the Seafood Capital of the Philippines, about 500 kilometers south of Manila. Perla started a business by selling live crabs and other seafood, and she became, in all sense of the word, very successful in her chosen livelihood.
But Perla hid from the world that she was a victim of domestic abuse, beaten by her husband every single day for 25 years. Because of this violence from the person who was supposed to love her through thick and thin, she lost all her means of livelihood, her self-worth, and her self-esteem.
One day, she decided she had enough. With nothing but nine children to feed, she turned her back on her husband. Perla built a new business by picking up capiz shells from the seashore. Capiz shells are nearly flat windowpane oyster shells that are thrown away by locals because no one thought they had value. It is some kind of poetic justice that Perla transformed these “worthless” shells into beautiful, one-of-a-kind wind chimes and other crafts, and through her earnings, successfully raised all her nine children singlehandedly. Now, Perla is well-known not just for her business success, but also for mentoring other women entrepreneurs who have also been abused and marginalized.
Another story is Jingle, one of the women behind Home Plush Toys, a community sewing enterprise initiative of the social enterprise called Anthill. You might have heard of them. Anthill operates in Cebu, Philippines, a city south of Manila.Jingle and her team of mothers create dolls that help women and children who are victims of violence or abuse to process their experiences. Jingle’s husband forced her to quit her job because, he says, women should stay home and take care of the children. But when she started earning more from her sewing, she stood her ground. In tears, she told us that she finds purpose in knowing that her job allows her to help women and children who suffer from violence or abuse.
These two stories highlight a very important lesson that helped us at the Office of the Vice President create sustainable, progressive, gender-sensitive communities: real women empowerment comes from economic empowerment. This is not to say that money is always the source of power. Not at all. Rather, self-confidence and self-esteem are the real sources of power for women. The ability to face themselves in the mirror and say “I like being in my own skin,” allows women to be the best mothers, the best wives, friends, policymakers, and entrepreneurs. The unshakeable knowledge that they can influence the world where they stand makes them unstoppable. And here’s the greatest part: women take care of each other, especially those who are wounded, downtrodden, and marginalized. We are a sisterhood of changemakers when empowered and enlightened.
So we have brought together all of our marginalized, abused, or underprivileged women entrepreneurs through what we call our Angat Buhay Workshop for Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs. In the last couple of years, we have held these gatherings in different parts of the country to listen to what they need and to provide a safe space for them to undergo successful transformations. We bring in seasoned CEOs to teach them how to become successful in their businesses. We share stories and inspire each other to overcome all possible hurdles. We link them with markets and places where they can get a fair price for their works of art. There’s a lot of dancing, storytelling, and tears—lots of tears—but also a lot of smiles and hugs and triumphant declarations of resolve.
This confirms what academic studies have shown. To close the gender gap, at least four things should happen: first, make it safe and fair for women to do trade-related businesses; second, bring more women into the workforce and achieve gender parity in the workplace; third, make spaces for female-led enterprises; and fourth, facilitate equal access to technology. 
In least-developed countries, women are 31% less likely to use the Internet. That is why we are excited to say that we are partnering with an online shopping portal called Beebeelee, so that our Angat Buhay women entrepreneurs can sell their products online. By giving them better access to a wider consumer market through the use of technology, we hope their incomes will rise and their spheres of influence will grow.
You should see how excited they are to prepare their back-end processes before they use e-commerce: project cycle management, product and service development, widening their access to finance, and managing their internal financial processes. They are making sure they have all the necessary permits to operate and ensure the consistency of the quality of their products. They are learning how to write business plans and how to constantly adopt to an entrepreneurial mindset.
In the coming months, Beebeelee and our staff will visit their communities to do product shots of capiz shell products; indigenous woven cloths; bags; and ready-to-wear clothing; one-of-a-kind jewelry that speaks so much of Filipino pride; herbal medicine and delicious Filipino food; artisanal and plastic-free bath bars, among others.
Zarah Juan—I don’t know if you’ve heard of her—a world-class Filipino designer who just won an award in France as one of the “100 Most Influential Filipina in the World 2019” for her unique, Filipino products, just visited one of our Yakan women weavers in Lamitan, Basilan, one of the southernmost provinces of the Philippines. Her block heels of the Bagobo Tagabawa are getting compliments in France, the fashion capital of the world. We are hopeful that she will see the beautiful stories told in their weaves and, in return, share them everywhere.
It is this kind of collaborations that makes us most proud, because they show the nurturing nature of Filipinas. Milliner and designer Mich Dulce, whose contemporary hats and headpieces have been worn by icons like Lady Gaga and featured in magazine covers like that of Vogue France and Tatler UK, went with us to visit the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association last August. She showed them how to record and document their unique patterns so that they can pass it on to the next generation of weavers. Mich Dulce has been declared the milliner to watch now in the world of fashion because her designs use trademark techniques and re-interpretations of the way traditional textiles can be relevant and innovative.
As I said earlier, this propensity of women to share the road of their success with their sisters is a tangible force in the world of business and economics. It may be hard to quantify but its effects are palpable. This is how we create a sustainable, progressive, and empowering community—we bring women together and allow them to lift each other up with matchless excellence and generosity.
It is clear where all of these lead. Any nation with empowered women experience more spending on education, health, and nutrition. Societies that see an improvement in gender equality grow faster and are more inclusive. We see lower poverty, higher environmental maturity, and more inclusive international value chains. We cannot argue with the numbers: empowering women’s participation in the growth of the economy could add $28 trillion in global gross domestic product growth by 2025.
You have all come here with proposed solutions to the global gender gap and you have shared these extensively in the last three days. We must take all the learnings and spread them to the world. We must create doable timelines and clear accountabilities. As we look at the global vision from the macro view, we must always remember the joy that comes from the life of someone like Perla and her capiz shells or Jingle and her meaningful dolls. When we work together, everything that they went through—every drop of tear and every day of hardship—will hopefully disappear in the lives of other women around the globe.
So thank you so much for having me today and for listening to what I had to share. We, women, will not let anything stop us from giving a part of ourselves to our nation or to our generation when we are needed, no matter what or who tries to stop us.
These past two weeks, since I accepted the President’s challenge to lead the government’s efforts against illegal drugs [laughter, applause], it has been this strength and determination that I learned as a woman that has allowed me to persevere, in the face of innumerable obstacles and difficulties, to say the least.
While a lot of people were surprised that I accepted the post, I never—even for a moment—thought of turning my back on the opportunity to serve our country. After all, we women are truly made of sterner stuff than most people think. Don’t you think so? (Audience: “Yes!”)
So, thank you to everyone. Have a good day. Mabuhay po kayong lahat! [applause]