On March 8, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte marked International Women’s Day with a statement encouraging Filipinos to celebrate “the indispensable role of women in our nation’s progress.”
He urged support for those who “seek to fight for and acknowledge women as equal partners of men.”
Duterte added: “While there is much to be done to completely free women from this bondage of inequality, we can nonetheless proudly claim that concrete, sustainable, and inclusive actions have been taken by our government to create an environment where women’s rights are respected and their contributions to society are recognized.”
He also said every Filipina should be empowered to break both the barriers that had kept them from reaching their potential and “the backwards mindset that fueled a culture of gender oppression and inequality.”
To be sure, the Philippine government has taken steps to foster women’s rights and earned kudos from some for gender equity. However, Duterte’s words are misleading – because own actions and rhetoric as head of state have undermined some of that progress.
His behavior with women has long courted controversy. He’s repeatedly made jokes about rape, called female police and army officers “bitches," and kissed a married woman on the lips in public during a 2018 visit to South Korea. He also confessed to molesting a family maid as a teenager.
In January, while dismissing speculation his daughter might succeed him, Duterte said women are unfit to be president. In 2018, he said that the next anti-corruption ombudsman should not be a woman, adding some jobs are not for women.
As a result, hundreds of demonstrators marked International Women’s Day this week by marching to protest what Reuters called Duterte’s “alleged rights abuses against women.”
According to the Philippines constitution, the state “recognizes the role of women in nation-building, and shall ensure the fundamental equality before the law of women and men.”
In addition, the country’s so-called 2009 Magna Carta of Women (Republic Act No. 9710) “affirms the role of women in nation-building and ensures the substantive equality of women and men.” It further recognizes “that equality of men and women entails the abolition of the unequal structures and practices that perpetuate discrimination and inequality.”
The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranked the Philippines 16 out of 153 countries measured. While that is high, it marked an eight-spot drop from the previous year.
The report said the Philippines gender gap remained the smallest in Asia, having made significant advances in closing the economic participation, educational attainment, health, and survival gaps.
However, the WEF said the political empowerment gap in the Philippines had widened, partially because the number of women serving in Duterte’s cabinet dropped from 25% in 2017 to 10% in 2019.
In its own assessment of the Philippines, Freedom House, a human rights group partially funded by the U.S. government, cited the WEF, noting that “the political realm remains male-dominated, with women occupying only 23 percent of national and local elective positions.”
The New York-based group said that women made up 28% of the Philippines’ legislature after the 2019 election and that “few women are elected without following in the footsteps of a male relative.”
In comparison, women hold approximately 27.4% of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 24 out of 50 seats in the U.S. Senate.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency, part of the Japanese government, said women in the Philippines live in a situation characterized by “sharp contradictions.”
It said that Filipino women “may be considered as one of the most advanced” in the areas of academic, professional, and political participation, but they also face domestic violence, economic disadvantages, discrimination at the workplace, exploitation as migrant workers, and sexual exploitation. A number of laws protect women’s rights in the Philippines, though most precede Duterte’s tenure as president.
Also in 2019, Duterte signed an anti-sexual harassment law that bans catcalls, unwanted contact, sexist slurs, and statements/gestures in offices, schools, and streets about women’s physical appearance. Violators face fines and prison sentences.
The law hasn’t spared Duterte from criticism. The leftist Gabriela Women's Party, which advocates for women’s issues, said Duterte “represents the single most brazen violator of the law's intent with his staple macho-fascist remarks.” Others allege Duterte signed the legislation to show “he believes himself above the law.”
The University of California’s 21st Century Global Dynamics faculty research group said that Duterte had labeled women’s groups “gaga” (“stupid women”). They called the comment a “direct assault on such organizations” and said Duterte “takes every opportunity to belittle the efforts of political women.”
The researchers accused Duterte of showing “a special propensity to persecute female political leaders,” while also targeting prominent female journalists.
They also said sexual violence targeting indigenous women in conflict zones has been met with a muted response from Philippine authorities.