If women comprise half of the population, an equitable situation in politics would be one where half of elective positions are occupied by women. But the actual figures in the Philippines show we’re a long way off from that equity. In 1998, only 16.2 percent of elected officials (including the president and vice president and Congress and local government officials, down to city and municipal levels) were women. In the succeeding elections, the figures showed little or no progress: 17.2 percent in 2001, 16.6 percent in 2004, 18.6 percent in 2007 and 18.4 percent in 2010.
These figures came from the Commission on Elections and were shared by Dr. LaRainne Sarmiento, one of my colleagues at the anthropology department in UP Diliman. LaRainne was one of the speakers at a lively roundtable discussion on “Gender and Politics” last Tuesday, organized by the Social Sciences Division of the National Academy of Science and Technology.
Besides LaRainne the other speakers were Prof. Josefa Francisco (Gigi to many), chair of the International Studies Department at Miriam College, and Alice Herrera, former city councilor and vice mayor of Quezon City. The panelists offered many first-hand experiences, Gigi bringing in experiences from women’s NGOs and the academe, Alice from being a city official herself and LaRainne having been a barangay chair herself, and directing a microfinancing project for women for the government in Quezon City.
The picture that came out of the discussions was mixed. The low number of elected women officials reflects the fact that very few women even bother to run for elective office. Yet, the Philippines ranks high in the World Economic Forum’s annual yearbook on gender equity, the highest in fact among developing countries. The yearbook uses economic, social and political indicators. For political empowerment, the World Economic Forum does note that we don’t fare too well with the number of women in elective positions, and in ministerial or Cabinet posts, but we did get more points in this area because we have had two women heads of state, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo, their terms lasting a total of 16 years, much more than many countries. (The United States for example, has never had a woman head of state.)
I can see some of you shaking your heads now and going, “But should we be proud of Gloria?” At the forum people did ask, are women better leaders? Are women less or more corrupt, with Janet Lim-Napoles’ name and the pork scams repeatedly coming up?
I’ll get back to the matter of corruption in a while, but let’s continue looking at the bigger picture of women in politics. We’ve seen women as a minority in government, at least in the executive branch. In many government offices though, women do occupy high positions, and the percentage is probably increasing. (We need an audit here, considering that the Magna Carta of Women does call for greater consciousness in filling up positions in all government agencies, including the police and Armed Forces.)
Gigi spoke on the rationale for getting more women into politics to reshape public policies. She warned against playing the numbers alone, because a woman winning an elective position might still lack a gender and human development perspective. Women are needed to push for more “women-friendly” public policies and this includes the electoral processes. There were some discussions about how much more difficult it is for women to vote, or even to register to vote, because many of them might not be able to leave young children at home. (I actually saw this when our college in UP hosted voter registration and I was startled by the number of women who had to bring their children along.)
These domestic responsibilities also discourage women from running for office. LaRainne talked about reactions from relatives and friends when she decided to run as barangay chair. They would ask her about how she would handle domestic responsibilities, as well as the rigors of public office: Could she go out to patrol the streets at night, for example? LaRainne retorted, and why not? In fact, seeing what the streets were like at night—men drinking for example—convinced her even more to think of how women can “take back” the night, meaning make the streets safe for women to come out.
Alice described how difficult it was to run for office, mainly raising the money for the campaign trail, including questionable donations. As a woman intent on bringing in reforms, she saw how the campaign itself, with so much wheeling and dealing, could corrupt the candidate. Just getting her political party to endorse her was another major achievement, since our political parties continue to be dominated by male traditional politicians (remember the abbreviation of trapo?) who cannot see women’s “winnability” beyond physical features and/or celebrity background.
Alice also talked about how culture can work against women candidates, observing that the campaign activities themselves are very “male,” using inuman (drinking) as an example. Apparently, to get votes you need to be able to drink. Women candidates face a no-win situation: If you don’t drink, then you lose chances to interact with male voters; but if you drink, people think you’re not fit for office because women shouldn’t drink.
Weak political parties
One very striking observation that kept coming up was how our weak party system works against women. Our political parties revolve around personalities and money, which breeds opportunism, politicians shifting from one party to another. Ideally, the parties should have clear platforms, offering voters concrete programs on how to bring about economic and social development, including responses to women’s needs. This is clearly not happening, so the political parties do not see women as important, either as candidates or voters.
During the open forum, political scientist Dr. Olive Caoili gave an important historical insight, reminding the audience that the Americans skewed our political system because they first granted voting rights only to the male elite—the poor, the uneducated, and women, were not allowed to vote. The first political parties had no women as members and by the time women could participate in the political process, they had to face a formidable system of male patronage.
Caoili’s observation helps us to understand, too, why women-politicians (and political brokers like Napoles) can be so corrupt, needing to beat men at their own game.
Women are catching up but more needs to be done to speed up the process. Gigi spoke on the need to do more research into women who are in politics: What made them run for office, what have their experiences been. We need more success stories of women who did make a difference and—I am thinking more as an educator—we need to have those stories told in schools. Just look at our textbooks, and you will find very little inclusion of women leaders. The recent Ramon Magsaysay awardees remind us too that there is no lack of women leaders in our neighboring countries, but their stories, too, still need to be told to wider audiences.
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