Helena Z. Benitez, educator, feminist, diplomat
It is difficult to believe that Tita Helen is no longer with us. Somehow, we always felt Tita Helen would always be around, ready to give a piece of timely advice, or advance an opinion one did not ordinarily think of, or share a point of view that was novel and still untested.
Tita Helen, with those durable Benitez genes she inherited from her great and venerable parents, Mama B and Conrado Benitez, seemed indestructible. Fortunately, unlike most ordinary mortals whose earthly existence leave not a trace behind, Tita Helen left an enduring legacy. And what a treasure trove of a legacy she has left us.
I slowly came to know what it was to be a Filipina when I enrolled at the Philippine Women’s University for my interrupted high school education during the Japanese occupation in l942. Every morning before arriving for classes at PWU, we had to bow to the Japanese sentry at the gate. An alien element had been introduced to our otherwise uneventful daily lives—enemy occupation and, with it, the uncertainty of war, armed conflict and violence, to disturb our young, unfolding lives.
But inside our classrooms in PWU, despite the war, the emphasis on good manners and right conduct prevailed. It was given priority in our classes. Gentleness, kindness, good manners, we were admonished, were important parts of our Filipino heritage.
Sen. Santanina Rasul earlier credited Tita Helen for introducing education to young Muslim women. This is a unique and historic achievement of PWU. During my time, Mama B and Tita Helen exerted much effort to get the young girls coming from Muslim “buena familias” of Mindanao to study at PWU in faraway Manila where, the families were assured, their daughters would be safe and secure.
For Tita Helen, culture was a way of life. It included how we ate, how we cooked our food (she was a great believer in the gospel of home economics). Above all, culture was about the values of tolerance, understanding, helping each other—in other words, the spirit of “bayanihan.” Tita Helen believed that Filipino culture in all its richness and diversity should be better known, and she insisted on including its study in the Filipina’s education.
I remember being in the Brussels World Fair in l958 where the Bayanihan Dance Company performed for the very first time before an international audience. Our rural folk dances were placed in a more dramatic and theatrical context, worthy of a Broadway show, interspersed with climaxes and drama. Thanks to our talented Bayanihan dancers, Filipino dance was recognized around the world. Tita Helen’s involvement in the Bayanihan Dance Company opened doors for the Philippines in the international world of theater and entertainment.
Tita Helen was the first Filipina to be elected to chair the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This was during the period when Asian women were hardly known outside their own countries. The leading feminists at the United Nations were mostly from Europe where the feminist movement originated. But the Philippines already had its own community of strong women led by Helena Benitez.
Tita Helen became the inspiration of other Filipinas who were later elected to chair the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women—Ambassador Rosario Manalo and myself in l974. Like an older sister and “ate,” Tita Helen guided and inspired younger generations of Filipinas to fight for their rights and dignity as women. The struggle continues until today when much human trafficking and violence against women continue to be a blight on our society. Despite her star quality and her outstanding leadership talents, Tita Helen knew what it was to be a team player.
I personally experienced this at the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi. The Philippines had a crucial role in that international conference. Ambassador Manalo chaired the Preparatory Committee which determined the paragraphs to be included in the final document of the conference. Tita Helen, already well-known in UN circles, was head of the Philippine delegation. I was the secretary-general of the conference who had to ensure that the final document would be adopted by consensus. Way past the hour of adjournment, the conference was still seriously divided on the interpretation of several paragraphs.
My instructions from my boss—the secretary-general of the UN—was that the conference should adopt its final document by consensus. Paeng Salas, then head of the UN Population Fund, came to Nairobi to give support to his countrywomen. I remember going to Tita Helen at the crucial moment, pleading with her to talk to key delegations like the Russians, the Americans, the Palestinians, and the Iranians to save the conference, teetering on the brink of failure. Without losing her cool, Tita Helen responded to my frantic appeal. With everyone’s help, the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies to the Year 2000 was finally adopted by consensus by the UN community, thanks to the collaboration of the Philippine and Soviet delegations, something of a big achievement at the height of the Cold War. It was once again thanks to the bayanihan spirit fostered by Tita Helen.
To the Benitez family, thank you for sharing Tita Helen’s gifts and achievements with us. We shall continue to pray for the repose of her powerful soul, and may her legacy as a stateswoman, educator, feminist, advocate for culture, and nationalist endure for many years to come and continue to inspire our younger generations of men and women.
Former senator Leticia Ramos Shahani delivered this eulogy at the Senate Session Hall last July 19.