At Large

Another ‘first’ for a Filipino woman

It seems incredible that in this day and age, we should still be noting, indeed celebrating, another “first” by a woman. But that is exactly what’s called for in the achievement of Director Lina Sarmiento of the Philippine National Police. By receiving her second star, which catapults her to the equivalent of a major general in the military, Sarmiento has not just achieved a personal milestone but also scored “one for the girls”—“a victory for the women in the uniformed service,” as she said in her conferment speech.

What makes Sarmiento’s achievement all the sweeter for me personally is that Lina is a friend. We were both part of a contingent of women from the Philippines who visited Colombia as part of an exchange program to learn more about the peace process in both our countries. And as a law enforcer, Lina provided valuable insights to the continuing efforts to bring armed conflicts to a peaceful resolution.


As she tells it, Sarmiento began her career in law enforcement in an unusual place: in the crime laboratory. But through the years, she rose through the ranks by dint of hard work and achievement, by proving herself equal to whatever task was assigned her. She is now the head of the PNP Community Relations Group, serving as a bridge between the law enforcement community and the larger public, and lending a face to efforts of the police command to forge stronger and more cordial bonds with the public it serves. This is certainly a huge task, given increasing reports of police involved in criminality. Certainly, cleaning the ranks of “scalawags” as the police leadership calls them, should form part of Sarmiento’s responsibilities.

But to me, the full value of Sarmiento’s promotion lies in her inspiring example to the other women in the police force, who number some 11,000 but still constitute less than 10 percent of the total number of police nationwide. May her example and career path prove to be rewarding, in terms of encouraging more women to opt for a career in law enforcement, while showing them that one need not sacrifice family and home life to do good in the PNP. In this instance, congratulations are in order, too, to Lina’s husband Avelino and their four children.


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But while we bask in the reflected glow of Sarmiento’s achievement, we are troubled in turn by news from Rio, where a high-level meeting among government representatives, including some heads of state, has begun.

Known officially as the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development but more popularly as Rio+20, harking back to the Earth Summit held two decades ago in the same Brazilian capital, the official meeting is expected to vote on an “outcome document” whose details officials, delegates, international bodies and even some observers from nongovernment organizations, have been hammering out in the last few days.

But as one report says, the draft document, if approved without amendments, would end up “betraying” the world’s women. In her analysis, Zonibel Woods, an NGO observer at Rio+20, notes that “from the start of the negotiations, gender equality and women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, have continuously been challenged by a few governments.”

The result is wording in the document that, while reaffirming both the Cairo and Beijing agreements on the reproductive rights of women, “falls short by failing to recognize that reproductive rights are also critical to the achievement of sustainable development.”

Opposition to women’s human rights was concentrated among a few countries, notes Woods. “But even if reproductive rights had been reaffirmed, the lack of real commitment by the international community to eradicate poverty, address urgent environmental concerns, and chart a clear path for implementation of sustainable development, makes it difficult for women—and for the world—to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in this context.”

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Even more sobering is news that the maternal mortality rate (the number of women dying from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes for every 100,000 live births) in this country has increased from 162 in 2009, to 221 in 2011. This means that 12 women—up from the previous count of 11—die every day due to causes related to pregnancy and unsafe delivery.

I have no doubt that the rise in the number of Filipino mothers dying is related to their continuing lack of access to quality care not just during childbirth but also during pregnancy, and before pregnancy, when their choices as to the number and frequency of their pregnancies are not respected or enabled.

A few days ago, I was part of a panel on “Unintended Pregnancies” sponsored by Likhaan, a service and advocacy NGO on women’s reproductive health and rights. One of the speakers, Dr. Cory Raymundo of the Institute of Maternal and Child Health, cited studies showing that Filipino mothers do make plans for themselves and their children, including the desired number and frequency of their pregnancies. The trouble was, she pointed out, for one reason or another the women’s plans were not followed or ignored. A 2008 maternal health survey showed that as much as 60 percent of married women of reproductive age (13.8 million women) had had one unintended pregnancy during their childbearing years. Fully 1.6 million pregnancies in this country each year are “unintended,” noted Raymundo.

“If all births in this country were wanted,” she added, “the total fertility rate would drop to 2.4, close to replacement level.” But as it happens, for various reasons, Filipino women on average end up with one more “extra” child than they had planned or hoped for.

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TAGS: Child birth, Filipino Pride, Gender issues, Maternal death, Philippine National Police, PNP Community Relations Group, Rio+20
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