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Women legislators in action

Rare is the time when government officials and politicians cross interchamber borders to heap praise on each other. But during the celebration of International Women’s Day (which is officially marked tomorrow, March 8) at the House of Representatives, congresswomen led the adoption of HR 53 commending Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman “for her strong commitment to public service and selfless dedication to alleviate the plight of disaster-stricken Filipinos.”

Leadership at the House was temporarily given over to its women members in observance of IWD, with Rep. Gina de Venecia of the fourth district of Pangasinan, head of the 79-strong women legislators’ caucus, taking on the mantle of Speaker.

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One of De Venecia’s official acts was to file a resolution, cosponsored by Rep. Maria Leonor Robredo (widow of the late interior secretary Jess Robredo) of the third district of Camarines Sur, commending Soliman “for the way she rallies [her department] personnel to respond to the people’s needs promptly, serve compassionately and provide relief tirelessly during calamity, even if it means being present in a disaster site in the country 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The women lawmakers say they witnessed first-hand Soliman’s dedication to duty when they visited Tacloban City for a relief mission last December.

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Soon after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” struck last November, government agencies, including the Department of Social Welfare and Development, were criticized as “missing in action.” This, even as the DSWD had to cope with the lack of personnel on the ground as many of its staff and officials in Leyte, Samar and other areas hit by Yolanda were either dead, missing or traumatized and looking after their own families.

Some DSWD officials told me recently that to speed up relief and rehabilitation efforts, personnel from most other regions were encouraged to volunteer and brought to the typhoon-hit areas. A senior DSWD official recounted how, for three straight nights soon after Yolanda struck, he slept sitting up against crates of supplies in a warehouse where relief materials were stored.

The recent commendation from the House must come as a huge honor and vindication not just for Secretary Soliman but for all members of the hardworking DSWD family.

Meanwhile, De Venecia announced that 23 bills have been filed with the House committee on women and gender equality on concerns ranging from human trafficking and cybercrimes to human rights and the welfare of women, children and the LGBT community. De Venecia herself has filed bills on the establishment of regional centers for children suffering from autism and on the prevention of youth suicide.

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Earlier this week, another woman legislator, Sen. Pia Cayetano, spoke on the floor of the Senate in support of SB 27 that would require all packages of tobacco products to bear pictures illustrating the ill effects of smoking. The measure is also known as “the graphic health warning” bill.

At present, cigarette packs carry written warnings on the health risks caused by smoking and tobacco use. But, while “many tobacco users know that tobacco is harmful,” said Cayetano, “studies show that most are

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unaware of its true risks.”

Banking on the adage that “a picture paints a thousand words,” Cayetano believes that using picture-based health warnings would be far more effective.

At least 56 countries already require picture warnings, the senator said, while others are still crafting similar policies. In the Middle East, for instance, the Gulf Cooperation Council Standardization Organization has adopted picture warnings for tobacco products in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen.

And the Philippines? While cigarette packages made here but sold in neighboring countries like Singapore and Thailand include

picture-based health warnings (as required by their laws), the ones sold here bear only text warnings, noted Cayetano. And packages made in Singapore and sold here likewise do not carry picture warnings.

Cayetano said the picture warnings would be accompanied by text warnings that explain in simple terms what the picture is all about.

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During a committee hearing last January, Cayetano remarked, four tobacco companies—Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp., British American Tobacco Philippines, Japan Tobacco International, and Mighty Corporation—expressed their support for the measure.

While the measure could conceivably cut into the sales of cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products, affecting the government’s tax collections in turn, it could also result in significant savings, thinning the ranks of smokers, or at least reducing the number of new smokers. This in turn would drastically reduce health-related expenses, including those for treatment, long-term care and lost productivity.

According to Cayetano, the Department of Health estimates that for every cigarette smoked, the smoker loses at least five minutes of his/her life, while endangering the life of nonsmokers “whose only fault is that they did not forget to breathe.” Indeed, second-hand smoke even poses a greater health risk because the nicotine tends to mix with other noxious substances in the atmosphere.

The senator reminded her colleagues that this is the third Congress in which she has sponsored a “graphic warning” bill. And given the rising tide among the world’s countries and governments reducing (if not banning) smoking and its ill effects, it really is about time the Philippines jumped on the bandwagon and put the interests of the majority above that of a few cigarette manufacturers and marketers.

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TAGS: column, Dinky Soliman, health, international women’s day, leadership, Rina Jimenez-David, senator pia cayetano, smoking, typhoon `Yolanda, women legislators
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