Coco farmers and women | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

Coco farmers and women

/ 01:30 AM November 28, 2014

By all measures, action is indeed overdue on the coconut levy funds. After all, almost 30 years have passed since the Edsa Revolt and the issue over who should have control over the taxes levied on coconut farmers was contested and brought to court.

And yet, as P-Noy confessed to the delegation of 71 coconut farmers who had marched all the way to Manila from Davao to dramatize their plight, while the case remains pending with the Supreme Court, the government cannot yet touch a centavo of the disputed amount of P71 billion. This, even if the high court has already ruled that the money rightfully belongs to the farmers.

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During his meeting with the farmers in Malacañang, P-Noy said he is in favor of preparing a “plan” on the disbursement of the funds once the Supreme Court rules with finality on the issue. This includes certifying as urgent a bill prioritizing use of the money for the farmers. And in the meantime, the government could jump-start the process by releasing some P1.38 billion from the Philippine Coconut Authority for “long-term” programs to benefit the farmers.

I caught a glimpse of the farmers as they were leaving the premises of the House of Representatives last Tuesday, presumably from a meeting with legislators (they held a dialogue with Speaker Sonny Belmonte). Wearing green T-shirts with the slogan “Nakaw na coco levy, ibalik sa niyugan (Return the stolen coco levy to coconut farmers),” they walked out in a long line, looking weary and worn-out (and who wouldn’t given the distance they had walked?). And as I peered at their faces, they didn’t look so much angry or aggrieved as resigned and yet also resolute.

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But I had to wonder why the farmers had to embark on their long march at all. Did P-Noy and the rest of his officials (who flanked him as they faced the farmers across a table in Malacañang) hope that by having the dispute “parked” at the Supreme Court they could take their time before making contingency plans?

P-Noy could very well be “on the side” of the farmers, but what they need at this time is action and support, not just promises and even more studies. They may not have any cash or goodies to take home with them, but the farmers, it is hoped, could at least return to their families with renewed belief that the injustice done them all these many years could and would be righted as soon as feasible.

* * *

Orange was the color of the day last Tuesday, as the world observes an ongoing international campaign to end all forms of violence against women.

Nobody told me about the “orange alert,” so Miyen Verzosa, executive director of the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW), fished out a scarf in a shade of orange from her bag and urged me to wear it for our photo op.

The occasion was a forum with women legislators on “Moving Forward with Women’s Rights,” looking back at the truly remarkable series of laws promoting women’s rights that had been enacted in the past two decades, and looking forward to the enactment of more laws addressing gender inequality.

Verzosa reminded the women legislators present of the remaining challenges they face: the domination of men in Congress, with only seven of 50 House committees chaired by women; the highly politicized legislative process and the influence of dominant social values on the work of legislation; the lack of resources of lobbying groups of women and civil society; and the contradictions that need to be reconciled between different local and national laws and declarations on human rights.

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In a video address, Sen. Pia Cayetano urged her sisters in the legislature to “learn to speak the language” of their male colleagues while also “teaching them to understand our own language and positions on issues.” Before embarking on any campaign to address social issues through law, she added, one must “establish your foundation,” making a close acquaintance with the Constitution, existing laws, treaties, and international best practices. Cayetano also cited a piece of advice given her by her “seatmate,” the recently deceased former senator Juan Flavier, who cautioned her to “watch and observe… There is a time for anything, you need to wait for political forces to be aligned.”

* * *

But Rep. Linabelle Ruth Villarica, who chairs the House committee on women and gender equality, noted that the basic challenge facing women legislators was that “gender equality is not mainstreamed in our politics, our work and our processes.”

For instance, the committee on women is too often bypassed when it comes to referral of laws that have to do with women’s concerns, such as that on infidelity (as a basis for legal separation), rape and sexual harassment. With women senators, she said, her committee is preparing plans for the “fast-tracking” of bills on women.

But even with legislation that, on the surface, is not about gender, Villarica said there is still need to incorporate the “women’s point of view,” such as the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. In fact, she has taken the unprecedented step of writing to the House leadership to include the women’s committee in the discussion of the BBL, “since all other issues are being discussed anyway.”

For Rep. Luz Ilagan of the party-list group Gabriela, the improving status of Filipino women matters little as long as economic inequality exists. The rising prices of basic commodities, she said, impose a heavier burden on women who will have to somehow scrape up the funds for food and other necessities.

May-i Fabros, who sits in the board of the PCW representing young women, brought the forum to a close by expressing hope that in the future, “no woman would feel she cannot speak up or speak out” in her own defense, and in assertion of her own rights.

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