MANILA, Philippines - Women’s rights lawyer Rowena Guanzon grew up in a world where boys were treated differently from girls. A world, she described, where females were not seen as equals of males.
But unlike most households, Guanzon’s family was different. Her mother Elvira was a seasoned politician in Negros Occidental when she was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I saw, through her, that women can also do it,” Guanzon told The STAR. “My mother is really strong about women’s rights equality.”
Guanzon was appointed by President Corazon Aquino as the officer-in-charge of Cadiz City in 1986 and was later elected to serve a term until 1992.
Guanzon, 56, earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University in 1995, 11 years after she graduated at the top 10 of her class at the University of the Philippines College of Law.
She taught local government law and public officers and election law at the UP College of Law, and also served as commissioner of the Commission on Audit until December.
But her work is mostly devoted to her advocacy in pushing for women’s rights.
In addition to being a trial lawyer and author of various works, Guanzon worked on the drafting of the Senate Substitute Bill on the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004 and the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.
As a consultant in the Senate, she became presiding officer of the technical working group for the controversial Reproductive Health Law. She is also writing books on the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, the Local Government Code and the Auditing Code of the Philippines.
For her notable contribution in the protection of women’s rights, the UP Alumni Association is set to bestow on her next month the distinguished alumna award in the field of gender equality and women empowerment, following the nominations from Junice Melgar of Likhaan Inc. and Aurora de Dios of Women and Gender Institute.
“She is one a few reliable women lawyers whose practice is dedicated to defending women’s rights against discrimination, inequality and violence,” De Dios wrote in nominating Guanzon.
“With a focused commitment to defend the rights of women in the justice system, she has succeeded in demonstrating that it is not enough to pass laws on women… but it is even more important to test them in court given all the challenges and barriers that women have to confront to get justice,” De Dios added.
Guanzon said receiving the award is an affirmation of her work, expressing hope that it would inspire other people to join them in their advocacy.
Engendering the judiciary
In 2003, Guanzon became the co-project leader of the Gender Justice Awards, a project that aims to recognize judges who render gender-sensitive decisions on cases of violence against women.
“Many judges and prosecutors continue to perpetuate the misconceptions and biases against women in their decisions, which is largely a product of a patriarchal judicial system and Philippine society,” Guanzon said in a paper about the awards.
“Cases are lost because of the inability of judges and prosecutors to understand the situation of women, their lack of gender awareness and lack of appreciation of unequal relations of power between men and women within relations,” she added.
Among those who were cited was retired Cagayan de Oro regional trial court judge Anthony Santos for his novel decision on marital rape in 2002.
More than 12 years after that court decision, the Supreme Court this week promulgated the decision that affirmed the existence of marital rape.
“Husbands are once again reminded that marriage is not a license to forcibly rape their wives. A husband does not own his wife’s body by reason of marriage,” read the SC decision.
“By marrying, she does not divest herself of the human right to an exclusive autonomy over her own body and thus, she can lawfully opt to give or withhold her consent to marital coitus,” it added.
Guanzon lauded the decision, saying “it’s very important because now that there’s jurisprudence, more women will be encouraged to file complaints.”
“Before Republic Act 8353 (Anti-Rape Law), wives had to suffer in silence because it was taboo to sue your husband… Now, there is a law and Supreme Court decision that says no, he does not have the right and if he forces himself on his wife, he commits rape,” she added.
Guanzon said victims of rape can also use Republic Act 9262, or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children law (VAWC), to get protection and get support while the criminal case is pending.
Like marital law, the anti-VAWC law was also upheld as not unconstitutional by the SC in a ruling last year. Guanzon was the lead counsel for the victim in that case. She also wrote a primer on the anti-VAWC law.
Despite the favorable rulings on women’s rights issues in the country, Guanzon said there are challenges that still have to be addressed, especially in the judiciary.
For instance, she said there are judges who still fail to implement the anti-VAWC law with liberality and “ensure that the women and their children are protected.”
She cited cases in which judges issue temporary stay away orders, but fail to include an order to provide support for the victim.
“A lot of women, because they don’t have support, are forced to return to the husband for the sake of the children,” she said. “The intent and spirit of the law is that women and children should have relief that are immediate to ensure safety and protection.”
While Guanzon also supports the equality in terms of the number of male and female judges, she noted that the quality of decisions, regardless of the gender of the judge, is more important.
“More than just the numbers, the present and future judges need to reach a high competence level in learning both international and domestic jurisprudence on gender equality, including violence against women,” she added.
She cited the need for faster trial, urging Congress to create more trial courts and the Judicial and Bar Council to fill up vacancies in local courts.
Barangay officials should also be educated on their mandate to issue protection orders in cases of abuses.
Guanzon also stressed the need to comply with the Magna Carta for Women, saying it “should be the blueprint for state policy to eradicate all laws that discriminate women.”
She cited a provision on the Revised Penal Code that provides greater punishment for women who commit adultery than men who commit concubinage. She recommended the repeal of the law.
“It should not be a crime, it should be civil action. If people are unfaithful to their spouses, they should separate,” she said.
Guanzon also supports divorce, especially since the Philippines is the only country aside from Vatican City that does not have such a law.
“All the other countries recognize that there are marriages that cannot work. And therefore you should give people another chance. The law should give them a remedy,” she said.
She said divorce is part of the answer to violence against women, as a lot of victims cannot get out of marriages because they cannot separate the property. “They cannot have a closure, they cannot move on. They cannot have an opportunity for another relationship.”
Guanzon also raised the need for more women’s rights lawyers in addition to the vibrant women’s rights organizations in the country.
“Women who are victims of rape, sexual harassment and VAW, they need lawyers on their side. Not just lawyers they can pay, but lawyers on their side who understand the problem and can empathize with them,” she said.