Towards equal gender rights
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - September 15, 2020 - 12:00am

The House committee on women and gender equality (CWGE) has been deliberating on several bills by Zoom. One bill that has eaten up a lot of time and will cause reverie until it is passed, is House Bill No. 95. The bill, introduced by the committee chair, Rep. Maria Lourdes Acosta-Alba, notes that the 1987 Philippine Constitution “is rooted on equality – one of the main principles the Filipino people value most.” However, the bill’s explanatory note says many Filipinos, especially members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning or Queer) community, still suffer from discrimination, be it in school, at the workplace, or even at home, and reports from the UNDP, USAID and Human Rights Watch document the Philippines as having one of the worst records of violence against the LGBTQ community. The bill prohibits and penalizes discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.

Women and gender equality, children and the environment are among the 40 bills Representative Malou, as she is popularly called, has filed and co-principally sponsored in the 18th Congress. Among them are bills providing for a comprehensive hazardous and radioactive wastes management, amending articles of the Family Code of the Philippines, defining electronic protection of indigenous peoples and violence against women and their children, and a national policy in preventing adolescent pregnancies. So far none of these have become law, but “we are doing our best to advocate for their passage,” says the legislator.

During her first term as representative of the first district of Bukidnon in the 17th Congress, her bill, HB No. 1160, was passed into RA 1124, converting the Northern Bukidnon Community College in the municipality of Manolo Fortich, province of Bukidnon, into a state college. This law, Representative Malou says, “is very close to my heart because its journey started 22 years ago, in 1998, with the filing of HB No. 3621 during the 11th Congress by my brother, then Representative Nereus Acosta, but which only was passed into law during my term.”

At its fifth Zoom hearing two weeks ago, the committee on women and gender equality approved the creation of a national museum for women “to celebrate women whose various individual and collective actions significantly advanced the Filipino women’s fight against inequality, discrimination and deprivation.”

Commenting on this bill, reproductive and women’s rights advocate Florence Macagba Tadiar remarked that she had an opportunity to visit the women’s museums in Saigon and Hanoi in the 1960s, and she suggested to women leaders here to work for one too. “But it has taken Congresswoman Malou to initiate this.”

At the same committee’s fifth hearing, the discussion on the bill penalizing discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ took several hours. I watched the Zoom meeting as church pastors seriously expressed the view that the bill violates God’s creation of only the male and female genders, and no other. Representative Geraldine Roman, the first transgender member of Congress, patiently told the prelates to limit themselves to pointing to provisions of the bill that needed changing, not on the bill’s violation of their church’s teachings.

Representative Malou said the bills prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression (SOGIE) are still being heard. “Our proposal is to listen to all stakeholders so we can take note of their inputs and apply these when (her)  committee consolidates the bills to form a substitute bill which will be deliberated on by the House of Representatives as a whole.”

Two of Acosta’s colleagues fighting for equality and anti-discrimination are Reps. Roman of Bataan who is Acosta’s vice-chair at the CWGE, and Rep. Yedda Romualdez of Leyte, chair of the committee on the welfare of children of which Acosta is vice-chair. Yedda is vice-chair of Acosta’s CWGE. It’s like pingpong, but working for the same goal.

Of their male colleagues, Acosta cites having a good working relationship with  Rep. Manuel Zubiri of the 3rd District of Bukidnon. Aside from being co-champions on measures like teen pregnancy prevention and increasing the age of statutory rape, they collaborate on projects like delivering basic services and other initiatives for their constituents. They also belong to the same Bukidnon Paglaum Party.

Not everyone in Congress is gender-conscious though. Says Acosta: “We are all products of, more or less, the same gender socialization. But we at the committee on women are working towards a gender-conscious legislature. We had a SOGIE workshop and gender-reform legislation workshop for the committee members, we have reactivated the GAD Focal Point System at the House. Before the lockdown, we were supposed to have a similar gender-reform legislation workshop for the bill drafters.”

Malou comes from a family of public servants. Her mother, Socorro “Nanay” Coring, served as mayor of Manolo Fortich, and was a three-term representative of Bukidnon’s first district starting when Congress was restored in 1987. Her brother Nereos also served for three terms, from 1998 to 2007. Her father, called Tatay Juan, is an internationally-awarded scientist who developed new strains of various fruits that are inexpensive and resilient.

Malou has BS and master’s degrees in sociology from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, respectively.

Like most legislators, Malou has been grounded in her province by the coronavirus pandemic. “I am still here in Bukidnon, from Day One of lockdown until now.” But the lockdown has its blessings. She has been maximizing this period to go around her district. “My district initiated the ZONE AVENGERS (Accelerating Volunteerism and Engagement in Emergency Responses and Surveillance) by capacitating volunteers and purok officials in our collective fight against COVID. We launched the initiative at the basic level of our community, the purok, because our frontline in fighting COVID is at that level – very manageable, there’s a certain degree of closeness and easier to launch information campaigns and monitoring, too.”

“With the help of Zoom, we still do our work in Congress in the same pre-pandemic procedure. We still meet regularly. We still have consultations. As a matter of fact, participation in committee hearings and plenary proceedings have been made easier as there is no need for personal appearances. The biggest challenge though is connectivity as not all parts of the country, particularly in my district, have fast and stable internet connection.”

Will the millennials be gender-conscious? “I am hoping they will be. We have to create an enabling environment where everyone can express themselves freely, everyone enjoying the same rights and freedoms. We have to set the legal framework for this – be gender equal, the SOGIE Equality Law, equal access to education and employment and others. Anti-discrimination should be seen and practiced in our institutions, media, schools, religious beliefs, the church and in our families. All of these institutions play a significant role in creating a discrimination-free society.”

Malou says her husband, Joeman Alba, a banker, “is very supportive of my work and other initiatives that go with my being part of the legislature. Because I have to be in Manila most days of the week, he takes care of our three kids. At a very young age we instill in them respect for others, recognize diversity and appreciate each other’s individuality I guess those are the core values for them to be gender-conscious.”

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