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Opinion

Championing gender

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Saskia De Lang - The Philippine Star

The pandemic pushed back gender parity by a generation, according to the World Economic Forum. It has had a more negative impact on women than men across ASEAN-5, with women losing jobs at higher rates, notes the Asian Development Bank Institute, despite measures such as facilitating  access to loans for women entrepreneurs in the Philippines. Worldwide, there is much work for gender actors now and in the many years ahead. And what about the Philippines?

At #17 on the Gender Gap Index, the Philippines outperforms many European and Asian countries. This ranking reflects the empowerment of women in politics and in government administration. But it hides the gaping inequality among women in the Philippines, due to poverty, geography or education. Women from urban and affluent communities have more access to higher education, health services and top jobs, compared to women from rural or suburban communities. They manage access to birth control with less stigma, while their less fortunate sisters are struggling in a country where attitudes about family planning are heavily influenced by the Church and the Imams.

In the only country worldwide that has not recognized divorce (except in Muslim Mindanao), women endure being stuck in unhappy and abusive marriages, with limited solutions like divorce abroad (only if married to a foreigner) and annulment, a lengthy and expensive process not available to many. Women in agriculture are particularly burdened, combining heavy physical work with household chores and caretaking while having little access to capital and ownership. Female OFWs, far away from their family networks, are most vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation, particularly as domestic workers.

Young people hardly have access to contraceptives or sexual education. With the lockdowns this translated into a surge of teenage pregnancies that are barring adolescent mothers from completing their education and dashing their career hopes. A spike in the lucrative online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) has been reported, following the drop in employment and in household revenues. Last but not least, in post-conflict BARMM, women are waiting for recognition of their role during the struggle, side-by-side with men, and war widows and orphans fear being left without assistance.

Despite the inequalities, there is no shortage of gender champions women can rely on for solidarity and advocacy. This country has a long history of social and political organizations and hosts vocal gender empowerment and equality NGO’s, whether they partner with the administration, the Philippine Commission for Women or with advocacy networks in the country and worldwide.

A recent victory is the signing of the bill prohibiting Child, Early and Forced Marriages (CEFM), initiated by Congress Deputy Speaker Herrera-Sy. Thus, the Philippines walks the talk of its UN commitments, particularly following the CEFM resolution tabled by the Netherlands at the last UN Human Rights Council. However, as for all legislation, the proof is in the pudding. The Philippine and the Bangsamoro Commissions for Women and civil society have a role in monitoring its implementation. The bill raising the age of sexual consent from 12 to 16 still awaits approval: it is urgently needed to counter OSEC and would serve the joint action of the Philippines and its Western allies against this crime.

Last year, I accepted the position of European Union Gender Champion, with the trust and support of my colleague European ambassadors in Manila. My responsibility was to make visible and give impetus to EU’s commitment and global obligation to gender equality and women’s rights, which are some of its core values.

In the Philippine context, I endeavored to offer support to local gender actors and a platform that would amplify their voices and I linked them with likeminded abroad who serve as inspiration. To be effective, the EU Gender Champion needs to adapt the messaging to the demands and the timing of local organizations. For example, on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, you have to be in sync with local actors and trust their assessment of the sensitivities surrounding the issue. It became easier to talk about teen pregnancies when President Duterte publicly tasked the administration to address the situation.

2021 still being marked by COVID-19, most activities of the EU Gender Champion were online. With my team and local partners, we addressed a variety of themes, including teenage pregnancies, mental health of women in post-conflict situations, gender-based violence, women in agriculture, UN Women’s WeEmpower Principles, human trafficking and OSEC, women in international relations and gender-responsive journalism. Despite now handing over the baton of the EU Gender Champion, I continue to espouse these advocacies in my work and personal capacity.

A great shout out to all local gender actors who I met over the past year. With your professionalism and motivation you are Gender Champions in your own right and I learned more from you than vice versa. Please make sure that the Gender agenda will be addressed throughout the electoral campaign. I am indebted to my European colleagues who joined in several actions, thus displaying a true #TeamEurope spirit. I benefitted from the recent publication of the EU Gender Country Level Indicative Plan, a reference for EU and members states’ funding.

I wish the very best to my successor, Finnish ambassador Juha Pyykkö, a male colleague: your volunteering signifies that gender is everybody’s concern. Finland tops the Gender Gap Index and has many lessons to share.

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Saskia de Lang is Ambassador of the Netherlands to the Philippines and EU Gender Champion 2021.

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