Philippine President’s Clash With Women in Power

One of the overlooked results of the 2016 election to the Philippine presidency of Rodrigo Duterte is that he has sought to drive women from power, not only in politics but across the spectrum including in the press with his attempts to take down the news site Rappler and its award-winning chief executive officer, Maria Ressa.

Apart from the victims of Duterte’s war on drugs or Oplan tokhang (which originally meant to knock on doors and plead/persuade drug users to change their ways but ended up with people getting shot in their doorways), it was clear early on in his presidency that he was also targeting women in powerful positions critical of him or his government.

This, on top of denigrating women in general and inciting violence against them through his misogynist remarks passed on as jokes. He has “joked” that soldiers ought to be allowed to shoot women combatants in their vaginas because without vaginas women are useless. He has “joked” that it is okay rape women combatants. He has “joked” that condom use is hindi masarap (not enjoyable). He has “joked” that he wouldn’t mind being indicted by the international criminal court as long as he could have conjugal visits from more than one woman.

Duterte’s allies maintain he is a friend to women, that he pioneered health and welfare programs as mayor of Davao City and promoted gender-free programs in the national government.

Nonetheless the first to suffer from Duterte’s brand of authoritarianism was the neophyte senator and widely respected former justice secretary under the Aquino government, Leila de Lima. Duterte accused De Lima of drug trafficking, heading a ring of traffickers imprisoned in the country’s main prison in Muntinlupa, south of Manila, and having also received drug money for her senatorial campaign. Several prisoners testified against her during a congressional hearing initiated by the president’s allies on the case, testimonies which have not been confirmed.

Before this, the senator, as head of the Senate justice and human rights committee, was already conducting public hearings on alleged extrajudicial killings under the president’s war on drugs. The conflict between De Lima and Duterte traces back to 2009 when the latter was still mayor of Davao City. As chair of the Commission on Human Rights, De Lima initiated an investigation into the mayor’s involvement in the Davao death squads.

In February this year, the Senate Ethics Committee dropped charges against De Lima, and the Office of the Ombudsman dismissed cases against her of financing terrorism and violation of the anti-graft law. De Lima, however, is still detained in the Philippine National Police’s Camp Crame.

De Lima has been named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and her imprisonment has been condemned by a long list of international rights groups. Her imprisonment is in clear contrast to treatment of a long list of males in the legislature who have continued in their posts despite clear evidence of crimes up to rape, coup attempts and murder.

The Office of the Ombudsman head Conchita Carpio Morales was also threatened with impeachment last year by the president for “conspiring to oust me.” Morales wanted to investigate the alleged unexplained wealth of the president.

Currently Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the first female Supreme Court Chief Justice in the Philippines, is under threat of impeachment on dubious charges in a House of Representatives not only ruled by Duterte’s political allies but with the opposition largely neutered.

He has largely cut Vice President Leni Robredo out of the government decision-making process, ordering her to cease attending cabinet meetings and has pushed for a recount of the 2016 election that she won narrowly by defeating Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. He clearly wants to replace Robredo with Marcos, a son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was driven from power and exiled in 1986.

When his popular environmental secretary, Gina Lopez, grew too powerful for the influential mining industry, somehow the Commission on Appointments refused to confirm her. Duterte said there was nothing he could do.

He has attempted to put the popular news portal Rappler out of business, engineering a decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke Rappler’s corporate registration and put its CEO, Maria Ressa, and chief editor Glenda Gloria out of business.

These moves to unseat mostly critical women have been further eroding the hard-fought rights of Filipino women to be recognized as having political agency and equal status in running affairs of the state. The Philippines has had two female presidents in the post-Marcos era and in the entire of history of the country—Presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The ascendance of these women to the highest position of the land has not necessarily translated into the broadening of Filipino women’s participation in governance, realization of women’s rights, and much less in eliminating—or even weakening—patriarchal values.

Corazon Aquino’s government was also marked by human rights violations, particularly against peasants, as she championed elite democracy and the interests of her own class, the landed elite. Macapagal Arroyo’s government is now synonymous with corruption, including alleged corruption that went up to the highest ranks in the military which she had allowed to ensure their loyalty.

Women’s rights advocates have rallied behind De Lima and Sereno, although the two public officials may not always see their situations and struggle as part of the bigger women’s movement. Indeed, as the situation in the Philippines shows, women in government and power have a long way to go in overturning patriarchal values, and in championing the rights of all women.