The Philippines is considered as the most gender equal nation in Asia, but is it really so? Some rights activists and experts dispute the findings of international organizations and observers.
“In terms of our neighbors here in Southeast Asia or even in the world, when it comes to women in leadership positions, the Philippines is doing very well”, Senator Grace Poe said recently. The 45-year-old became the 6th female politician in the Philippines' 24- member Senate earlier this year.
International surveys back up the Senator's views. For the past two years, the World Economic Forum has named the Philippines the most gender equal nation in Asia as well as one of only two developing economies to make its top ten equality list. Its findings are in part based on statistics that show Filipino women hold the majority of jobs in the legislative, top official and managerial occupational category. The World Bank reported similar findings in 2010.
This data does not surprise some observes who say gender equality dates back hundreds of years into Filipino history.
“In pre-colonial times, women could inherit property and played very powerful roles in society”, says Carolyn Sobritchea, who lectures in anthropology at the University of the Philippines. But with the introduction of Catholicism in the 16th century, women were forced to accept Western patriarchal norms. “Everything changed when Spain colonized us,” she told DW.
However, Sobritchea explains that during the United States' occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, women were allowed to receive higher education and regained some of the ground lost during the Spanish rule. But it wasn't until independence in 1946 that Filipino women regained their traditional roles as equals within the household. And that, Sobritchea says, is why many female leaders today were born into their careers.
“We find that many or most of our female political leaders come from political families like former presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo," she said, adding that "they inherited the family name from their fathers.”
Sobritchea does not dispute the findings of the World Economic Forum or other international observers, but has difficulty agreeing that her nation is as gender equal as these surveys might lead readers to believe. She says the indicators these organizations use only tell half the story.
“Some very serious women's issues that should figure into gender equality standards are not there,” Sobritchea mentioned.
The Philippines government's recent statistics paint a bleaker picture. They say one in ten Filipino women have had a forced sexual encounter and 37 percent of women who were once married have experienced domestic violence. Furthermore, a 2013 US State Department report criticized the Philippines for not doing enough to stop the human trafficking of women. And some local NGOs say that poor women in rural parts of the country have no choice but to take informal jobs without any legal protection.
“They don't have maternity leave or the ability to do collective bargaining with management,” Elizabeth Angsioco, head of the advocacy group, the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, told DW. "I don't think the international reports are able to capture the real situation of women in the country."
And it's just not the international community who gets it wrong, Angsioco claims. She points out that because most of the nation's female politicians come from the privileged class, they cannot relate to the needs of poor women from countryside communities known as barangays.
“We've tried to develop community leaders in the barangays. We have to have more women who understand women's' issues in politics,” she said.
Some young Filipino women do see opportunities to get into leadership positions, but these don't come easy: “I don't come from a well known family, so it will be hard for me,” 20-year old Jeaniine Grace Torres, a development studies student at Miriam College in Manila, told DW. “In the Philippines, a family's name matters.”
Torres says she and some of her classmates are skeptical of their nation's "alleged" gender equality. They agree that much work needs to be done, but it's a challenge she hopes to take on someday firsthand.
“I want to be a good example that women can make it, that women can serve, that women can do something for the betterment of the country, and that women can make a difference.”