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Women's Political Role on Rise in Philippines
Photo by Angilee Shah

Women's Political Role on Rise in Philippines

But gains are too modest, says Prosperina Tapales, professor at the University of the Philippines.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

Prosperina D. Tapales, professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, has completed a study showing that her countrywomen are making strides in electoral politics. The women are initiating more female-oriented programs and doing well as leaders, Tapales explained Oct. 11 at a colloquium arranged by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Still, she said, women generally earn seats as politicians by having fathers and husbands in politics. The Philippines has a dynasty system that keeps other women from joining the electoral process.

"There are a lot of qualified women," Tapales said, "but they cannot enter because of the expense of politics and because of the importance of the [family] name."

Tapales conducted a study of three elections. She monitored how many women won seats as local leaders and surveyed the women to find out how they got elected and what it is like to be a female politician in the Philippines.

Remnants of Colonialism

"Filipinos spent 400 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood. That's how best to describe our colonization by Spain and America," said Tapales, referring to Spanish Catholicism and U.S.-imported mass media.

Before the Spanish arrived, Filipino women could own property and achieve status as medicine women and astrologers.

"But with the coming of the Spaniards and Catholicism, the Filipino women's role was relegated to that of church and home." The spirit of the native Filipina woman was changed, Tapales said.

At the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines declared independence from Spain. Spain lost the war and ceded its colonies, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, to America.

America introduced the public education system, a very important step for women. Americans also brought elections and political parties.

"The women for 400 years, within the convent walls metaphorically speaking, have remained in the private domain," said Tapales. Even as women entered the American-inherited school system and became professionals, they still shied away from the political process because it was in the public realm. Politics were seen as dirty, and, more importantly, women could not take positions higher than their husbands'.

With this cultural history in mind, Tapales in her PhD dissertation at Northern Illinois University looked at covert politics, or politics beyond the electoral process. The approach showed that women "are powerful even if they are not in the electoral process." Women have had success implementing policy by being on executive staffs, advising politicians, and advocating from within non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

UN Goals Not Met

The Beijing Declaration in 1995 at the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women encouraged greater female participation in politics. In February 2005, the UN reviewed women's progress. Tapales participated in this review and reported that, in the Philippines, despite an increase in the quality of female politicians, there was not a great enough increase in quantity. The UN's global target was a 30 percent rate of participation by women in government.

There have been two female presidents in the Philippines: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, serving currently, and Corazón Aquino, who came to power in 1986. Both were beneficiaries of unorthodox "People Power" revolutions in which a male president was deposed. Aquino’s claim to having been elected in 1986 sparked the first People Power upsurge. The Philippine Congress has had as many as 17 percent women delegates.

In her study, Tapales collected data from local elections every three years from 1992 to 2001. The numbers show that there was an increase in the proportion of women elected as local chief executives—mayors, governors, and captains of villages called barangays. For governors, the percentage of women elected steadily increased from 6.6 percent in 1992 to 19 percent in 2001. Municipal mayors saw a similar increase, with women's share increasing dramatically from 2.9 percent in 1992 to 13.5 percent in 2001. While these trends reflect an increased political role for women, Tapales pointed out that the Philippines has not yet reached the 30 percent U.N. target.

To reach this target, other countries, such as India and Pakistan, have adopted programs that set aside congressional or other leadership seats specifically for women.

Women Who Win

As part of her study, Tapales sent out questionnaires for female politicians. She learned that most successful female candidates had certain characteristics in common. They were often married and between 60 and 65 years of age, which means they had completed the task of raising their children. They had spent about five years in lesser elected posts. A few had been village heads, or barangay captains. Most were politically active before being elected as political campaigners or members of the media or NGOs. Most came from political families, their husbands or fathers also elected politicians.

The women considered several factors important in their elections: family support, a well-recognized family name, their personalities, and the support of parties or organizations. Tapales said that the strength of such "kinship politics" does not indicate that these women are ill-prepared or unqualified to be successful. Kinship moves women into power, said Tapales, but the women she interviewed—their husbands often echoing this sentiment—said that they should be judged by what they accomplish in office.

"The women who are in overt politics are really in the dynasties," Tapales says. "However, these women do things based on their own perceptions."

Tapales discovered that the increase in the number of women winning local elections was also a phenomenon related to term limits. Governors and mayors can serve three terms or nine years, after which they must step down for at least three years. Not infrequently a woman fills her husband's position on a temporary basis, between his nine-year stints.

These women, known as "breakers," step down when required, even though some would prefer not to. Some of the women Tapales interviewed said they would rather step down than cause trouble in the family. Breakers, Tapales said, account for much of the increase in percentages of women elected to local leadership positions in 1998 and 2001.

Female politicians who carry on the work of their husbands are also partly responsible for the increases. President Aquino, for example, carried on the legacy of her assassinated husband Benigno Aquino, Jr. Marides Fernando, mayor of Marikina City, took her leadership role after her husband, Bayani Fernando, reached his term limit; she has stayed in the position since 2001.

Grace Padaca, governor of Isabela since 2004, is one counterexample to the general profile of female local chief executives. Padaca, who walks on crutches because of childhood polio, won her seat without family connections.

Female Agenda

These female leaders, said Tapales, do not initially appear to have priorities specifically geared toward the well-being of Filipino women. They focus instead on what they see as the needs of their constituents in general, issues such as agriculture and employment. Tapales found that local chief executives expressed concern for women and families, particularly in creating child-friendly communities with adequate daycare facilities and nutrition. They established provincial offices for women and found funding for these types of projects.

On a national level, women made changes that benefited their female constituents. President Aquino issued the 1987 executive order called the Family Code, which eliminated gender bias in adultery cases and introduced annulment into a country that did not allow for civil divorces. A 1991 code created sectoral representation in local councils; special seats were to be created for a women's representative, workers' representative and other groups' representative. This code, said Tapales, was never implemented because Congress did not pass a law to fund such elections, nor did it provide for a date to hold the elections. In 1992 a bill was passed allowing women into the military academy and other male-dominated organizations. It also provided for women to establish credit and own land without the consent of a father or husband.

Quantity Is Important

With all of these accomplishments in the so-called female agenda, Tapales said that the general thought is that Filipina women are strong enough to move their agendas forward. They do not need affirmative action, many politicians -- even female politicians -- say.

The quality of women's political participation is important, says Tapales, but so is the quantity. Many people pushing for a female agenda are more effective than just a few. Tapales believes in affirmative action programs, quotas for elected politicians. She says that there is a need for better mechanisms than family connections for women to enter the political realm.

While her PhD project showed her the power of covert politics, Tapales says that it is time for women to take more elected positions. "Let's put more women in overt politics," she says, "because in overt politics you really can do more than be influential behind the scenes or be an advocate of NGOs."

A partial text of Tapales' lecture is available on the eScholarship Repository of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Center for Southeast Asian Studies