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If the Philippines is among the most gender-equal countries in the world, why do we still need feminism?

By Aissa Ereñeta

Every so often a headline will declare that Philippines is among the top 10 most gender-equal countries in the world. And inevitably someone will link to the article on Facebook and tag me with some variation of O, anong masasabi mo?

I maintain that these rankings say more about other countries than they do about us. We’re not in a particularly good place, it’s just really bad in other parts of the world. Girls in the Philippines can go to school without being shot. Women who violate sexual mores are slut-shamed, but at least they aren’t stoned to death. Hooray for women’s rights!

On the surface, we look pretty progressive. We’ve had two women presidents and we have very prominent women in politics and business. And perhaps you can argue that there is gender equality in the upper strata of society. Women who are educated and affluent can push back against oppressive gender norms. They have more options and more opportunities. Women who are professionally successful and financially independent have a greater capacity to negotiate for equitable marriages, and they have the means to leave if it doesn’t work out. They don’t need the government to avail of family planning services; they can control their own fertility. The same is not true for the vast majority of women.

The Global Gender Index is an imperfect measurement. It doesn’t describe levels of development; it assesses how well countries divide resources and opportunities amongst male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources. Emmeline L. Verzosa, Executive Director of PCW, acknowledges that in the Philippines, “Challenges such as poverty, violence, reproductive health and job-skills mismatch, among others, still need to be hurdled.”

And the GGI says nothing about social norms, the effects of which are not always obvious and are more difficult to quantify.

Social norms are rules or expectations of behavior within a specific cultural or social group and offer social standards of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, governing what is (and is not) acceptable in our interactions with others. Social norms communicate ideas about social approval, or perceptions about what is normal or desirable in a given community.

We may be better off than other countries, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have serious problems. Eventually would like to delve deeper into specific issues, but for now, a broad swath of examples:

FLEMMS 2013 reasons not attending school

Proportion of Out of School Children and Youth (OOSCY) by Reason for not Attending School/Sex, Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS) 2013, Philippine Statistics Authority

In the Philippines, girls generally score higher than boys in in all key education outcome indicators. Girls score higher in standardized tests. More boys drop out compared to girls. However, it’s interesting to compare the reasons why boys and girls drop out of school. Note the difference in results by sex, particularly for Marriage and Housekeeping. 22.9% girls compared to 1.%7 boys drop out of school due to marriage. 13.7% girls compared to 1.8% boys drop out because of housekeeping. Social norms are part of the reason why better education outcomes for girls has not translated into greater economic empowerment for women.

There are more women than men in the informal economy, where they receive low wages, work under poor conditions, and lack adequate social protection from the government.

“In our culture, the role of a woman to be the ilaw ng tahanan (light of the household) reflects how she can be sacrificial to fulfill her multiple burdens and settle for low and unstable earnings just to ensure the welfare of the family. Labor segmentation is also found in the informal economy, as women are mostly home workers or unpaid family workers while men are informal wage workers or employers.” — Philippine Commission on Women

Reconciliation of family and work remains an exclusively female concern. This increases the discrimination of women in the labor market.

“In the Philippines, women provide 84% of the total household time allocated to child care. Gendered social norms contribute to women having greater responsibility for, and time commitments to, domestic and unpaid care work, and this has been slow to change despite women’s increased participation in, and time allocated to, paid work. Relatively high fertility rates continue to raise the demand for women’s unpaid labor, especially given the low provision of child care services.” — Gender Equality in the Labor Market in the Philippines, Asian Development Bank, 2013

Reproductive health remains a highly contentious topic in the Philippines. After a 14-year struggle, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10354) was signed into law on December 21, 2012.  The RH Law guarantees universal access to contraception, fertility control, sexual education, and maternal care. However, while the law has not yet been fully enforced and implemented, many Filipinos still lack access to quality reproductive health services. This has serious consequences, especially for women.

  • For every 100,000 live births in 2011, 221 mothers died during pregnancy and childbirth or shortly after childbirth. (Family Health Survey 2011, National Statistics Office)
  • 6 out of 10 married women, 15 to 49 years old, were at risk of conceiving a child with an elevated risk of mortality in 2006. These women were considered at risk either because they were impregnated at an early age (less than 18 years) or too old (age 35 or older) or have more than 3 previous births at an unacceptably short birth interval (less than 24 months). (Family Planning Survey 2006, Philippine Statistics Authority)
  • Only 48.9 percent of women of child-bearing age were using a family planning method in 2011. For women who using modern methods, the 2011 estimate was 36.9 percent (around 37 for every 100 women) from the previous 34.0 percent in 2008. (Family Health Survey 2011, National Statistics Office)
  • Almost a third of women aged 15 to 44 choose to terminate their pregnancy, and because abortion is illegal in this country, most of these procedures are performed unsafely. (Guttmacher Institute, 2005) Women seeking post-abortion care, even for incomplete spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), are treated badly in public hospitals. In some cases they are even denied care. (IRIN, 21 April 2009)

Even though the Philippines has more women in government compared to other countries, we’re still a long way from equal representation. Women make up half of the population, but only 25% of the Senate (6 women senators out of 24) and 27% of the House of Representatives (79 women representatives out of 289). We have many women leaders who have fought for gender equality and gender justice, but we also have examples of women who are even more anti-women than some of their male counterparts.

Gender-based violence is prevalent. The 2013 National Demographic Survey found that:

  • 20% of women age 15-49 has experienced physical violence since age 15, and 6% experienced physical violence within the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • 6% of women age 15-49 reported having ever experienced sexual violence.
  • 25% of ever-married women age 15-49 reported ever having experience emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence from their husbands, and 7% reported having experienced physical or sexual violence in the past 12 months.
  • Among ever-married women who experienced physical an/or sexual spousal violence in the 12 months before the survey, 65% reported experiencing some type of injury.
  • Only 30% of women who have experience any type of physical or sexual sought assistance in response to the physical or sexual violence they experienced.
  • 4% of women age 15-49 reported experiencing violence during pregnancy.

Even more troubling is the finding that many Filipino women have internalized the idea that they deserve to be beaten by their husbands if they fail to meet expectations as wives. The UP Population Institute found that more married women than men agreed that wife beating is justifiable in certain situations.

  • Among married individuals, 36.8% of women and 29% of men said wife beating is justifiable.
  • Among unmarried individuals, 39.6% of women and 43.3% men of said wife beating is justifiable.
  • Younger and unmarried men had a more accepting view of wife beating.
  • The given situations for wife beating were: (1) if the wife hits the husband; (2)if she is a nagger;  (3) if she fails to take care of the children; (4) if she refuses to have sex with him; (5) if she talks back at him; and (6) if she burns the food.

These findings can be largely attributed to unequal power relations between men and women. Violence is used by men to control women and retain power.

Rape is one of the most prevalent forms of gender-based violence in the Philippines. In 2013, the Philippine National Police recorded 7,409 rape incidents, or 1 every 72 minutes. If a woman is liberated, flirtatious, or dresses in a revealing or suggestive manner, there is a belief that she invited sexual assault and is hence blamed for it. According to the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR), rape incidents are likely under-reported; anecdotal evidence suggests that there are numerous victims who do not go to the authorities. Talking about sexual abuse is taboo. On top of the shame and blame, victims are discouraged from pursuing cases due to a slow justice system, high lawyers’ fees, and travel costs to and from the court.

O, anong masasabi mo?

One example that to me really illustrates how the Philippines is weirdly progressive and backwards at the same time is Ma. Lourdes Sereno, who was appointed Chief Justice in 2013. She became the second youngest and the first female to head the judiciary. I celebrated this as a feminist victory; I imagined she’d be the Filipina equivalent of the Notorious RBG. But my hopes were quickly dashed when she said in an interview, “My husband has power over me. In the Sereno home, my husband is my Chief Justice.” Really?! You are one of the most powerful women in the country and you’re not even co-ruler of your own domicile? What hope is there for the rest of us?

The bottom line is, our social norms still privilege men. Women, regardless of how accomplished they are, are still expected to subordinate themselves to men and be wives and mothers first before anything else. Women who deviate from this script face social sanctions. #ThisIsWhyWeNeedFeminism.



  1. Kim

    A huge chunk of the article discusses women’s roles in the home, and the tone of it is a little… sanctimonious if not a little imbalanced. Okay, I KNOW this lady isn’t saying that being a homemaker is an anti-feminist career choice. I’m just saying it sounded a little bit like that, which is fair, since this is a blog entry that’s meant to paint a rather general picture. I guess all I’m trying to do here is expound?

    – Fair, just, and equal are NOT synonymous with identical. I’m not opposed to gender roles. Yeah, I think children are better off having no father than having no mother. But of course that doesn’t mean single fathers can’t raise perfectly awesome human beings. It just means that women and men are different, and there are some things that come more naturally to either, and those qualities are advantageous to specific functions, like child-rearing.

    – What I AM opposed to is using those gender roles and norms to oppress anyone or take away opportunities that may or may not subscribe to those norms, i.e. just because I can breastfeed doesn’t mean you should pay me less as a CEO. And just because widowers can’t breastfeed doesn’t mean you take away their children.

    – Now this is where it gets tricky. If women have evolved to hear sounds at higher frequencies and therefore are better at rushing to a crying baby’s side, then men have the clear and simple advantage of having more time to sleep, work, and hunt. We can’t force men to waddle with a fetus in their bellies, hear better, or lactate, or have softer skin, so motherhood, by default, becomes a detriment to less traditional options.

    So yeah, of COURSE that’s gonna affect the opportunities women have in general. How do we then balance the benefits of gender differences with equal opportunity???

    THAT, to me, is the million dollar question.

    *Very curious to see what other people think.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kim. We agree on so many things!

      You’re absolutely right about equal not being synonymous with identical. Equality is not about making everyone the same. It’s about leveling the playing field so that they can have the same opportunities, and allowing them to choose. It also means not treating them as lesser human beings because one doesn’t agree with their choice. That is the equality that I am advocating for.

      That ADB study I cited found that “In the Philippines, women provide 84% of the total household time allocated to child care. Gendered social norms contribute to women having greater responsibility for, and time commitments to, domestic and unpaid care work.”

      All I’m saying is that it would be beneficial if we could get that number closer to 50%. I’m not proposing that we do away with gender roles altogether. I’m advocating for a more equitable distribution of work inside and outside the home. Sometimes, and perhaps a lot of the time, 50-50 is not possible. That’s ok, I’m not saying that it has to be split right down the middle. It depends on the situation of the family, sometimes one spouse has to make more sacrifices than the other. But can we not assume that by default it is the woman who should make those sacrifices? It should be a choice, not an obligation. As Melinda Gates said, “We need to call work what it is — work — whether you do it at home or whether you do it out in the labor force, and then give men and women options to choose what they want to do.”

      For those choices to be possible, lots of things need to change. Laws, institutions, support systems — I’m all for that! But also culture needs to change, social norms about what men and women can/should do.

      For example, in other countries we’ve seen the rise of the stay-at-home dad. In some families, the woman earns more and the spouses may decide that it makes more sense for the man to stay home. These men chose to be stay-at-home dads, but they have to deal with discrimination and disparaging remarks about being emasculated. This is one example of how gender norms can hurt both men and women. Why should a guy be made to feel like less of a man for taking a greater role in caring for his children? Why do we have to define manhood and womanhood so narrowly?

      I also agree with you that fathers can raise perfectly awesome human beings. In my circle of friends, there are many feminist dads who take a very active role in caring for their children and performing domestic tasks. I also have a friend who is a single dad and who has raised two of the smartest, most well-adjusted, and overall happiest kids I’ve ever met.

      True, men don’t have uteruses and can’t breastfeed (again, I’m not saying they have to in the name of “equality” because obviously that is ridiculous), but that doesn’t prevent the man from being an active partner of the woman to make sure she has the support she needs throughout her pregnancy, and in all the months and years that follow.

      Women do have some advantages as caregivers as you point out. But not enough that one can argue that women are better caregivers, full stop. I’m not fully convinced by biological arguments. I don’t deny that biology plays a role, but I think that apart from nature we also need to consider nurture. Women are socialized to be more caring and nurturing because that’s their perceived primary role. But men can learn to provide that same level of caring and nurturing. It may not come naturally to them and it will take work, but we already have examples of men who can do it. There can be more of them if we teach men how and socialize them to embrace this role. This is the advocacy of organizations like MenCare, and in the Philippines there are similar efforts by NGOs and even the government though DSWD’s ERPAT program. We have a long way to go, but it’s a start!

      • Thank you so much for starting and participating in the discourse!

        “Women are socialized to be more caring and nurturing because that’s their perceived primary role. But men can learn to provide that same level of caring and nurturing.”

        I have to say that I’m less convinced that is true, but just the fact that there exist already some examples, then I’m willing to consider that you may be right! I have to do my own research as well, so I can formulate a solid opinion. So thanks again for giving me something to think about!

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