A reality I have come to accept is the painfully slow pace at which social change usually takes place — and the backslides and regressions that often occur after a seemingly game-changing reform or breakthrough.
Take, for example, the inadequacy and unevenness of our progress in terms of gender equality and women’s rights. In high school, when I first wrote a paper about rape culture for English class, I couldn’t wrap my head around the mentality of people who blamed women for their own sexual assault. I was baffled as to why it had taken so long for people to challenge this outdated, illogical way of thinking.
But eight years after I first researched for that paper, even as the Philippines is labeled as a progressive country for women, rape culture persists. When the general public’s immediate reaction to an alleged rape-slay earlier this year was to blame the victim for drinking with men, it was made clear that we still have not done enough to eradicate rape culture and misogyny.
For as long as people justify rape and refuse to hold perpetrators accountable, the Philippines is not a safe place for women; nor are we a beacon of gender equality.
In 2020, the Philippines ranked 16th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. This means we’ve been doing well in closing the gender gap when it comes to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Although the proportion of female representation in the Cabinet and Congress fell between 2017 and 2019, we were still the only country in Asia to be included in the top 20 of the gender gap index. But despite the apparent parity, Filipino women still lack the opportunities and choices needed to live empowered and meaningful lives. Progress has been slow and immensely uneven.
Women and girls’ pre-existing vulnerabilities are amplified these days, due to the effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Studies show that there is a significant risk of the pandemic slowing and even reversing the progress of women and girls around the world.
A 2020 study by Plan International shows that COVID-19 exacerbates inequality and poverty for low-income Filipino girls and young women. COVID-19 brings about many issues — the inability to continue their education, food insecurity, income loss, and greater tensions at home which could lead to more gender-based violence.
Even before the pandemic, reproductive health care was inaccessible for many Filipino women. The Reproductive Health Law has yet to be fully and properly implemented in the entire country, and its gaps hinder poor, young, and disadvantaged women from accessing contraceptives.
COVID-19 and its effects on our healthcare system make it even more difficult for women to access family planning, maternal health and newborn health services. As a result of this, unintended pregnancies in 2020 may reach 2.56 million, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The Commission on Population and Development reported that young adolescent pregnancies are at an all-time high — in 2019, at least 2,411 girls aged 10 to 14 gave birth, a threefold increase from the previous year. A total of 62,510 Filipino adolescents became young mothers in 2019. This is estimated to rise even more in 2020, due to the pandemic.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, we need to acknowledge the ways in which women at the margins are put at an even greater disadvantage during this pandemic and recession. Particularly concerning is the rise of teenage pregnancies. If we want to avoid the reversal of the gains we’ve achieved in the past years, women’s issues need to be put at the forefront of our efforts to recover from the pandemic.
Gender parity and representation in politics are clearly not enough for us to claim victory. There’s so much to be done — we need to dismantle harmful cultural mindsets and remove barriers to basic services so that more Filipino women are given full autonomy on their bodies and their lives. We have a long, long way to go.
Pia Rodrigo is the youngest member of the policy advocacy team of Action for Economic Reforms. She is a political science graduate of Ateneo de Manila University, with interests in women’s health and development.