The Philippines: A country for women?

Natashya Gutierrez

The Philippines – what a great country to be a woman!

Earlier this week, newspapers heralded the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) which ranked the Philippines 8th out of 135 countries, representing more than 93% of the world’s population. Imagine that. We are the eighth country with the best gender equality in the world! We were the highest ranking Asian nation, far above the others in the region, and we are said to have closed 76.9% of the gap between men and women.

In fact, if I were to rely solely on the GGGI in deciding where to start my career as a fresh college graduate, the only countries worth moving to as a woman aside from the Philippines would be Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand and Denmark. These were the top seven on the list respectively, the only countries that ranked above the Philippines in the four key areas the report relied on: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

But why move? My homeland after all, bested all countries in the education and health categories. It finished an impressive 15th for economic participation, and 16th for political empowerment. Here, I can possibly be the third female president of the nation. I can conquer whatever industry I desire – media, business, law. I can even join the army.

Then why, as a young Filipina, do I still feel held back as a woman?

My first reaction to the news of the Philippines’ high index score wasn’t pride. It was confusion. I found it to be deeply ironic. How, I thought, could a country be so highly ranked in gender equality, when it still deprives its women of fundamental rights?

Ironic Reality

We are pro-women, celebrates the Philippines. It is hard for me to believe.

The controversial Reproductive Health (RH) bill – or more accurately, the absence of it – is currently the most blatant contradiction to our high index score. According to a Manila Bulletin article that quotes UN Population Fund (UNFPA) representative Ugochi Daniels, a lack of access to reproductive health information has led to Filipino women in the poorest quintile to have six children on average, two more than desired. 

The lack of information on sexuality has caused higher rates of HIV infections for the youth, and pregnancies in 10 percent of Filipino girls aged 15 to 19. These alarming statistics are forecast to be reduced if women are given access to contraceptives and reproductive health services. Yet our women are robbed of such simple resources at the expense of their youth, their health.

And one can argue, even at the expense of their happiness.

Did you know that a married woman in an abusive relationship is trapped by law to her husband? Earlier this year, after Malta finally passed a divorce bill, the Philippines became only one of two places worldwide where divorce is prohibited. The only other place that a wife is irreversibly bound to her husband? The Vatican. The legalization of divorce has been waiting for approval for years, but like the RH bill, is facing tough opposition from the Catholic Church. Married women in poverty, without money, do not have a way out from destructive relationships, because no law is in place to protect them from violence, infidelity or abandonment.

Indeed, the poor are the most affected by the government’s inadequacies. Earlier this week, I came across an Inquirer article reporting the rescue of twenty-seven female workers being sold for sexual services in Laguna. It relates to yet another issue that UNDFA’s Daniels raised as a concern about the Philippines – the trafficking of women

The GGGI has the Philippines sitting on the number one spot for educational attainment. But while the country offers equal opportunities for men and women, it is worth questioning the quality of education they actually receive and the resulting acquisition of skills – or lack thereof – that force women into dire measures.

I understand that there are women in other countries who fare much worse. But this is my country, the Philippines, that I am speaking of, and while it is enormous that we have narrowed the gap between genders in many aspects, the truth of the matter is, there is still much to be done. We cannot be complacent. Because quite simply, we have not done enough.

The important question is this: in rating the progress of gender equality in the Philippines, is an index score sufficient or are the actual circumstances of our nation’s women a more telling answer? 

Follow the reporter on Twitter: @natashya_g