Our RH struggles and strategies

Pia Cayetano
'The journey still continues for us. A case is pending questioning the constitutionality of the RH law.'

(Editor’s Note: Sen Pia Cayetano received the Rising Star Award at the Women Deliver 2013, a global conference on women’s health and rights held from May 28 to 30 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Cayetano, principal sponsor of the Reproductive Health law, delivered this presentation about her experience of pushing for the measure. Melinda Gates, co-chairperson of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, headlined the conference.

Women Deliver is the largest global event of the decade to focus on the health and empowerment of girls and women. In the conference, the enactment of the RH law was cited as one of the achievements in advancing contraceptive access and improving maternal health.)

Sen Pia Cayetano I’m going to talk about the struggles and the strategies that we used to pass the Reproductive Health bill.

Let me start by saying that when I took on the challenge, I actually wasn’t 100% sure that we would make it. It was equally as stressful and full of surprises along the way. 

Quick facts:

– In the Philippines, 15 mothers die everyday (and this fact was highly questioned almost daily).
– Our maternal mortality rate increased from 162 to 221 per 100,000 live births.

Why is there a need for the Reproductive Health Law? The real reason is to institutionalize the right and the access to reproductive health. As I was defending the bill in Congress, we already passed the budget that would support reproductive health but that was only because we had a supportive President that was elected that year.

So in the last 5 Congresses and the last 4 Presidents, we did not have a consistent reproductive health program so it was my job was to ensure that what the President wanted to do now, what we had wanted to do would stand the test of time and it took 14 years and 5 Congresses.

What happened during the time that the past president did not have a reproductive health policy basically because she was a Catholic and was adhering to the Catholic doctrine is that local governments came up with their own policies and passed local ordinances and these ordinances included banning and discouraging the use of contraceptives, requiring pharmacies to ask for prescription for the use of condoms and making it embarrassing because they will require the pharmacies to keep a registry and a log of every buyer’s purchase.

That actually happened in my own district. Thankfully, there were many empowered women who rallied against it but these are the kind of things that happen when you don’t have a law thus the journey of the Reproductive Health law.

Our obstacles

First of all, the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country and the Catholic hierarchy strongly opposed it from the start and continues to do so today. Surveys show that Filipinos, mostly Catholics, are fully supportive of reproductive health but it is the hierarchy that opposes it and you will see the picture of the Church, when we had our last elections, they listed the names of the legislators who voted for reproductive health including my brother and they’re called Team Death. 

In the homilies, my name was mentioned regularly in the list of people going to hell. Thankfully, I stopped going to Catholic Church and would not have to hear it myself but my friends will tell me about it. 

The Philippines is still male-dominated and so is Congress like many countries. In the Lower House, only 21% are women and in the Senate, there are 24 members and only 3 of us are women. This is very interesting. I want to share with you some of the anti-women statements I had to deal with on a daily basis.

These are men saying this, “I am anti-RH because what surprises me is in the rural areas, without the assistance of doctors, women give birth. Hardly anyone would die. I do not know why they die in hospitals now.” The same person said, “More men die going out to sea or into the fields to earn a living than women dying giving birth to a child.” So I stand there patiently because I am a marathoner and I know the end is near.

Another statement. “There are no names, no faces to 11 maternal deaths a day.” So I was asked to produce these names otherwise I would not get the support. I produced names. I produced birth certificates, still no support.

The term “safe, satisfying sex.” This comes from ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) and this was highly debated and was in the headlines of our papers the following day. The men in the Senate said this is not necessary because, “It does not sound nice. We shouldn’t put those things in the law.” Another male stood up and said, “Sex is always safe and satisfying. Why do we need to say that?” So I stood there and did my yoga.

FELLOW ADVOCATE. Sen Pia Cayetano meets with Melinda Gates in the Women Deliver 2013 conference. She posted this photo on her Instagram account with the caption, "Her passion and commitment to women is admirable."

‘Being anti-RH is being anti-woman’

As a lawyer, I decided this will be like going through another bar exam and I had nothing else planned except to meticulously study the bill over and over again till I was blue in the face and dreamt about it and thought about it wherever I was and my staff was very prepared as well. People always asked me, this was televised many days, they would ask me how I stood there patiently and still smile. I said, “Well I’m an endurance athlete. I can run for 3 hours, I can bike for 6 hours, what’s another 5 hours everyday of trying to save a life?”

So I stood there for many days for almost 3 years and as a mother, I made a conscious decision to share my story. I lost my 3rd child and eventually adopted a baby. So when I had to deal with 3 male senators who said they are against contraceptives because their wives lost a child. I shared my story. 

I lost a child, too and many women lose children not having been on contraceptives or even before contraceptives were invented. One senator said his wife lost a child because she used Diane and it turned out that Diane had not even been invented when his wife lost a child. I shared my story even though it was not always pleasant but it was something I felt needed to be told. 

As a woman’s advocate, I shared other women’s stories and did not hesitate to express my emotions about how difficult it is for them, for me, to be a woman many times and to sit in these kinds of debates. And in the end, I made a strong statement that being anti-RH is being anti-woman.

Strategies to victory

We had an overarching framework, alignment of political forces, community-based engagement, media as a catalyzing mechanism and a deeper understanding of the separation of Church and state.

Alignment of political forces. This is Sen Miriam [Defensor Santiago]. She’s going to the International Criminal Court and I will be losing a staunch partner and ally. In the beginning, it was just two of us. It took a while for the last female member of Congress to declare that she was pro-RH so towards the end, we had full force women who were pro-RH in the Senate.

It required that our President was very supportive. He never wavered in his support and he was threatened to be excommunicated in the beginning and they stopped with that threat because he did not budge. And we had very strong proponents in the Lower House who had been fighting for this measure for many years and civil society, I cannot say enough about civil society. Many of them are here. 

They carry the torch for decades on reproductive health. They were on the streets, rallying in Congress. They will divide themselves, be in the Lower House in the morning, at the Senate in the afternoon and that’s like 3 hours away with Manila traffic. They were at the same time rallying and attending to the needs of the women in the community.

For the first time, political forces were aligned. Academe, students, we kinda got our act together. Academe started making statements, having their own presscons, giving papers on the need for Reproductive Health. Health professionals joined in. I had by my side the two former Secretaries of Health who provided not just data but strong moral persuasion. Imagine them being there almost every day and providing me with much needed moral support.

And media. I used both traditional and social media. On traditional media, I did the circuit of TV shows on news and even on noontime, talk shows that were on the lighter side but help people understand. There was so much misinformation being spread, blatant lies and twisting the truth of what the intention of the bill was so I had to really go out of my way to keep on talking about it and explaining what it was all about. The news had more interest. Thankfully, a lot of the columnists started becoming more understanding of what the issues were. Generally, there was a lot of coverage on the reproductive health progress.

Social media, what a perfect time for another venue to talk about reproductive health. This is my blog, it’s called My Daily Race. I blogged about reproductive health and I would tweet it every time someone would ask. I would refer them to my blog. I am most active on Twitter and it has been extremely exciting for me to use that as a medium.

And a deeper understanding that separation of Church and state as a constitutional mandate is required. Up to this day, I believe it will be a challenge because many legislators at the end of the voting, prayed the rosary, prayed the Our Father, the Apostles’ Creed and say I am anti-RH. There is a lack of understanding on the need to separate your personal and moral views from what you need to do as a legislator to represent the needs of the entire nation.

MORE WORK. Sen Pia Cayetano says more work needs to be done with pending cases against the RH law, and the implementation to be carried through. Screenshot of Cayetano's presentation

Journey continues

They said the bill will never become law. They said I will never get enough signatures for my committee report. They said that it will never be calendared on the Senate floor, that I will never be able to answer all the questions during interpellations, that the period of interpellation will never end. I felt that at some point.

 And when it did, they said I will never recognize the RH bill because they will amend it so much that it will not look like a RH bill. I defended it and it still looks like a reproductive health bill. It is a law now. 

But in the end, before Christmas, I got this all done and I had two days left before one more senator had to make their amendments and he did not do it on the day we initially agreed upon but in the Lower House, I went there and witnessed the momentous moment, it had been pending for 14 years. We didn’t even know what the count was. We only knew the final count 113-104, less than 10 votes to pass this in the Lower House on December 12.

And so the burden was on me all weekend. It was the worst weekend of my life. I was counting votes everyday. Bishops were calling senators to change their votes and on December 17, we called it to a vote and we won, 13-8. 

I thought on December 18, we would be able to reconcile the different versions of the Senate and the House but then it stalled again. I was not allowed to choose my bicameral conference committee members. They kept changing it. And I was like, “Why did I expect this to be easy? This is the RH bill. This is women’s rights. It should be hard every step of the way.” 

So I was left with one day before Christmas, specifically 5 hours to get it done. And we did get it done on the last hour. We got it passed just before Christmas and we now have a reproductive health law.

The journey still continues for us. There is much work to be done. A case is pending with the Supreme Court to question the constitutionality and of course, we have the implementation and a lot of challenges on hand. But I can say we have gone beyond the first step. – Rappler.com



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