Push for bills on women's welfare missing in Duterte's final SONA

Despite being the longest State of the Nation Address (SONA) since 1986, President Rodrigo Duterte's speech on Monday, July 26, failed to push for the passage of bills pertaining to gender issues and the welfare of women and children.

Duterte did, however, lament how some Filipina migrant workers are sexually abused in the Middle East.

"Masakit sa akin na ang Pilipina pumunta doon para magtrabaho because sexual abuse in some tribes in the Middle East have this notion that if you are a slave or you are a paid person working for them, sexual abuse becomes part of the territory. Kaya diyan ako pumuputok, at nakikita ko 'yung mga pamilya na sira," Duterte said in his final SONA on Monday.

(It is painful for me that Filipinas go there to work because sexual abuse in some tribes in the Middle East have this notion that if you are a slave or you are a paid person working for them, sexual abuse becomes part of the territory. That's what angers me, and I see families broken over it.)

In May 2021, Duterte had spoken with Saudi Arabia Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman to discuss reforms in the kafala system – a sponsorship scheme where the employer, as sponsor of a foreign worker, monitors and restricts the worker's movement.

The women and children sector in the Philippines faces a number of issues, such as discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community, lack of the right to safe abortion, child marriage in Muslim communities, and the online sexual exploitation of children.

While lawmakers have made progress in passing bills to address these issues, Duterte was not one to actively advocate for them. The President had called abuse against women "unacceptable" in his first SONA in 2016, though he never included measures that would protect them among his SONA priority bills.

Women in the Philippines also struggle to have full autonomy over their bodies. At least three women die each day from complications from unsafe abortion, according to data from the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network (PINSAN).

"In President Duterte's SONA speech, the right to safe and legal abortion was glaringly absent. It is unfortunate that the passage of a law decriminalizing abortion that would have a far-reaching impact on the rights of women and persons with diverse gender identities was absent in his speech," lawyer Clara Rita Padilla, spokesperson for PINSAN, said after the President's speech on Monday.

Duterte, notorious for his sexist statements, did not appear to make any blatantly misogynist remarks in his final SONA, though he flirted with the lady operator of the teleprompter.

In 2019, gender and governance expert Socorro Reyes had said the Duterte administration created a dangerous environment for women.

According to Reyes, women have never been more subject to "shaming, humiliation, harassment, with immunity [and] impunity by a sitting president than now."

A recent US State Department report flagged how the Philippines failed to convict officials complicit in human trafficking. Online child abuse also remains a rampant problem in the country.

Meanwhile, the age of sexual consent in the Philippines is still at 12 years old – one of the lowest in the world, though lawmakers are pushing to raise it to 16. They are also pushing to abolish child marriage, which remains legal for Muslim Filipinos. – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.