Fast Facts: Helena Zoila Benitez is 100 years old

Michael Bueza
Fast Facts: Helena Zoila Benitez is 100 years old
In 100 years, she has been senator, educator, founder of the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company, and head of significant UN organizations

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Only a few people reach 100 years of age. On Friday, June 27, a former Philippine senator joins this elite group.

Helena Zoila Benitez, born on June 27, 1914*, served in the Senate from December 30, 1967 to September 23, 1972.

Throughout her life, she championed environmental protection, women’s rights, education, and culture and the arts.

She is the longtime chairperson of the board of trustees of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU).

Read on to know more about the former senator.

1. Benitez is the 7th elected woman senator in Philippine history.

She followed senators Geronima Pecson, Pacita Madrigal-Warns, Maria Kalaw-Katigbak, Tecla San Andres-Ziga, Eva Estrada-Kalaw, and Magnolia Antonino.

Thirteen more women were elected to the Senate following its reinstatement in 1987. (The Senate and the House of Representatives were abolished in 1972 following the declaration of Martial Law.)

2. Benitez is the daughter of respected educators.

Her mother, Francisca Tirona-Benitez, co-founded the Philippine Women’s College in 1919, which became the PWU in 1932.

Conrado F. Benitez, her father, was among the pensionados – recipients of college scholarship grants to the United States – during the American occupation. Her father was also a delegate to the 1935 Constitutional Convention, and the first dean of the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Business Administration.

3. Benitez and her father studied in the same school in the United States.

As a pensionado, Conrado Benitez enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he acquired his Master of Arts and doctorate degrees.

Decades later, Helena Zoila Benitez took her post-graduate studies also at the University of Chicago. This, is in addition to her post-graduate studies at the Iowa State College and her Master of Arts degree from the George Washington University.

4. Benitez is the founder of the world-renowned Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company.

The dance troupe traces its roots to the PWU, where she founded it in 1956. The following year, Benitez organized the Bayanihan Folk Arts Center, with the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company as its performing arm.

The Bayanihan Folk Arts Center received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1965 for International Understanding for “their projection of a warm and artistic portrayal of the Filipino people to audiences on 5 continents.”

In 1998, Republic Act 8626 designated the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company as the national folk dance company.

PIONEER. Benitez was recognized by the Senate in 2012 'for her contributions as a Senator, pioneer environmentalist, educator, advocate of culture and civil society leader.' Photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB

5. Benitez was a member of both the Interim and Regular Batasang Pambansa during the Marcos administration.

She represented Region IV (Southern Tagalog Region) at the Interim Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) from 1978 to 1984, then the province of Cavite at the Regular Batasang Pambansa from 1984 to 1986.

The unicameral Interim and Regular Batasang Pambansa served as the country’s legislative body during Martial Law. It lasted up to a month after the 1986 People Power Revolution.

6. Benitez was a pioneer chairperson of significant United Nations organizations.

In 1969, she became the first Filipina chairperson of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Then, in 1975, she was the first Filipina and first woman to become the president of the governing council of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

7. Benitez authored the law protecting the Philippine eagle.

Republic Act 6147 or the Philippine Eagle Protection Act – approved on November 9, 1970 – declared the pithecophaga jefferyi or the monkey-eating eagle as a protected bird in the Philippines.

Benitez also drafted Republic Act 6148, declaring Mount Iglit and Mount Baco and adjoining areas in Mindoro island as a national park and as a sanctuary for tamaraws, another endangered species.

8. Benitez was the first Filipina recipient of the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of Datu (Grand Cross).

It was awarded to her by President Fidel V. Ramos on May 14, 1998.

The Order of Sikatuna is conferred upon diplomats, officials, and nationals of foreign states who have rendered conspicuous service in fostering, developing, and strengthening relations between their country and the Philippines. – Rappler.com

* Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this story, we indicated 1904 as the year of Benitez’s birth. It should be 1914. We have made the correction and regret the oversight.

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Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.