Vice President Leni Robredo and Sara Duterte, daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, are running for the Presidency and the Vice Presidency, respectively. Though both are under different tickets, their candidacies underscore the complex journey of women in Philippine politics.
Referring to his daughter’s presidential bid earlier this year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that women are not fit for public office. Fast forward to the end of 2021, and the country is now witnessing two women vying for the two most powerful positions in the country. Though Duterte’s warning is now water under the bridge, his statement strikes at the heart of why many women are not in Philippine electoral politics.
Since 2019, women have comprised 28 per cent of the House of Representatives and 29 per cent of the Senate, slightly higher than the 2020 worldwide average of 25.5 percent. According to global standards, women have to reach the 30 per cent international benchmark to form a critical mass in representative politics. When local government positions are included, women comprise a mere 23 per cent of the total elective posts in the country. But given that many women politicians come from political families, they tend to be more in affinity to their kin than to women’s issues as a 2017 study suggests.
Several arguments indicate why women’s participation in politics is important in democracies. They not only comprise half the population and therefore should have a voice in decision making, there is also evidence showing that their increased presence results in better social welfare outcomes. Women’s increased visibility in politics likewise serves as role models for future generations, thus helping normalise women’s leadership.
Several factors prevent the entry of Filipino women in politics. The lack of well-developed political parties is one culprit. Without party discipline and institutionalised rules within parties, one cannot even think about internal party procedures governing women’s inclusion in the party slate. It is also observed that women are more likely to be elected in countries with proportional representation (PR) systems. In PR systems, parties are incentivised to be more inclusive to women and minority groups so as to appeal to a broader set of the electorate. In countries such as the Philippines where legislators are elected in single-member districts via a plurality of votes, campaign leaders tend to select the perceived ‘winnable’ candidate to minimise risk, which in most cases, is a male politician. Moreover, masculinist campaign strategies such as electoral violence, money politics, and vote-buying can potentially discourage women from running for public office.
In the Philippines, traditional norms about women’s proper place in the public sphere remain an obstacle. The seventh round of the World Values Survey has found that more than half of Filipinos believe that men make better political leaders than women. The invisibility of women’s concerns in electoral polls is also an issue. Media presentation of electoral polls hardly dis-aggregate voter preferences by sex and age group. The result is that there is little incentive for coalition or party leaders to field women candidates or cater to women voters other than based on popularity, tokenism, or pedigree.
But the most pernicious trend, which has been growing in recent years across political systems and contexts, is what feminist scholar Mona Lena Krook termed as ‘violence against women in politics’ (VAWP). These come in several forms such as threats, violence, and intimidation directed at women in politics. VAWP was initially referred to it as ‘a problem with no name’ because of women politicians’ reluctance to report it. Calls to address VAWP have been gaining ground. Bolivia and Mexico have already passed legislation providing penalties for VAWP. There are documented cases on VAWP in countries such as Argentina, Ghana, Jamaica, Lebanon, Malawi, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom which can help galvanize future reforms.
In the Philippines, traditional norms about women’s proper place in the public sphere remain an obstacle. The seventh round of the World Values Survey has found that more than half of Filipinos believe that men make better political leaders than women.
Aside from physical violence, ‘semiotic violence’, or using language or visuals to slut-shame, ridicule, mansplain women politicians is another form of VAIP, according to Krook. This type of violence is particularly evident in the Duterte administration, in which Senators Leila de Lima and Vice President Leni Robredo were some of the victims. Therefore, their candidacies in the 2020 elections symbolise in part resistance to VAWP and its malevolent message of rendering women incompetent and unfit for public office.
Even without explicitly targeting specific women for VAWP, careless language creates fertile ground for VAWP to happen. Recently, a senator campaigning for a male presidential candidate metaphorically referred to men’s testicles as a requirement for would-be presidents. As long as male anatomy is made synonymous with leadership traits, women’s credibility as leaders will always be suspect.
Worse, even when women are positively regarded as decisive and firm, the standard by which they are measured, is still about ‘having balls’ (the phrase was used in 2000 by Boris Johnson, who argued that Margaret Thatcher had the said gonads, not Tony Blair). Therefore it is not surprising that in 2019, only 20 per cent of candidates for all electoral positions were women.
But it is also because of these sexist undertones that, like most women candidates, both Sara Duterte and Leni Robredo rationally play into gender stereotypes in their campaigns. Robredo, who is running for president, frames herself as a loving and empathetic ‘mother’ willing to fight for her children (nation), in stark contrast to President Duterte’s disciplinarian and coercive ‘father’ image. Her campaign color of pink, however, maybe too much of a gamble, as some may associate it with femininity and not with its use as a symbol of resistance to authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, Sara Duterte, who is running for vice president, has recently been seen in public wearing a more feminine attire. Whether a deliberate strategy or a mere happenstance, this is a far cry from her cropped hair and the viral video of her punching a local sheriff. Also, her portrayal of independence from her father bucks the traditional image of women from dynastic families as mere proxy candidates.
In other words, because political leadership is still generally perceived in masculine terms, both Sara and Robredo are caught in what is called a ‘double bind’ in which they can be punished by voters if they are perceived to be too feminine/ soft or masculine/ tough. For this reason, they have to carefully navigate this spectrum — something a male candidate rarely encounters.
To what extent Robredo and Sara’s campaigns can overcome these gender stereotypes and redefine politics away from its masculine core will be an important milestone in the 2022 Philippine elections.
Jean Encinas Franco is associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.