Call for gender equity, women empowerment takes center stage in CNN Philippines' summit

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 25) — As the world celebrates women's month, Filipino experts and advocates stressed that women from all walks of life still fight for inclusivity and equity.

Joining the call for inclusivity and equity, CNN Philippines has launched the "Embrace Equity" summit, with a series of talks highlighting women's decades-long challenges as well as the needed actions so they can confidently take up space.

A diverse group of women from various industries and generations came together to inspire and shed light on current issues faced by the sector, from social changes to the art space.

Social change through inclusivity

Holding discussions during Women's Month is seen as a good start for the Philippines to "understand the value of inclusion," Miss Trans Global 2020 Mela Habijan said on Saturday when asked by Dr. Gia Sison, GTalks host and mental health advocate.

"It amazes me that we have come this far, because if we are to look back, women like us, we won't be here in this conversation about women," she said.

"It's still sad that the Philippines is not open to women like us, but we are happy that we're opening up the conversation," she added.

LGBTQIA+ advocate Thysz Estrada echoed Habijan's statement, saying that every person must feel seen and heard.

However, Estrada also acknowledged that topics on the LGBTQIA+ community remain a "taboo" in the country.

Professor Nathalie Verceles of the Department of Development Studies of the University of the Philippines Diliman backed Estrada’s observation, stressing that Filipinos have many social norms to "unlearn."

Unloading social norms, which could be "harmful" for women and those belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community, is hard as these are embedded in the minds of Filipinos since childhood, Verceles explained.

"We cannot unlearn what we don't know as harmful. We should educate ourselves about how unfair it is to box people, judge people, not to accept diversity, not to practice inclusivity," she added.

Some of the issues raised during the talk were microaggressions and other people's refusal to use their lived names.

Verceles explained that microaggressions are "subtle" comments that communicate biases against a marginalized sector, such as women, LGBT, or persons with disabilities.

The impact of this, Estrada said, could be "incredible" no matter how the comment was said or what the intention was. Likewise, Estrada added, the refusal to call people by their lived names shows "disrespect."

For Habijan, allowing trans women and non-binary students to attend schools and come as they are would further expand inclusion across the country.

"Kung lahat ng pagkakataon ay ibibigay sa bawat isang tao (If all opportunities would be given to each person), regardless of their sex and gender, most probably the Philippines will be a mover of inclusion across the world. That's the hope," Habijan said.

Promoting equality through social leadership

CNN Philippines Chief Correspondent and Anchor Pia Hontiveros, who moderated the discussion, asked Department of Health (DOH) Officer-in-Charge Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire about her role in the agency sans a Cabinet position.

"I do not look at the hierarchy of our structure. In terms of doing my service, I am here to serve the people. I will look at what the people need," Vergeire said.

On taking a lead in communities, the DOH chief believes there is a strong representation of women in government, especially in boosting the fight against COVID-19, noting that 90% of experts are women.

"Women can do it with them, and women can do it better sometimes," Vergeire added.

San Manuel, Tarlac Mayor Donya Tesoro shared a similar view: "When women lead, we lead by heart. Nakikinig tayo sa constituents natin (We listen to our constituents). It's a plus to be a woman in politics because we know how to designate tasks."

To engage more women, United Nations Women Philippines Program Officer Catherine Torres said the organization creates conditions where women flourish. She said that if women are empowered, the situation would trigger a just and peaceful world.

In the pageant arena, Binibining Pilipinas International 2022 Nicole Borromeo said the space has been witnessing changes as more women become relentless in making their stands on issues heard.

Borromeo also stressed the need to talk about inequality and gaps such as women's lack of resources and opportunities, as discussions on these can help bring solutions.

Role of gender equality towards economic development

"We have a lot of work to do," Marla Garin-Alvarez, BDO Unibank vice president for sustainability, said as she acknowledged gender gaps in the workforce as cited by the World Economic Forum.

Alvarez said 75% of BDO’s workforce is female, while the lender also extended its product portfolio to support the needs of women as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, Cherrie Atilano, AGREA Philippines president and founding farmer, said the organization has been beefing up its efforts to push more women, including single mothers, to join the labor force, particularly in the agriculture sector.

"Women are building the economic workforce of the country, the children," she added.

Tina Boado, Queer and Safe Spaces co-founder, also noted that most of the people in the country who are not in the labor force are women and mothers.

Boada said that one of the reasons why more men are in the labor force is because of the gender gap in pay, with males earning more than women.

"We believe that economic empowerment is a crucial ingredient to gender equality. We hold seminars to upgrade our queer members' skills," she said.

This discussion was moderated by CNN Philippines New Day Host Paolo Abrera.

Women in the art world

There are different forms of art, but all of them require creativity, bravery, perseverance, and strength.

Moderated by CNN Philippines New Day Host Christine Jacob-Sandejas, four special ladies shared how they successfully emerged stronger as they tried to break from what was expected from women.

"Working on hardwood is not easy. It requires physical strength," Wood carving artist Charming Baldemor said as she recalled the time when someone was shocked after learning that she could produce a good piece of wood art.

Baldemor said the strength of women "comes from within."

"We put 100% into everything that we do. So instead of dwelling on that, masakit (hurtful) words, I took it as a challenge. Without any formal training, I worked around the techniques, developed my own style," she said.

Zarah Juan, creative director of The Zarah Juan brand, also saw some people raising their eyebrows as she sought to secure dominance in a segment that was usually dominated by men.

Without missing her chance, Juan showed off her mastery in creating bags, espadrilles, and ballerina flats, subsequently growing her business while introducing to a wider audience the diverse communities in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, popular actress Bela Padilla did not let anyone put her in a box as she expanded into writing several scripts, producing, and even directing films.

"I think in the Philippines, we are not used to women who are multi-hyphenates 'cause we are told, "You only fit in one box." And that is so sad because there are so many of us who do more roles than one," Padilla said.

"Women are multi-hyphenates without even asking for it and yet we are not acknowledged," she added.

Giving advice to young women, Prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde said they should learn from every opportunity and rejection.

"Keep opening that door. You need to give yourself deadlines and be realistic about what you want to become. You also have to keep the heart in what you're doing," Elizalde said.