Women Leaders Can Make A Difference
Global Forum of Women Political Leaders, PICC, Manila
January 17, 2000
I am honored to be with you today, at the opening rites of this Global Forum of Women Political Leaders from all over the world. I welcome you all to this Forum, to the city of Manila, and to my country.
I suppose I was invited to keynote this meeting as Exhibit A, one of the few women in the world who managed to rise to the highest position in her country. And you “would like to hear from me some advice on how other women can reach such heights of power and responsibility. On that score, I’m afraid I cannot give you any advice that would not include losing a husband to an assassin's bullet, and reluctantly taking up his torch.
As you all know, I did not plan to be in politics. I did not seek the presidency of my country. After my husband's murder, I was drafted to lead by the popular demand of a people desperate to get rid of a dictator who had controlled our lives for 20 years. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Today, I stand before you in awe at the collective experience present in this room. The politicians, academics and NGO leaders from around the globe who are here today, could fill volumes on their experiences – the trails you have blazed as women who broke the rules and breached the invisible barriers of your societies to reach your present positions of leadership in your various fields.
But I do have something to share with you, my sisters, who aspire to crash into that traditionally male bastion called politics. First of all, it must not remain a bastion of male dominance, for there is much that women can bring into politics that would make our world a kinder, gentler place for humanity to thrive in.
As the world prepares to enter the new millennium, it is buffeted by serious crises that have strained the social fabric. Poverty is at unprecedented levels – more than one billion people in the world, many of whom are women in developing countries, are unspeakably poor. The globalization of the world’s economy, and the interdependence that it has bred among countries and peoples may have brought opportunities for growth and development, but it has also brought risk and uncertainty to the majority who are not able to meet its challenges.
Economically, many of our governments are paralyzed by unmanageable levels of external debt and structural adjustment programs.
Amid all these are armed conflicts of various types that refuse to go away, and continue to displace people in large numbers, rip families apart and destroy and degrade the environment.
Migration too has taken its toll on families. Many families in developing countries are run by a single parent as the other toils in another country in order to make ends meet.
It is brave new world that we are facing and it will take more than the garden variety political leader to effectively handle the vast problems that we face, with wisdom, sensitivity and compassion.
Ironically, however, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Beijing in 1995, the participants in the 4th World conference on Women enumerated the areas of grave concern to the women of the world. Besides poverty, they cited inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to education and training, health care and related services. They voiced their alarm at the growing violence against women; the effects of armed conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation; the inequality in economic structures and policies, in all forms of productive activities and access to resources.
Their other concerns were: the unequal access of men and women to power and decision-making at all levels, the lack of sufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women; the lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of the human rights of women; the stereotyping of women and their lack of access to and participation in all communication systems, especially in the media; gender inequalities in the management of natural resources and the safeguarding of the environment; and the persistent discrimination against and violation of the rights of the girl child.
While it is heartening to note that the world is indeed, realizing and taking into serious consideration the advancement of women, it has not moved fast enough for the women of the world. Five years after Beijing, and 15 years after the end of the International Decade for Women (1976-85), the women's agenda has yet to be regarded as a priority by many governments.
In the Philippines, as in many parts of the world, even in some developed nations in the North, women still labor under traditional biases, in employment, in promotions, and in salaries that they take home. Their access to employment is limited by the traditional attitudes that women belong to the home, that their work, if ever, is merely auxiliary, marginal and dispensable.
In terms of pay for the same work performed by men, positions of power and rate of promotion, our women lag far behind. They are also the first to be replaced by the adoption of new technology and the first to be retrenched in times of financial difficulties. With their limited skills, they are the most exploitable of workers, who are hired in an endless series of short-term contracts, never attaining job security and benefits.
It seems that it is only when women take matters into their own hands that they are able to secure their rights and, privileges as full human beings, equal partners of the menfolk. Our foremothers showed this when they campaigned for the right to vote. It is up to the women who are in positions of power and responsibility to push for the equality that women aspire for and deserve.
Women are natural candidates for positions of leadership – in business, in the academe, in civil society, in politics. We, who are the keepers of the values of the family and of society, should not leave the important task of leadership in the political sphere to the men alone. It is a job that men and women can and should do together, in complementarity, just like they should in the home.
As expressed in the Jakarta Declaration for the Advancement of Women, "Instead of being a hierarchical structure of domination and subordination, of control and subservience, the family (then) becomes a closely knit kin group of caring individuals where burdens and responsibilities are equitably shared and equal partnership between men and women is ensured."
Transplanted into the national and global setting, this concept can only foster and encourage the democratic structure where women, along with men, are elected to positions of power, are allowed to participate in decision-making with national, or even global, repercussions, and given control of and access to economic and natural resources. Thus can women be equal partners and share in the responsibilities of nation-building.
So, what are some strategies that would make the entry and survival of women in politics easier? I found that entering politics was no problem. The challenge was how to survive its challenges and pitfalls.
My own experience is that, while I was committed to be President and leader of my people for six years, I did not covet my position. It was a job imposed on me by the Filipino people that I embraced with humility and dedication. But it was a job I could readily give up when my term ended. When factions of politicians and the military tried to grab my powers, I stood steadfast in defense of our democracy, and our hard-won freedoms.
If they had only observed me closely, they would have realized that unlike other politicians, I could be quite detached from the awesome powers I held. I knew that I was only a temporary steward, a servant of the people, and when the time came, I would gladly give it all up. But not one second before.
For my role models, I had the rightful reader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the venerable Mother Teresa.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to be a virtual prisoner in her own home since 1989, has remained steadfast to the cause of democracy in her homeland. By curtailing her freedoms, the junta had hoped to subdue her efforts to restore democracy and silence her call for national reconciliation. But her struggle for the freedom of her people persists; her principles remain firm. She has chosen to endure isolation, foregoing even the funeral of her husband, rather than abandon the cause.
Mother Teresa ministered to the poorest of the poor, the outcasts of society. Her office was the streets and alleyways and gutters. This frail woman showed the world what total dedication and compassion mean. In total surrender to God, she lived her life in service to humanity, asking for nothing in return. Mother Teresa's simple and selfless life was an inspiration to countless people who saw in her someone worth emulating.
I had the benefit of these two examples of selfless love for and service to the people, of total dedication to a higher cause, of unshakeable courage and integrity, and of, steadfast faith. Mother Teresa and Aung San Suu Kyi have shown us what women leaders can do to make a difference in society.
This Forum itself has come up with what I think are practical tips for women's entry into the big league. "New Millennium, New Rules", the Forum's organizers call the list and it reads:
1. Transform the process of politics to reflect the lives, aspirations and needs of women.
2. Level the playing fields.
3. Put our money where our beliefs are.
4. Assume responsibility for our own equality.
5. Inspire our daughters to embrace leadership and power.
6. Get guns, goons and gold out of politics.
7. Share all strategic and tactical information about winning elections and toppling dictators.
8. Balance of power: if we make up half the population, we will manage half the power.
9. Be proactive, not reactive.
And number 10, No more waiting!
Indeed, the time to act is now. We have much catching up to do.
Today and in the next two days, in preparation for the United Nations' special session in June to review the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, you will hold workshops to examine the role of women in governance, in power and in decision making. You will discuss the impact on women of globalization, of changing political systems, of the growth of conservatism, the homogenization of culture, the technological revolution, and the continued violation of women's human rights particularly during ethnic conflict and war. You will analyze these forces and draw attention to the vital role women can play in transforming these unjust structures and processes in society.
You also intend to come up in plenary with a declaration of major strategies addressed to the General Assembly that are intended to dramatically transform politics and increase the number of women political leaders in the world.
In your deliberations, I suggest that you also examine the unique role of women in shaping societal values. What is our role in shaping governance? How do we hurdle the obstacles – physical, cultural, economic and political – to women’s full and equal participation in governance?
I wish you all well in this worthy endeavor and pray that your work in the three days of this Forum is not only appreciated, but also implemented by every government on this planet, for the betterment of all of us who belong to that part of the world's population that hold up half the sky. Which – given the vital role that women play in the life of the world – can only redound to the betterment of all humanity.