AS imprisoned senator Leila De Lima becomes the recipient of Amnesty International’s Ignite Award for Human Rights, it is yet another reminder of how dangerous it can be to be a critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in the Philippines – especially if you’re a woman.
De Lima has been behind bars since February 2017 on drug charges related to her time as justice minister in the previous administration. Both De Lima and rights groups maintain the charges are politically motivated and “pure fiction” made up by the very president she was investigating.
The senators only crime, according to Amnesty, is “her courageous opposition to President Duterte’s appalling policies.”
De Lima’s case is an extreme one, but she is far from alone in being a woman who has felt the sting of Duterte’s seemingly entrenched misogyny. The firebrand and controversial president has made a name for himself, not just for bringing down once-powerful women who slight him, but insulting all women, including those most vulnerable.
Just last week, after receiving backlash for saying the next ombudsman must not be a woman, he attempted to back peddle saying women could be competent and capable “but not in all aspects of life.” According to Rappler, he also said he could not count on women at all times, claiming that “they could not stand threats and intimidation.”
This was after a string of derogatory remarks that have flagged concern with women’s rights activists, along with those women serving as politicians in the country.
In February he ordered soldiers to shoot female rebel fighters “in the vagina.”
During his election campaign in 2016, speaking about the 1989 prison riot in which an Australian missionary was killed, and inmates had lined up to rape her, Duterte joked he wished he had the opportunity to rape her himself.
“Was I mad because of the rape? Yes, that’s one. But, she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste,” he said.
On top of his off-the-cuff jokes and campaign rhetoric, Duterte’s alleged misogyny has a taken very tangible form for those women serving under him.
Current ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales, is set to retire from her position on July 26 after proving a thorn in the side of Duterte during her term. The president sought the removal of Morales, along with the chief justice and prominent Duterte critic Maria Lourdes Sereno, accusing them of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration.
Soreno was successfully removed from her post on May 11 after a Supreme Court judgement ousted her for allegedly failing to file statements of assets and liabilities as required by law. Sereno denies the allegation and refused to participate in the vote.
Vice President Leni Robredo, one of Duterte’s fiercest opponents, was sacked as housing czar and is facing an electoral protest filed by her rival in the 2016 polls, former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr – an unabashed Duterte supporter.
“He’s a chauvinist,” Duterte’s sister Jocellyn told Reuters in an interview last year. “When he sees a woman who fights him, it really gets his ire.”
De Lima supported this claim during an interview at a police detention facility in Manila.
“To him, women are inferior,” she said. “It’s totally insulting to him that a woman would be fighting him.”
But the self-confessed womaniser hasn’t proven all bad for women and has in fact been lauded by some women’s advocates for his female friendly policies and equality driven approach.
The presidential palace released a statement in March asking people to “not take the words of the President literally,” stressing that there is a distinction between Duterte’s language and his policies.
Duterte has made family planning a central issue during his time in office, handing out free contraceptives in his hometown of Davao and ensuring the strict implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, which seeks to attain and sustain “zero unmet need for modern family planning.”
Harry Roque, the president’s spokesperson, also cited the banned deployment of overseas Filipino workers to Kuwait. A move implemented to protect migrant workers from abuse and exploitation after the grizzly murder of a young maid.
Citing figures from the Philippine National Police, Roque said rape incidents in the country decreased by 13.53 percent last year. Rape cases recorded have gone down to 8,114 in 2017, compared to 9,384 incidents in 2016.
Even Human Rights Watch – a fervent critic of the drug war – acknowledged Duterte’s “strong support” for legislation aimed at protecting and promoting women.
Despite jokes against women and other groups being staples in Duterte’s speeches, this has not dented his popularity among Filipinos, some of whom view his colourful language as part of his personality and appeal.
But in a government littered with casualties of disobeying the big man, it’s difficult not to see the numerous cases as a warning sign of ingrained misogyny. None more so than the incarceration of De Lima.
Living up to her newly acquired label as “Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender,” the senator refuses to buckle. In a statement acknowledging the Amnesty award, De Lima said:
“No matter how influential and powerful those who violate our dignity and human rights are, our strong will and determination will always prevail; truth and justice will always succeed.”