As the Philippines gets ready for its general election on May 14, women's groups in Iloilo City have started intensifying their campaign to remind women to exercise their right to vote and to elect candidates who stand up for women's issues. This city is where suffragists in the Philippines first gained ground in 1906.
It all started with the Asociacion Feminista Ilongga (Association of Ilongga Feminists - AFI), set up in 1906, which campaigned extensively for 30 long years for Filipino women's right to vote. "Many women take their right to suffrage for granted but they do not know that till recently there was no such thing as 'women's vote'," said Rose Asong, a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) in the Visayas.
Asong and Tita Torio, also a professor at UP, have done extensive research on AFI, which, according to Asong, was the first women's organisation to enunciate demands for women's suffrage. Purita Villanueva, who was also a founding member, was at its helm. All the women associated with it were well educated by virtue of their economic standing in the community. For example, Villanueva's family was one of the pioneers of the sugar industry in Iloilo and Negros. She studied at Sta. Catalina College in Manila and then went on to prove herself as a writer, winning several literary prizes. She also contributed regularly to local periodicals on women's rights.
Two of the most recognisible names from the feminist movement in Philippines were those of Villanueva and Sofia Reyes de Veyra. Like Villanueva, de Veyra, too, had the privilege of formal education. She taught in various schools in the region before heading La Proteccion de la Infancia, a charity service for undernourished children.
Along with other women's groups, they lobbied in the Congress as well as wrote articles advocating for women's voting rights. All their efforts paid off and it was decided that the issue of women suffrage would be settled through a special plebiscite in 1937, where only women could vote.
Asong revealed that to prepare women for the plebiscite, AFI members visited far-flung areas in the Philippines and taught them how to vote for a "Yes". And on D-day they even took women to the polling booths. As the total "Yes" votes was an overwhelming 447,725, the National Assembly passed a law that extended right of suffrage to women.
But their struggle seems to have come to naught as political parties today are not looking to address women's issues and problems. "Maybe they haven't realised our power as voters - half of the 45 million voters in our country are women," said Asong. The number of women actively participating in politics is almost negligible.
In 1981, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) guaranteed women's full participation in leadership positions in public and political life. But, even now, after almost two decades, not much has changed.
Of the 1,456 elected officials in Western Visayas region, only 251 (less than 20 per cent) are women. There is a lone woman, Rev. Janette Garin, out of the 18 representatives in Congress, elected from the region. The only woman governor in the region is Salvacion Zaldivar-Perez from Antique.
Women leaders are also a minority in local legislative councils and local executive posts. Of the 133 mayors and vice-mayors all over the region, only 18 and 20, respectively, are women.
According to Perez, who is standing for re-election, women should vote for women candidates if they campaign for women's issues. "If women candidates are victims of smear campaigns run by male politicians, women voters would sympathise and stand against it," she says.
She adds that women voters need to be educated so they can choose better candidates, regardless of their gender. "Women should also run more for public office so that they can do more for their communities," she says.
But, with the exception of those belonging to the national women's coalition, GABRIELA - General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action - women politicians do not campaign for votes solely on women's issues. "Often women's issues just find a token mention in the campaign promises of politicians, regardless of whether the politicians are men or women," rues Asong.