The women of Duterte’s Malacañang

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The Philippines ranks high in the gender equality scale by the World Economic Forum. Ana Maria Rafael-Banaag, who grew up in the Mountain Province, is now Malacañang's Communications Assistant Secretary. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At the fresh age of 26, Anna Mae Lamentillo is already heading the infrastructure cluster of the Department of Public Works and Highways. She’s also studying law at the same time.

Her days can start as early as 12:01 a.m., when the DPWH often opens its new roads. After clocking in an eight-hour day at work, she heads straight to the University of the Philippines for night classes. In the car rides between Manila and Quezon City, she crams her readings and, if she’s lucky, her sleep.

For far too long, women have been told they cannot have it all. Lamentillo, along with many other women in government, show they very well can.

There are many sacrifices. Her class schedule means she cannot attend state visits and business trips with her DPWH team. Her workload means she often maxes out her allowed absences in school. “But I’ve always been taught to think nothing is impossible,” she says.

Anna Mae Lamentillo Anna Mae Lamentillo, 26, heads the infrastructure cluster of the Department of Public Works and Highways while studying law. Photo by JL JAVIER  

She credits this mindset to her first mentor in government, another well-known multi-hyphenate, Loren Legarda. The broadcaster-senator-environmentalist-United Nations envoy is a notoriously hard worker and an even tougher boss.

Lamentillo says, “She gives 110% to all her advocacies. If she can do it, she expects you can do the same.”

Working for one of the top women leaders of this generation, in a team comprised mostly of women, Lamentillo says she just never felt gender could be a hindrance to her goals.

If Legarda nurtured that mindset, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar validated it. Lamentillo has been swiftly promoted from handling media relations in the department, to chairing a sub-committee in the infrastructure cluster, to taking over the entire cluster herself.

And her circumstances in the DPWH are starkly different from her time in the Senate. This is no longer a small, woman-dominated team; it’s one of the largest national agencies handling a portfolio considered by many as masculine.

Surely, the reception there was a bit more lukewarm? Lamentillo still says no, and she doesn’t miss a beat saying so.

“We need to talk about not just forwarding women’s rights, but also about how men can play a role in that fight.”

It’s not just her, she says. Most of the engineers in the DPWH are still men but at the top tier, it’s more equally represented. Half the undersecretary posts are occupied by women.

“The culture has changed. We’re handling the largest budget in government, trying to solve a serious infrastructure crisis in the country. We know each one has a role to play, and we all have to move forward,” she says.

Lamentillo admits she expected worse. But what made the difference was that the directive to represent more female officials came from the Public Works Secretary himself. “People look to what the principal is doing and they follow suit.”

She feels this is an oft-overlooked point about gender equality. “We need to talk about not just forwarding women’s rights, but also about how men can play a role in that fight.”




Across government are many stories of how women have risen to power. For Ma. Teresa Habitan, she’s seen the change unfold before her very eyes.

In 1977, she entered the Department of Finance (DOF) — again an unusual choice for women then. During that time, she explains, Cabinet portfolios typically assigned to women were usually in the “soft,” social sectors like education, health. and social welfare, she says.

Habitan recounts: “When I started in the DOF … all the senior management positions — undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, directors, BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue) and BOC (Bureau of Customs) commissioners, and the National Treasurer — were all men.”

However, by the Ramos administration in the 1990s, she says more women began occupying these posts. Habitan herself has since been promoted to assistant secretary, and she regularly represents the DOF in Congress to push for some of its most important tax reforms.

All things considered, the fight for gender equality in the Philippines is far more advanced than in other countries. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), this is already one of the best places to be a woman. It ranked the Philippines 7th out of 144 countries in terms of closing the gender gap.

Ma. Teresa Habitan "When I started in the DOF, all the senior management positions were all men," says Ma. Teresa Habitan. Photo by JL JAVIER  

The country even topped the world rankings in two of four categories: health and education. Filipino females bested their male counterparts for indicators like literacy, enrolment, and life expectancy.

The Philippines slips when it comes to the political and economic categories, placing 17th and 21st, respectively. But compared to the rest of the world, it's still in the top 15%.

But there are still traces of discrimination. Sexist attitudes can be so deep-seated, they don't ever disappear completely.

Even at a senior post, Habitan says she has felt doubted because of her gender.

She recounts an incident when her (male) undersecretary had been scheduled to meet with a Japanese investment banker but had to beg off. She was assigned to handle the meeting instead — but the banker wasn't too pleased about the change.

"The agenda was for a briefing on the macroeconomy and the fiscal sector, which I was already working on for quite some time then," she says.

"Anyway, the guy didn't return my smile and stopped me from beginning the briefing immediately by asking me questions about my credentials. He wanted to know what my area of work was, and how long I have been working, etc."

Habitan is thankful, though, that these days, questions can be met with straight answers, and doubts, dispelled quickly.

She says, "I think I did well since by the time the meeting ended he was already smiling and acting quite friendly!"




However, the Philippines' progress also means that what discrimination has left behind can be more subtle, more insidious.

Ana Maria Rafael-Banaag has hit many a glass ceiling. Growing up in the Mountain Province, the elders in her community were all men. It had simply always been that way throughout Igorot history, and the past reinforces the present.

"The way the elders settle disputes always draws upon how their previous elders decided before," she explains. "But the previous elders were always men, and they pass down that knowledge to the next generation of elders, who are also always men."

Banaag, a full-fledged lawyer, says she wouldn't have been able to contribute to settlements if she wanted to.

In spite of the odds, she decided to run for mayor in the municipality of Natonin. Seeking the approval of the elders was tough, not only because she was a woman, but also because she was considered an outsider, having moved to Baguio to study.

Banaag's staff The Philippines ranks first when it comes to women in professional positions, but going lower down the corporate ladder, the country is 107th overall when it comes to women’s participation in the total labor force. Photo by JL JAVIER  

She recalls meetings stretching into the night, forcing herself not to yawn or tear up. She spoke in straight Igorot and performed all the dances. She wanted to show she was rooted enough in their culture to respect its traditions but exposed enough to the world outside to make a difference.

Banaag ended up not just winning, but winning against the former mayor and vice-mayor, both of whom were male.

She says, "I think the elders aren't close-minded. Women can speak up. But over the years, we just haven't. Whenever politics comes up, we say, "Ok na, trabaho niyo na 'yan.'”"

Today, Banaag works in Malacañang as the Communications Assistant Secretary, even holding press briefings for the President when Secretary Martin Andanar and Spokesperson Ernesto Abella aren't available. It's a huge promotion for someone hailing from a fourth-class municipality of 10,000 people.

But Malacañang can be a lot like Natonin.

Banaag admits she wishes she could sit in more senior-level meetings. The National Security Council, in particular, is her dream. "I've done several papers [for my master's] on the South China Sea, and I'm interested in working on that more."

However, those meetings are only for undersecretaries and above. She says, "It's not that I'm barred from them because I'm a woman. It's just that the people they assign to those posts are all men. I suppose men trust other men."

The portfolio assigned to Banaag instead? Gender and development.




A closer look at the WEF’s gender gap statistics confirms this.

The Philippines’ political and economic indicators for women are significantly lower than, say, indicators of health and education. The equal treatment of women seems to extend only as far as basic needs, but there is still a lingering belief that political and economic empowerment are much “higher” rights, if not privileges.

Some have broken through the glass ceiling. But this is an achievement possible for a select few — most likely those who already have other things working to their advantage, like their family upbringing, educational background, and social class. The reality is starkly different for other women, especially the poor and marginalized.

For example, the country ranks 5th when it comes to having a female head of state, having both Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo take the helm for 16 years in total. But take a step back, and the rankings fall to 61st when it comes to the whole of government: women account for just a fifth of Cabinet positions and a quarter of seats in Congress.

Ayrie Ching Ayrie Ching is a senior writer for the Bureau of Public Information in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, working with Muslim, Christian and Lumad groups. Photo courtesy of AYRIE CHING  

Again, the Philippines ranks first when it comes to women in professional positions, but going lower down the corporate ladder, the country is 107th overall when it comes to women’s participation in the total labor force.

Ayrie Ching experiences this first-hand working in a region that has long clamored for full and meaningful recognition from the government. As a senior writer for the Bureau of Public Information in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, she works with Muslim, Christian and Lumad groups — and in every group, different women who are empowered leaders all the same.

“Seeing how one can embrace her own identity and respect that of another, and how this mutual respect and recognition of diversity translate to strong points of unity, it's humbling,” she says.

When we hold a very loose, simplistic concept of “women,” we can only address the basest of their needs. But women’s experiences vary greatly, depending on their class, religion, race and sexual orientation.

Perhaps this is why more far-reaching bills like the Magna Carta for Women can easily clear Congress, but bills that target specific groups of women — particularly, vulnerable groups — will struggle. Policies like the anti-discrimination bill for the LGBTQ, the reproductive health law for the poor, even the breastfeeding law for working mothers, they’ve all faced legal and political roadblocks every step of the way.

"There’s a difference between caring for a person because you think she’s beneath you and caring for a person because you see her as an equal."


There has been some progress under the current administration. President Rodrigo Duterte has backed the RH law, even including reproductive health as one of his priorities for his term. A bill has been passed to lengthen maternity leave for all women, regardless of their civil status. The anti-discrimination bill is being heard for the first time in close to two decades.

But the President has also been embroiled in controversies, bragging about his sexual exploits, catcalling reporters and making rape jokes. Allies have shamed Senator Leila de Lima for her relationship with her driver, even threatening to show an alleged sex tape, during a hearing about the drug trade in the National Bilibid Prison.

Political victories should be celebrated, but Ching adds we must not take them at face-value. Where are these reforms rooted? Do they seek to protect women because they see them as weaker beings, or do they consider them as equals that’s why they should be accorded the same treatment as everyone else?

“Maybe the intent doesn’t matter for some people, but it matters to me. There’s a difference between caring for a person because you think she’s beneath you and caring for a person because you see her as an equal,” she says.

The fight for gender equality is a fight for all women. Not women most like you or women most likely to succeed or women least likely to cause trouble. Women empowerment is not an individual sport but a relay race — it’s not a victory until the very last member crosses the line.