When I was younger and still in school, I was the typical Filipina stereotype. Shy. Studious but quiet. Competitive but will not think twice about letting somebody else shine.
I was the type who would always fall in line, but let another person take my place if she needed it.
Make no mistake, I knew exactly what I wanted in life. I had everything planned. I wanted to have a family and become a mother. I was going to study law and be a judge like my father. I would live a quiet life.
I can’t quite say I have done a good job following my plan!
I did try my best, but life had other ideas. I married a man who had no idea he would serve as the Mayor of Naga City for almost 20 years. Jesse was re-elected for two sets of three consecutive terms despite having none of the guns, goons, and gold traditionally required to hold a local post that long.
He was the mayor who was often seen in slippers, biking around the city with no bodyguards. He gave power back to the people, made City Hall efficient and corruption-free, and they were happy which made our city one of the most livable in the country.
That was his only formula. Jesse went on to become Interior Secretary, hoping to turn every local government unit into an efficient and livable just like Naga City. He was emboldened by the blossoming of his hometown into a city recognized in many international communities for its reforms in good governance.
Like me, Jesse also shunned fanfare. He quietly went on with his job. Other Cabinet members would eventually tell me he was the go-to reliever for many tasks that the others were too busy to take.
Like talking with the urban poor or flying all the way to Sulu. So when his passing moved the nation to tears four years ago, I was deeply touched and honestly, very surprised.
With this backdrop, I resolved to be a supportive wife who stayed away from the limelight. I was the family driver, tutor, messenger, nurse, judge and jury of three growing girls all rolled into one.
I had the luxury of being an OC homemaker. My home was overly catalogued. I kept files of what was in the bodega, in the pantry, in the closets! I color-coded my children’s schoolbooks, and they knew exactly what yellow, green and blue highlights meant, so that studying for an exam was easy as making pie.
I drove all my kids to every piano and swimming lesson for years. Most of the nannies and drivers of my children’s classmates became my friends, and to prove that, I am the proud ninang at the weddings of many of them.
I was so determined to keep house for my husband, maintain a low public profile and not meddle with Jesse’s governing style, to the extent that I made sure my bags and clothes were simple, my make-up almost non-existent.
All these were not hard for me to do. When I was not busy with mothering my children, I lived an alternate life as a lawyer for the poor. My clients were fisher folk, farmers, indigenous peoples, urban poor, and abused women from poor communities.
I would sleep in their bancas (small boats) when my work took more than a day not because their hospitality was lacking, but because that was the best they could give me. Unfortunately, one time it happened while I was five months pregnant with Jillian.
And by 2am, the fishermen had to take me away from my little seaside room-slash-hammock because they needed the banca to catch fish. Each of these experiences was simply part of my work.
So you see, I really had no use for branded shoes and bags. I was happy being Jesse’s wife, never seeking a position of my own.
In fact, I was allergic to nepotism and political dynasties. The mere suggestion of running for an elected position because of Jesse’s political success was enough to make me upset.
But I did exchange notes with the love-of-my-life for hours on end. I would tell him about my work in the farthest communities and what the people would tell me. We would discuss how best to empower those who needed their voices to be heard.
We would talk late into the night about the things that were working, and the things that weren’t. We did not have a perfect relationship, nor were we perfect people. But we knew that living on less so that those who had little could live more was the perfect mission for both of us. We both loved the opportunity to serve.
I worked with abused women, so gender issues are close to my heart. I saw too many women lose their identities, their voices, and their very belief in their ability to cope. They would knock on my door in the middle of the night, desperate to flee from abuse.
I would offer them legal assistance as well as the safety of my home. But after working through the night to prepare their cases, they would be no-shows when it was time to face the judge. If by chance, they happened to see me in the mall, they would hide behind the big pillars, their husbands gloating at me nearby. At one point, Jesse had to call the police when a spouse shouted abuse at me outside my office.
Some of you might think I would be a hardline feminist, having these kinds of experiences at work. But my life with Jesse showed me a unique perspective. Feminism is not about women ruling the world so that our gender will never, ever have to face abuse.
Feminism is about building bridges of understanding so that the world will no longer need a strict ruler to make it work. It’s about creating an environment where women can be quiet when it’s our turn to listen, and speak out when we need to inspire and change people’s minds.
A society where we can stay out of the limelight when need be, confident in our place in the community. Feminism is inclusivity and empowerment, so that each gender can thrive in a society that nurtures all.
This is true even in nation building. The more inclusive governance becomes, the more empowered citizens feel, the less we need despots and celebrated heroes.
Everybody — women, men, children, and seniors — can become a hero.
The Filipina Women’s Network will run out of awards and citations to acknowledge every noble act, every inspiring individual, and every day-to-day acts of greatness. And because we are what society becomes, our collective greatness will fulfill what we have known about our nation all along.
That the Filipina (or Filipino) can stand proud and strong among the great nations of the world.
The path to that dream continues to be long and oftentimes dark. One out of five Filipino women, aged 15-49 suffers from physical violence.
Six percent experience sexual violence, while 4% have reported violence during pregnancy.
Sadly, only 30% sought for help, based on the 2013 National Demographic and Health Survey.
Our women and children are also facing new threats. There are emerging forms of violence brought about by technology, and it’s alarming that perverts all over the world are particularly interested in Filipino children, attracted to their warmth and docility.
It will take all of us — women, men, gays and lesbians, to change this. Women empowerment is one of the five areas that the Office of the Vice-President has vowed to prioritize, in our bid to change the face of poverty.
However, note that women empowerment is closely interrelated with the other four: hunger and food security, rural development, education, and public health. That’s because the role of the average Filipina can be felt in every aspect of our lives.
Even in our work as Secretary of Housing, the ability of women to shape their homes and community is a crucial aspect of our plans and strategies. One strategy is economic empowerment or giving women power over their ability to earn a living.
Abused women, specifically, find courage to flee abuse only when they experience financial emancipation. So in the third district of Camarines Sur, where I used to serve as congresswoman, we have focused on providing technical mentoring, financial, as well as emotional support to small businesses started by women.
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The Office of the Vice President has very little funds, but in this work, we have discovered that it is not the money per se that can transform society.
It is transparency, trust, and governance. It is the ability to convene and inspire. It is the mandate to step back, look at the gaps, and figure out how to maximize our joint resources to fill up those gaps. It is clarity of vision and focus.
Based on the long list of organizations that have been lining up for meetings with our advocacy group, we will have our hands full in the next six years. But we will only be successful if the desire for empowerment swells from the ground, supported by each woman, man and child in this country.
And from you my dear network, what I ask is to spread the gospel of empowerment beyond our shores.
The Filipina of today is more powerful, more accomplished, more empathic, and more socially aware than ever before. Our value does not depend on recognition. Our value is innate in our ability to give of ourselves to those who need our light and our laughter, our generosity in lending our expertise and our knowledge, our skill in listening when we need to be quiet and the gift of words when we need to inspire.
We are not about ruling the world. We are about creating a world where despots and heroes are no longer needed, so that each one of us can be a hero.
Thank you all for including me in your network, for this award, but most of all for shining a light on the Filipina of today.
About Hon. Leni Robredo
Human rights lawyer Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo has devoted her entire professional life in the service of the most vulnerable sectors of Philippine society. As a Public Attorney, as member of the alternative lawyers group SALIGAN, and as Representative of the Third District of Camarines Sur, she has remained constant in her priority attention to farmers and fisherfolk; women, particularly in oppressive circumstances; and indigenous people. On May 30, 2016, the Joint Houses of Congress proclaimed Leni Robredo as the 14th Vice President of the Philippines. She is the second woman ever to serve as Vice President of the Republic of the Philippines.
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