A Magna Carta for Women

Published by rudy Date posted on February 21, 2009

A commonly held belief is that Filipino women are a most privileged sector, enjoying the same rights and opportunities as the men. On the contrary, there are many areas in which women are not so privileged. The recent approval of the Magna Carta for Women in the Senate is thus a milestone piece of legislation. A similar bill in the House of Representatives, once joined with the Senate version and passing into law, will remove the discriminatory biases and practices against women.

Sen. Jamby Madrigal, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Youth, Women and Family Relations, was jubilant over the approval on second reading of Senate Bill No. 1701, also known as the Magna Carta for Women, saying that the “milestone legislation (defends) the human rights of the poor women who have no access to proper health care, who are marginalized and victims of discrimination and abuse.”

The proposed bill had been languishing in the Senate since the 12th Congress, said Madrigal, and, thanks to the “decisive leadership” of Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile, it got approved in the 14th Congress. Enrile, she said, “is not afraid to reckon with the various pressure groups opposing this bill.”

Enrile said the bill was “part of Congress’ effort to revise the discriminatory provisions against women in various laws existing in the country.”

These laws include provisions in the Family Code that pertains to a husband’s decision prevailing over the wife’s disagreements involving conjugal property, and in cases of parental authority and legal guardianship over the person and property of a common child. Also to be revised are provisions in the Labor Code and the Revised Penal Code covering night work prohibition for women workers and the Anti-Rape Law which defines marital rape and its penalties.

I don’t know how the House of Representatives will react to amendments of the provision that defines marital rape, and to the Revised Penal Code’s articles on concubinage and adultery, where women can be easily charged with adultery. The Muslim legislators may also have reservations about amendments covering polygamy, early and arranged marriages and unequal inheritance for women in the Code of Muslim Personal Laws.

The bill was sponsored on the floor by Madrigal’s committee. It was authored by Senators Pia Cayetano, Edgardo Angara, Panfilo Lacson, Ramon Revilla Jr., Richard Gordon, Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Manny Villar, Loren Legarda, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

Sen. Pia Cayetano, principal sponsor of the measure, said that the bill seeks “to boost the government’s commitment to uphold the human rights of women especially small farmers and rural workers, fisher folks, the urban poor, women in the military, migrant workers, indigenous people, Muslim women, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, and solo parents.”

The bill further enumerates the rights of marginalized women such as the right to food security and productive resources, housing, decent work, employment, livelihood, credit, capital and technology, education and training, and right to information and social participation. It also provides that the Commission on Human Rights can now oversee and hear complaints of discrimination against women.

A statement from Madrigal’s office said the senator considers the most important aspect of the bill its defining in the law of the meaning of “discrimination,” thus making unlawful all forms of discrimination against women. “Many Filipino women continue to suffer discrimination despite the enactment of pro-women laws, like the International Bill of Rights laid down by the United Nations in its general assembly on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”

Zubiri said gender equality is always on top of the international agenda. “The approval of this bill will strengthen gender equality and empowerment of women in the Philippines,” he said.

The bicameral conference committee has been meeting to reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of the measure. Senator Cayetano has warned against attempts to emaciate the bill, saying that a watered-down version of the Magna Carta will render it toothless and ineffective in advancing women’s empowerment and welfare in the country.”

Both Madrigal and Cayetano are wary of Catholic forces which have blocked the passage of the bill since the 12th Congress.

As in the Reproductive Health Bill now pending in Congress, these forces have interpreted the Magna Carta for women as seeking to legalize abortion through various provisions upholding safe motherhood and women’s access to reproductive health information and services.

“Abortion is strictly prohibited under the 1987 Constitution,” said Cayetano. “Legislators will not allow it to be included in the Magna Carta, explicitly or otherwise.”

Cayetano said, “But with respect to contraceptives, which is allowed in some religions but considered taboo in others, I don’t think any religious group should impose its belief on what lawmakers should and should not legislate.

“Moreover, legislators, policymakers and local government units must realize that there are so many barangays across the country where women have little or no access to maternal health care. They do not receive pre-natal care, or give birth while attended to only by a ‘manghihilot’ who does not have the skills to ensure a safe delivery.”

Cayetano said the Philippines has the distinction of having one of the highest Maternal Mortality Rates (MMR) in the Southeast Asia Region.

Citing latest official data, she said the MMR in the Philippines was recorded at 163 maternal deaths per 100,000 births as of 2006. But the country’s target under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to reduce MMR by three-fourths from 1990 to just 52.3 maternal deaths per 100,000 births by the year 2015.” At the current rate, the Philippines will be unable to meet this target.

“Ten to 11 Filipino mothers die each day while giving birth. This will not happen if the public health system is sufficiently able to provide reproductive health services to our people, especially the women.” – Domini M. Torrevillas, Philippine Star

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