DUTERTE'S FEMALE OPPOSITION
President Duterte’s Most Prominent Opponents are Women Facing Threats of Jail and Violence
By Margaret Simons
President Duterte’s Most Prominent Opponents are Women Facing Threats of Jail and Violence
In the evening, Leila de Lima shares her meal with the stray cats that haunt the Philippines National Police custodial centre at Camp Crame, Quezon City. She has adopted them, her only companions, to fill the lonely hours and keep the fear at bay.
Her tiny cell – just big enough for a bed and a small table – is isolated from those of other prisoners Here, the 59-year-old does her best to continue her work as a Senator in the Philippines congress. She has no computer, no phone, no television and no radio. She relies on documents brought to her by her staff.
When does she think she will be released?
“I do not expect to be released so long as President Duterte wants me in prison,” she says.
Senator de Lima is one of the best known and, until her jailing, formidable opponents of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose hold on power in the Philippines was strengthened at the mid-term elections in May.
Formerly head of the Human Rights Commission and then Justice Secretary under the previous Aquino administration, de Lima investigated killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad during Duterte’s time as mayor of that city.
She became a senator in the 2016 election that brought Duterte to power, but was jailed in February 2017, on drug charges that have been described by Amnesty International as entirely fictitious, and which have yet to be tried.
The campaign against her was accompanied by Duterte accusing her of having an affair with her driver, and threats that a supposedly compromising video of her having sex would be made public. De Lima says the video is fabricated, and the slurs on her private life designed to drag her down.
Her jailing has largely neutralised her as a political force. Journalists are not allowed to visit. (De Lima’s quotes in this article were provided in writing after questions from Attenzione were taken in by her staff.)
She does not expect her case to be dealt with fairly when it finally comes to trial. “I am not expecting independence either from the courts or the government prosecutors.”
In the middle of the day, her cell can reach over 38 degrees Celsius. She has asked for an air conditioner with no result. The heat, by itself, is “torture” she says. Sometimes, she fights vertigo and the room spins.
There is no reason to think that this will end, because Leila de Lima has stood up to the president – and if there is one thing he can’t stand, it’s a woman who fights back.
De Lima’s dilemma is part of what has been described as a “macho-fascist” trend in the Philippines, in which misogyny forms part of the vocabulary and tactics of strongman, populist government.
Duterte is best known internationally for initiating and overseeing a bloody “war on drugs”, in which an estimated 30,000 people have been shot dead in police operations and vigilante attacks.
The body count grows nightly in the slums as police conduct “tokhang” operations. The word translates to “knock and plead”, meaning to approach addicts to give themselves up, but it has become a euphemism for police shootings.
Duterte pulled the country out of the International Criminal Court after it began investigations into the war on drugs – an investigation still in its preliminary stages.
Meanwhile many of Duterte’s most prominent opponents are women – and a disturbing number of them are facing threats of jail.
They have begun to travel with personal security. They suffer continuous abuse in online forums – with Facebook the most virulent.
Maria Ressa, the ground-breaking founder and editor in chief of the web-based outlet Rappler, is facing a total of eleven charges of libel and tax evasion, as well as an organised campaign of abuse on social media.
She has insisted her parents move overseas for safety reasons, and says she is glad she never had children, because protecting them would make her job as an independent journalist harder.
Her newsroom – a funky space of polished concrete and glass walls – is surrounded by tight security after an incident a few months ago in which a blogger turned up and live-streamed an appeal for people to join him and shoot the journalists.
Ressa doesn’t see herself as an opponent of Duterte. Her role is to scrutinise, to be part of an independent fourth estate, and hold the powerful to account. But this comes at a cost.
Duterte has threatened to close Rappler down, and his administration has described Ressa as one of a matrix of people supposedly conspiring to bring down his government. Meanwhile the coordinated social media attacks on her have included material regarding her sexuality and private life.
A few weeks before May’s midterm election, Facebook took down a social media network in the Philippines for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, and took the unusual step of linking it to a businessman who had managed Duterte’s online election campaign in 2016.
Ressa welcomes the move – but says it is too little, too late.
Violence and the threat of violence – both in the street and online - has become “part of the air we breathe,” she says.
Meanwhile, other women who have stood up to Duterte also face threats...
The defacto leader of the fractured coalition of opposition forces is vice president Leni Robredo, the most senior woman in Filipino politics. In the days following the May midterm election, at which Duterte gained control of the Senate, there were fears among her supporters that she would be impeached, and replaced by Duterte’s former personal assistant and now Senator, Christopher “Bong” Go.
Another woman who stood up to Duterte was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno. She called for due process in the war on drugs, and voted against Duterte proposals, including a declaration of martial law. Duterte went on national television to proclaim her “an enemy” and six months later she was impeached.
At first the opposition forces hoped she might run for the Senate, but today Sereno has retreated from public life – friends say at the insistence of her children. Before the May election, Sereno agreed to be interviewed by Attenzione. After Duterte candidates swept the field, she stopped responding to our emails. The cost and the risks, her friends say, are simply too great.
Duterte’s own sister, Jocellyn, in 2017 described him as a chauvinist. “When he sees a woman who fights him, it really gets his ire.”
Yet some of his most prominent allies are women, including his daughter, Sarah Duterte, who succeeded him as mayor of Davao and who is tipped to replace him as President.
He has also been praised for championing a reproductive health bill against the opposition of the Catholic Church, and for other legislation protecting women.
But at the same time, he has become notorious for misogynistic statements. A year ago he ordered soldiers to shoot female communist rebels in the vagina. During his election campaign in 2016, he spoke 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.
Last June, while on stage, he grabbed and kissed a married female supporter on the lips.
And most recently, during the mid-term elections he talked about Tita Baja-Gallantes, mayor of Garcia Hernandez, at a rally. In front of the cameras, and with her sitting on stage beside him, he talked about her separation from her partner. He said he would never allow her to break up with him because she was beautiful.
“I will really grab and hold on to your panty. Who cares if the garter snaps? You’re so beautiful.” The crowd laughed, and Baja-Gallantes, sitting with other politicians on stage, had little choice but to smile along.
What leaders say has an impact. According to a report by the Philippines-based Center for Women’s Resources (CWR), there has been a rise in sexual violence under the Duterte regime, including by police.
On paper, the Philippines is one of the most gender equal countries in the world. According to the World Economic Forum, it scores well on bridging the global gender gap on political and economic leadership – eighth in the world, and the only Asian country in the top ten. There have been two female presidents – Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo. Women are at senior levels throughout business, politics and public life.
Indeed, some see the misogyny of Duterte – and the fact that he maintains widespread public support – as a backlash.
Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, 66, has had a stellar career in the public service, serving as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development under the administrations of Presidents Benigno Aquino and Gloria Arroyo.
She could retire comfortably. Instead, she dyes her hair with a trademark flash of purple, and has pushed herself to the frontline of Duterte’s opponents by convening Tindig Pilipinas, a coalition of political parties and community groups opposed to his rule.
Soliman clearly remembers 1986, and the people power revolution that drove dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. Some of her friends were killed, and her sister was jailed for months. She thought the end of Marcos would usher in better times for the Philippines.
Why does she continue to fight? “Because I have grandchildren. I don't want them to grow up in a country where a misogynistic authoritarian president attacks women and undermines human rights.“
Soliman believes misogyny is central to Duterte’s appeal – and to that of figures such as President Donald Trump in the USA. There is a worldwide tendency to blending hatred of women with strongman rule and the undermining of democracy, she says.
In the Philippines it is particularly potent because of the country’s strong Catholicism. Duterte is seen as the “strong father”.
“We Filipinos believe in God the Father. So it’s always the father who is going to save us. There is paternalism built into our psyche.”
But belief in the father is laced with fear, she says.
“So they're saying, ‘Yes we want you and we're also afraid of you. I will not go against you because maybe you are my father and maybe you will kill me if I go against you.”
When Duterte makes remarks about women, even some of the women’s community groups laugh and excuse him. “They say ‘well he is just joking’. Sadly, we are forgetting our feminist principles.”
Soliman believes that she is “too far down the pecking order” to be seriously at risk of jailing or worse. But she also thinks that any woman who stands up to Duterte is at risk.
“For women, the Philippines has become a dangerous place, particularly if you are in public life.”
Senator de Lima may someday soon have company in jail. Her colleague, Senator Risa Hontiveros, is the impeccably groomed head of the left wing Akbayan party.
She, like de Lima, became a Senator in 2016 and has been the leading force behind laws on women’s health, including guarantees of universal access to contraception and sex education – a change vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church. Since her election she has championed laws against sexual harassment and pushed for rights to maternity leave.
But for over a year Hontiveros has been facing criminal charges as the result of her advocacy for three children who were eyewitnesses to the killing of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a seventeen-year-old student shot last year in one of the bloodiest nights of the drug war.
The police narrative was the standard line — that delos Santos was a drug user, that he was armed and shot at police, that he was killed in self-defence. The children’s testimony contradicted that account, as did CCTV footage.
Hontiveros took the children under her protective custody, and as a result was charged with kidnapping. The charges were pursued by the same theoretically independent group – the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption – that initiated the charges against de Lima. In fact, the VACC is close to Duterte.
During a Senate hearing a journalist snapped a picture of the mobile phone screen of Duterte’s justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre, while he was texted the VACC urging them to press the charges against Hontiveros.
When she showed the Senate the picture, she was charged with wiretapping.
There has been no action, yet, to bring the charges before the courts, but the threat hangs over her. She has visited de Lima in jail – felt the heat, the loneliness and the hopelessness. “The courts must know that this is a case without value – but of course it is there all the time in my mind. I would not like to go to jail.”
She says of de Lima “She is so brave. I am not sure I can be so brave as that.”
Hontiveros, meanwhile, begs for world attention. The Philippines is one of the oldest democracies in Asia, she says. What is happening there has international implications.
“I would be so touched if the world was thinking about us as much as we're thinking about the world! We are in a perilous situation. Our democracy is under siege, and women are under siege. This is strongman rule. This is a body blow to liberal democracy. The world must pay attention.”
Meanwhile, de Lima sits in her jail cell, stubbornly performing the work of a Senator, against the odds. She is now into the third year of imprisonment on what she insists are fabricated charges.
Most days, she thinks she might never be released. “Given the reality that my freedom depends upon the whim of one man who is bent on silencing me and having his vengeance… because I decided to fight his murderous war on drugs.”
She dreams of one day being allowed to pick up the threads of her life – “being with my family, going the market, cooking, and playing with my dogs.”
But if she were released, she says, she would not stop fighting. “It is not in my blood to give up and surrender.”