‘Six Filipino Women’: Profiles in courage

OCTOBER 27, 2022

‘Six Filipino Women’: Profiles in courage
The book’s cover—CONTRIBUTED IMAGE
‘Six Filipino Women’: Profiles in courage
The book’s cover—CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Since martial law was imposed in 1972, and with the rise of strongmen, many women have stood up to be counted in the continuing struggle for a workable democracy.

In contemporary times, that gallery of courageous women would include former Sen. Leila De Lima, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, former Vice President Leni Robredo, former Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, journalist Maria Ressa and activist nun Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB.

The six are the focus of a new book, “Six Filipino Women for Justice” (San Anselmo Press, San Juan City, 2024), edited by Asuncion David Maramba and written by an equal number of prominent writers: “De Lima, Continuing Journey to Freedom,” by Rosario A. Garcellano; “Hontiveros, a Lifelong Activist,” by Rafael A.S.G. Ongpin; “Robredo, Leni’s Improbable Journey,” by Ed Garcia; “Carpio-Morales, A Daring Defender of Justice,” by Maria Olivia H. Tripon; “The Unstoppable Ressa,” by Dulce Festin-Baybay; and “Mananzan, a Babaylan for Our Times,” by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz.

The essay on De Lima’s ordeal in prison, under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, underlines how imprisonment had only strengthened her. She was charged with illegal drug trading, shut out from the Senate by colleagues (men as well as women), held in isolation at Camp Crame, humiliated during a House inquiry by salacious male lawmakers probing into her personal life and endured other abominations.

Through it all, she maintained remarkable composure and remained steadfast in her Catholic faith. A light at the end of the proverbial tunnel has been reached, with a series of retractions by witnesses formerly against her. And De Lima is out on bail, with only one last case against her to be heard.

Spine of steel

In August 2012, a light Cessna plane flying Secretary Jesse Robredo from Cebu to Naga, its engine malfunctioning, plunged into the Masbate Sea, claiming the life of the well-liked government official and leaving his wife, Leni, shocked and traumatized.

“It was during this period that the brave Leni stood out and showed courage, character and a spine of steel,” wrote Garcia, who was Robredo’s teacher at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

With tragedy would come new challenges for Robredo that would mark her as a true champion of our time. A lawyer who had worked for the underprivileged, Robredo became a congresswoman of the third district of Camarines Sur, winning overwhelmingly over her powerful opponent, also a woman.

Then, with scant funds and relying on volunteerism, Robredo won over Bongbong Marcos as Vice President in 2016. She became a cabinet member and was treated shabbily by President Duterte, but she never lost her composure and grace under pressure.

From the start, the life of the remarkable Ressa (Mary Anne Aycardo during her childhood) was one of drama. Her father, Manuel Sunico Aycardo, was killed in a vehicular accident when she was only a year old, her mother pregnant with her second child. The two girls were brought up by the mother and the parents of the father. The adults could not get along and the mother left for the United States, leaving her two daughters behind.

In 1973 at St. Scholastica’s College Manila, where 10-year-old Mary Anne and her sister Mary Jane were studying, their mother appeared from out of the blue and, with the consent of the school principal, whisked her two daughters away to the USA, where they were adopted by their stepfather Peter Ames Ressa. From then on, she would be known as Maria Ressa.

Ahead of her was the prestigious Princeton University, a fateful decision to return to the Philippines, working with PTV-4, ABS-CBN, The Probe Team, CNN, ANC and finally Rappler, where she earned the displeasure of Duterte, resulting in a barrage of lawsuits—and a Nobel Peace Prize, among many other honors she would receive here and abroad. One case is now with the Supreme Court, on final appeal. Ressa continues with her advocacy, her brand of fearless journalism.

Shining moment

Hontiveros was an honor student of the Ateneo de Manila University. She was drawn to the theater during school days and appeared as Liesl von Trapp in Repertory Philippines’ 1980 production of “The Sound of Music” along with Lea Salonga, Monique Wilson and the Lauchengco siblings Menchu and Raymond. She could have been a musical theater star had she chosen, but her path led her to becoming a full-time activist and militant parliamentarian.

Her political awakening actually began two years earlier, in 1978, with the famous noise barrage of the opposition forces against then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It deepened with the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, the snap elections and the People Power Revolution in 1986.

Hontiveros cofounded the political party Akbayan, became a congresswoman and finally a senator in 2016 on her third try. That was the year Duterte became president.

Hontiveros’ shining moment came in the Senate where, as the lone figure of the opposition, she has taken up the cudgels for the oppressed, fighting for human rights, enduring Red-tagging and black propaganda, and rebuilding the opposition decimated in 2022: “We need to piece together our broken hearts, stand up again and fight better, smarter,” she has said.

Carpio-Morales is proud of the fact that she comes from a family of lawyers. In fact, a younger brother, Lucas Carpio, is the father of lawyer Manases Carpio, husband of Vice President Sara Duterte. But this relationship did not prevent then President Duterte, known to dislike women who talk back to him, from tangling with Carpio-Morales.

It happened when she was Ombudsman, after she had served with distinction as associate justice of the Supreme Court. She recalled, “The President got angry when I was interviewed by a Japanese TV network (about the drug war). I said, ‘To me, ordering people to kill people is unacceptable.’ Duterte said, ‘Corrupt ka.’ I said, ‘Show me the evidence.’” That ended the confrontation of sorts.

Serving with distinction

Known for her stand against corruption, Carpio-Morales declared, “Corruption is endemic. If the leader is corrupt, what can stop the subordinates from being the same? To eradicate corruption, we need strong, honest and competent leaders with unquestioned integrity. Then the underlings would have second thoughts.” That year (2018), Carpio-Morales retired from government service with these parting words: “I was loyal to the rule of law.”

To anyone old enough to have been following or participating in the movement for social change since the mid-1970s, the name of Mananzan is a familiar one.

Mananzan’s political awakening happened when she and two other Benedictine nuns joined the workers of La Tondeña Distillery in Manila who had gone on strike in 1975, three years after the imposition of martial law. The workers were brutally dispersed, in an infamous event that politicized many.

In the years and decades after, Mananzan became a street parliamentarian, involving herself in many organizations with political, consumerist and feminist stances, like Filipina and Gabriela.

“Sister Mary John is a renowned and respected theologian and feminist,” writes Sta. Romana Cruz. “She is sharply aware of the role religion has played in the oppression of women. The continuing treatment of women as subordinates and in a patriarchal world remains one of her major concerns.”

This book emerges as an important document of our times, detailing in an inexpensive but permanent edition the travails and triumphs of six exemplary women who can serve as an inspiration to succeeding generations. —CONTRIBUTED

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