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Cover Story

Sen. Pia Cayetano: Finding Love After a Bruising Battle

/ 08:49 PM February 02, 2013

“Filipino voters judge you on how you look.” A FULL AND SATISFYING LIFE: As entrepreneur (PDI Photo/Alanah Torralba)

Senator Pia Cayetano, main sponsor in the Senate of the still-controversial “Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law,” ends her second term in the Senate in 2016.

“People have been asking me what my ambitions would be at that point. Will I run for president, or for vice president? Well, my ambitions don’t lie in that direction,” she says. Instead, she adds with a wide smile, “my ambition is to fall in love.”


There are in fact two males competing for the honor of winning her heart, if they haven’t yet. One is named Rene Lucas, a toddler she has been fostering for the last few years and who is now undergoing the process of legal adoption.

The other is “he who shall remain unnamed” at the senator’s request. Suffice it to say that he’s a foreigner (and a fellow parliamentarian at that), a Catholic and good-looking, judging from the photo that Cayetano downloads from her phone.


The senator’s widening smile and twinkling eyes indicate that, despite the distance, the “kilig factor” is still there.

“Falling in love” is actually just part of a general plan to chill out. “I want to take a break,” she says. “Take a trip to Paris, maybe even live in Europe, do some writing, maybe take my business to the international level.”

All these on top of continuing to train and compete in triathlons, raising Lucas and her two girls Maxene and Nadine, managing her coffee shop Slice at the Bonifacio Global City, and recovering from the rigors of what was perhaps one of the most bruising legislative battles in recent memory: the struggle to pass the RH bill into law.

She looks none the worse for it. Reluctantly (and only because my editor asked me to), I bring up the rumors that she had recently undergone a botox procedure.

A FULL AND SATISFYING LIFE: As entrepreneur (PDI Photo/Alanah Torralba)

The senator narrows her eyes, perhaps weighing her options. “I won’t deny it,” she finally says. “But let me cite an article, titled ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling’ that spoke about the kind of public scrutiny that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin underwent” (in their campaigns for US President and Vice President, respectively).

The scrutiny, she says, went beyond studying both women’s ideas, experience and intelligence (or lack of it), but dwelt, too, on their hairstyles, outfit choices and body shape. “The public don’t make a big deal of it for men,” she comments. “For example, no one even made note of Erap’s tiyan (paunch). I remember watching a forum on women in politics abroad and the women on the panel refused to entertain questions on their beauty routines. They said they’d answer such questions only when the men are asked too.”

But yes, she admits, a health-and-beauty regimen is a necessity for a woman in politics. It’s a realization she arrived at rather late in the game. The “health” part she has down pat: always active in sports, she was a varsity volleyball player while at the University of the Philippines and was converted to competing in triathlons by her brother, TV director Lino. She travels the world to compete in major races, and a bike run from Alabang to Tagaytay is part of a normal weekend for her. Her awesome toned arms and legs and flat belly are testament to this athleticism.


The whole fashion-and-beauty “thing,” though, was alien to her, and even as a lawyer, Pia wasn’t fond of putting on make-up or looking after her wardrobe. “I have always been low maintenance,” she admits.

“I have never felt so completely, genuinely happy.” (PDI Photo/Alanah Torralba)

But politics changed all that.

“When I decided to run for the Senate, a friend of mine since we were in high school who isn’t a politician but is active in politics and campaigns, sat me down and gave me this piece of advice: ‘To succeed, you have to look good.’”

Filipino voters, she was told, generally go for good-looking candidates and “judge you on how you look,” even if they tell pollsters that being “kind,” “caring” and “compassionate” are the top qualities they seek in candidates.

At the very least, said her friend-advisor, “kailangang maaliwalas ang mukha mo (you need have a clear face),” which may refer to the absence of blemishes, but could also mean no visible wrinkles or sagging flesh. The turning point, though, says Pia, was when she came upon a magazine on running which had a famous woman triathlete on the cover. “I gasped when I saw the photo,” she says of the woman who was then in her thirties. “She looked almost 60 years old!”

Thus was the would-be senator driven straight into the clinic of her dermatologist, who prescribed a regimen of sunblock (“the first rule of dermatologists”) and other regular treatments. “I’ve always been a good patient,” she declares, “and I follow my derma’s advice to the letter.” Lino, who knows whereof he speaks, being in the thick of showbiz, also advised her to change her look every chance she got, be it her hairdo or a unique fashion accessory. “There should always be something new about you,” he told her.

Her love life and beauty regimen done with, it’s now time to focus on what must be the highlight of the past year for the senator: the passage-in a cliff-hanger last-minute and low-key signing into law, preceded by tense days of interpellations and a bicam committee meeting-of the more-than-a-decade old RH bill.

There had been different versions of this piece of legislation over the years, but either out of neglect or actual hostility from different administrations, and the vigorous objections of Catholic bishops and conservative Church groups, the bill never quite made it into plenary in either the House or the Senate. Worse, at the time the P-Noy administration took the helm of government, the bill was being shepherded in both chambers by members of the minority: Rep. Edcel Lagman who brought the RH bill the farthest it could go in the House, and Sentor Pia Cayetano.

“Not one person” could be or should be credited with the passage of the bill, she points out, but rather a confluence of many factors: social momentum, a growing consensus among the public on the need for reproductive health, the boom in the social media (and their effect on legislators), and “the fact that all three of us women senators were united” in our support for the measure.


By her own account, the three of them made an excellent team. Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who was the original author of the bill, was “a big help,” she concedes, bringing to the debates and interpellations her “arsenal of arguments,” including her familiarity with constitutional and international law.

Feminists and RH advocates were initially wary of Sen. Loren Legarda, who ran together with Sen. Pia under the Nacionalista Party “big tent” in 2010. Previously, when similar measures came up for debate, Legarda would say that she was in fact “pro-life.”

“But thanks to her two teenage sons who are very pro-RH,” says Pia, Legarda was soon convinced to take up the cudgels for the bill. “In fact, Loren takes pride that she went through the entire process, studying the draft bill, interpellating the sponsors, and making amendments. So she could say that her support for the bill was based on its merits.”

In fact, the three women senators formed a sort of “tag team” during the final day of the period of amendments (which ended with the Senate voting 13 in favor, eight against, to pass the Senate version after President Aquino submitted it as a priority measure). This was best exemplified, as Marilen Danguilan, a medical doctor and RH advocate recounts in an article “Sex and the Senate” (in the online magazine “Positively Pilipino”) when Sen. Tito Sotto, who staunchly opposed the RH measure, introduced 35 amendments to the bill. One of the most heatedly discussed was Sotto’s insistence that the phrase “safe and satisfying sex life” should, first be deleted entirely, and then, seeing he was going nowhere, “relented and argued instead for the removal of the word ’satisfying.’”

According to Sotto, the word “satisfying” was culturally inappropriate, recounts Danguilan. “When a true Filipina speaks of reproductive health, she means family, marriage, responsible parenthood, nurturing and rearing her children and (being a) mother,” Sotto contended.

When Sen. Cayetano stood her ground and refused to accept the amendment, Santiago stood up to explain that “safe and satisfying” was included in the outcome document of the UN International Conference on Population and Development, adding that, as a Filipina by birth, “I insist that whoever is married to me should give me safe and satisfying sex.”

At this, Legarda stood up to place “safe and satisfying sex” in the context of violence against women (quoting several studies), especially when husbands force or coerce their wives or partners into having unwanted sex.

Fortunately, the males in the Senate were saved by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano (Pia’s brother). “Sex happens all the time, and when it does, not all of it is consensual, safe and pleasurable,” writes Danguilan in her article. This, she said was the point of Sen. Alan Cayetano’s interjection: “If you don’t put (the phrase) in the law and make it clear to the people that they have that right, many of our men will continue to think that their wives do not have the right to refuse. Many of our men will still think that they can rape their wives.”

The amendment was voted down.

“It was a good opportunity to let the people understand the issues,” says Pia of the heated discussions. “And it was a good thing that Alan stood up and spoke on the ’safe and satisfying’ issue, so that it didn’t become a battle of ’men versus women.’”

Dr. Junice Melgar, executive director of the NGO Likhaan, part of the Reproductive Health Action Network (RHAN), admits that early in the 14th Congress, when Pia chaired the Committee on Health and Demography, they were quite apprehensive about her involvement in crafting and defending the early version of the RH bill.

“At the time, she was not known as a women’s rights advocate,” explains Melgar. “She was better known as a health advocate, but we gradually saw her feminist side when she began working with us on reproductive health.”

A good indicator of Pia’s deepening understanding of the issue, recounts Melgar, was her willingness to learn from women’s groups, especially in dialogs with the working-class and urban poor members of Likhaan.

In turn, says Melgar, they too learned a lot from the senator. “Before we started working with senator Pia, we never had full exposure to the ’politics’ side of legislation. We thought that as long we had all the rational, scientific information on our side, our legislators would be convinced in time.” But, sighs Melgar, “that wasn’t true pala.”

Pia recounts that during her first term, Sen. Juan Flavier, a former secretary of health and her seat mate and informal advisor, cautioned her against being too outspoken on reproductive health and to bide her time before championing the RH bill. “Wait for the House to pass its version first,” he told her, his way of advising her to make sure she had public opinion and political will on her side before making herself vulnerable.

True enough, in the House where the bill was being primarily pushed by Representative Edcel Lagman, what had seemed an easy road to passage was becoming increasingly rocky. In the 14th Congress, Lagman was a literal heavyweight, chairing at one time the powerful Committee on Appropriations. He was also considered a very influential adviser to (and defender of) former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

But as we all know by now, Arroyo chose to play politics with the RH bill, acceding to the Catholic bishops’ demands while continually assuring Lagman of her support. The 14th Congress closed its doors with the RH bill left in legislative limbo.

In the 15th Congress, says Lagman, “collaborating with senator Pia was made much easier” because, among other factors, “we were coming from a common orientation and perspective… and we shared the same documentations on relevant international conventions to which the Philippines is a signatory.” Then, too, he adds, “we had common committed advisers from the vast NGO community,” including Danguilan and Melgar.

As the march towards reporting out the RH bill from the House committee on health moved inexorably, at the Senate, Pia was holding committee hearings and preparing to defend the bill once it reached plenary. Cayetano studied the lay of the land, aware, for one that the leadership of the Senate-Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, President Pro-tempore Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Majority Floor Leader Tito Sotto-were all staunch RH bill oppositionists.

Melgar remembers this period as fraught with frustration at what they perceived as undue delays on the part of Cayetano. Today, Pia explains that “we could not broadcast our moves all the time,” even at times pulling out the RH bill from the agenda “if we knew we did not enjoy an advantage in terms of numbers.”

“Everyday, we felt stressed,” remembers Pia.

Did she ever feel that she would be vulnerable to personal attacks since she is a single mother, having separated from her husband who is also a lawyer?

“Let’s just say that I was prepared for every question that would be thrown at me,” she says with a smile. “I never felt vulnerable on that score,” she says, “but some questions irked me; they were like, ’holier than thou.’ I like to think that on questions like those on abortion, I raised the level of the debate.”

Melgar testifies that at one time, Pia’s chief of staff called her, warning her that Sotto would be naming her in one of his privilege speeches and asking that she be present. What Sotto did was to show an “old” video of her discussing abortion, among other issues, with urban poor women in a community serviced by Likhaan.  Pia sent word to Melgar “to stand up and show yourself to everybody to prove that you have nothing to be guilty or ashamed of.” She was, says Melgar, dismayed by this very public faux “outing.” “I wanted to crawl under my seat and hide,” she says of her “five minutes of infamy,” but because of Pia’s support, “I really did not feel I had something to be ashamed of.”

“Very diligent” is how Melgar describes the senator at work in defense of the RH bill. “From the beginning, she told us that she wanted to be sure of all the facts she could use in defending the bill on the floor. So she took the floor prepared, using her intelligence to marshal the data and showing remarkable stamina. She’s really a marathoner.”

Well, if it’s a marathon, it ain’t over yet. Both Lagman and Cayetano are confident that the new law would withstand every challenge hurled at it, including (as of latest count) three petitions questioning the law’s Constitutionality filed before the Supreme Court.

In these remaining three years of her term, it seems Pia is bent on exploring other facets of herself and her life quite separate from being a senator.

She is enjoying being a mother to a young boy again, a possibility, she says, she would not have imagined at the time.  Before she was drafted for the Senate, she lost her youngest. Gabriel lived just a few hours after he was born, his death attributed to congenital factors. “For the next two years, I could not bear looking at babies, and I would fight with my ex-husband if he so much as carried an infant in his arms.” In her son’s memory, Pia would put up Gabriel’s Symphony, an NGO raising funds for research on congenital diseases and to help families with disabled children, the money raised mainly through marathons and triathlons.

Now she has Lucas, a good-looking toddler whom she hopes to formally adopt within the year. She has two older daughters: Maxene, a freshman at UP Diliman and a member of the university’s varsity soccer team (who was turning 18 on the day of our interview); and Nadine, a high school freshman at De La Salle Zobel.

Just that morning, Pia confides, Maxene asked her what she thought she (Maxene) would turn out to be. “You’re everything I dreamt you to be,” Pia told her, “a confident, caring, compassionate young girl.”

Well, their mother certainly has a lot to do with the way they have turned out. And they, too, have something to do with the “good place” Pia finds herself in. “I am starting to truly enjoy my mid-term,” she confesses, and with the passage of the RH bill, “I have never felt so completely, genuinely happy.” •

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