By FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER JOSE DE VENECIA
(Remarks at the Asia Pacific First Ladies Summit 2019 in Palau Koror, Palau, on December 9-12, 2019.)
On behalf of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), we are pleased to welcome you all to this historic Asia Pacific First Ladies Summit — and to congratulate the distinguished First Ladies and the women leaders who are here today.
We congratulate a global woman leader, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, co-founder of UPF, founder of the now celebrated Sun Hak Peace Prize and widow of the late great Rev. Sun Myung-Moon, for her and the late Rev. Moon’s trail-blazing initiatives in the US, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa; and for their unwavering commitment and indefatigable efforts in promoting peace and reconciliation, unity, interfaith dialogue, and the strengthening of marriage and the family.
We thank the government of the Republic of Palau led by President Thomas Remengesau Jr. and the First Lady, Madame Debbie Remengesau, for co-hosting this remarkable gathering here in this pristine island-paradise by the banks of the western Pacific Ocean.
Our unique summit among the First Ladies and women leaders from the Asia Pacific region and various parts of the world in this archipelagic paradise in Micronesia is a fitting tribute to President and First Lady Remengesau and the people of Palau for their world-renowned, unshakeable commitment to the cause of environmental protection and sustainability.
President Remengesau, the first president of Palau to be elected four times, is a recipient of distinguished international awards for his many achievements, especially on nature conservation and environmental sustainability.
Among the numerous recognitions conferred on him are “Champion of the Earth” by the United Nations Environmental Programme; “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine; and “Pacific Champion Award” by the Pacific Regional Environmental Program, an inter-governmental organization in the region.
First Lady Debbie Remengesau, like her husband, is also a steadfast environmental activist and was bestowed the “Prix de la Fondation Award” by Crans Montana Forum for her leadership and valuable contributions to ocean conservation and stewardship.
It is worth mentioning that one of the recipients of this award was the late United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
The feminist struggle through history
The feminist campaign for women’s economic, political, and cultural rights — against unequal societies founded on the assumed passivity of women — has accomplished a great deal since it began in 17th century Europe, as part of the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment emphasized reason and individualism over tradition and conformity.
The early feminists spoke out against the then-prevailing view of women either as “ornaments to society” or as “property to be traded in marriage.”
Feminists reject the all-too-common male-chauvinist view of women as “eternally blissful housewives.” Feminists argue, and rightfully so, that women are human beings deserving of the same rights as men — and demand equal opportunities for women in politics, in business, in culture.
In recent years, feminist movements have expanded their agenda of equality. Their efforts have speeded up the dismantling of the traditional patriarchy—the system of male authority—and eased women’s integration into the global community.
Politically, the feminist campaign has focused on acquiring the vote for women; on extending the range of legislation to assure equity in their treatment by the law; and on winning women the full rights of citizenship.
The suffragist battle has been won. It has been long-drawn and hard-fought. In Switzerland, Belgium—and even France—women were not enfranchised until after World War II.
The suffragist movement has produced iconic women-politicians in many countries.
They include Lady Margaret Thatcher in Britain; Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi in the United States; and the formidable Angela Merkel in Germany. Undisputedly she is the first among equals in the leadership ranks of the European Union.
In Asia, we have Indira Gandhi of India’s founding family; Sirimavo Bandaranaike, thrice prime minister of Sri Lanka, and the first woman in the world to hold the office; Golda Meir in Israel, Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines; Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia; and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.
We have also seen the rise of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar; Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand; President Park Geun-hye of South Korea; and Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Slowly but surely, women are assuming leadership roles in politics and the corporate world.
And as women’s rights and conditions have improved over the years, the role of the one person who is closest to the most powerful man in a country — the First Lady — has also evolved. However, as the position of First Lady is neither elective nor appointive, its role is highly shaped and defined by its respective occupant.
Consequently, the institution of First Lady has been molded not only by social, political and cultural developments and public expectations, but also to a large extent by the way presidential wives have carried out their duties and responsibilities.
In the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is considered by many to be the most vigorous, influential, and inspiring first lady.
She campaigned for New Deal proposals and fought for equal rights for women, civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees.
Eleanor played a key role in the creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II, helped draft the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and became the first chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission.
Hillary Clinton was another dynamic and powerful first lady. She was involved in policy-making, especially in the realm of health care and was head of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. She also advocated important legislation like the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
After President Bill Clinton’s two terms, Hillary became a senator from New York, then served as secretary of state in the President Barrack Obama administration. In 2016, she became the first female presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
Excellencies, friends: The gender vote may have been won, but the struggle for women’s rights continues.
Between the sexes, we can still discern differences in their social role that their biological differences do not justify.
Women are still under-represented in both government and business. At the very least, women still suffer from inequalities of pay, status, and opportunity — even in the supposedly most advanced post-industrial societies.
As of June, 2019, only 33 or 6.6% of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 corporations in the United States are female, although it is a considerable increase from last year’s 24, or 4.8%.
We in Southeast Asia are fortunate in this regard, since, in our traditional societies, women have always occupied an exalted position.
In Southeast Asian society, the social unit is not the individual — as is increasingly the case in the post-industrial West — but the family.
And it is the woman — as wife, mother, or eldest daughter — who holds the family together.
Historically, Southeast Asian women have enjoyed a great deal of cultural and economic — even sexual — autonomy and importance.
Women could become heads of descent groups and occupy important places in clan activities.
In traditional Southeast Asia, women do not compete with men: instead, they complement them.
So that we Filipinos pride ourselves in how empowered our women are.
But even Filipino women have a long way to go before they can attain full equality.
ICAPP enshrines women’s vital role on peace and development
Righting this anomaly — this under-representation of women in Asian politics — is something we believe political parties and civil societies in Asia and in the international community should start deliberating.
In recognition of the vital role of women in advancing the causes of peace, security and development in our Asian region and the world; and as our modest contribution in addressing women’s issues and upholding women empowerment, we in the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) — representing some 350 ruling, opposition and independent political parties from 52 countries in Asia — have created the ICAPP Women’s Wing in 2013.
Since its establishment six years ago, the ICAPP Women’s Wing has served as a regular forum for women politicians in the Asian region to exchange information, share experiences and work together to advance women’s rights and interests; and has conducted conferences on various topics such as “advancing women’s status in Asia,” the “role of women in building an Asian community,” and human trafficking.
We in ICAPP also proposed the establishment of an Asian All-Women Anti-Poverty Bank or Anti-Poverty Fund for small loans for micro-finance business of as low as $500 or $1,000, for women, historically, have very high repayment records and since the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other global and regional financial institutions lend only to governments and mainly for large infrastructure projects.
This will considerably reduce poverty in the rural areas and in the urban slums.
Promoting gender equality in national politics
If you accept — as I do — that women possess a gentler nature and a quantum of compassion greater than men have — then you will agree our party organizations will benefit from more women politicians directing our campaigns against mass poverty; our efforts to bridge the gap between rich and poor in national society; and the campaigns against global warming — against climate change that threatens the human future.
We must contribute our share in advancing the cause of gender equality in national and local politics. And our political parties can start by setting minimum gender ratios for our nominees to public office.
For instance, our party leaders could agree that (say) at least a third — 30-35% — of our electoral nominees must be female.
And this kind of affirmative action should continue — until the political gender ratio stabilizes at close to full equality.
For I believe fervently that only their full integration in national society will enable Asia’s and the world’s women to reach their full potential in the workplace, community and the country; and enable them to continue holding up their share of Heaven, for as it has been said, “Women hold up half the sky.”