(In celebration of International Women's Day and Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country or to their communities.)
The formidable spirit of a woman leader, the compassionate heart of a mother, the mind of a lawyer, the resilience of a social advocate – those are the qualities that push Vice President Leni Robredo to work for the people, despite the odds, one of them, being excluded from programs initiated by the Office of the President.
As the world celebrates Women’s Month with the high-profile celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, VP Leni brings the strength of a woman leader as another indication that in the Philippines, big strides have been made to break the gender bias.
“I believe it’s the innate fortitude of women that helps me power through these roles,” she said in an email interview with the Manila Bulletin.
As the May 2022 elections draw near, Robredo, the lone female presidential candidate, looks ahead at the road less traveled.
The political landscape in the country historically does not give a “warm welcome” to Filipinas. That makes the road ahead more challenging to this mild-tempered official. She’s looking at beating well-established political families and at the prospect of governing a country pummeled by a global health pandemic, economic recession, joblessness, and fake news.
Perhaps, this woman leader is best described by eldest daughter Aika when she represented her mother in one of the events she had to miss because she was busy campaigning in the provinces.
“Kaming magkakapatid, tuwing ni-re-represent namin ‘yung mama namin, sinusubukan naming ipakilala siya through our lens; dahil ako po, sa tingin ko, malaking bahagi ng pagiging mabuting lider niya ang pagiging isang mabuting ina (We siblings, every time we represent our mama, we try to introduce her through our lens, because, in my opinion, a big part of her being a good leader is her being a good mother),” she had said.
“Madalas po kami tanungin, ano ba ‘yung difference ni Leni as a mother and Leni as a leader? Sa tingin ko po hindi mapaghihiwalay ‘yun (We’re always being asked about the difference with Leni as a mother and Leni as a leader? I think we cannot separate that),” Aika added.
She shared that her mother, just like what a leader should be, had always shown up “in the most difficult times,” including in the most heartbreaking of all when “daddy’s girls” lost their father, former Interior secretary Jesse Robredo.
“We were shocked and unprepared, and as the new head of the household, I knew I had to work very hard to provide for our three children and to send them to school. That’s what mothers do: we face all challenges for our children’s futures,” Robredo said.
Robredo not only sent her three daughters to good schools on full scholarships, she also ran as congresswoman of the third district of Camarines Sur, toppling a well-entrenched political dynasty in her hometown.
As congresswoman, she passed and proposed measures to raise the accountability of public officials. She was the principal author of the Full Disclosure Bill, Participatory Budget Process Bill, and the People Empowerment Bill.
She co-authored the Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Bill, Anti-Political Dynasty Bill, Health Beverage Options Bill, People’s Freedom of Information Bill, and the bill creating the Agrarian Reform Commission to investigate circumventions and violations of CARP.
Robredo passed into law the Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act (TIMTA), Open High School System Act, Amending the Probation Law of 1976, Graphic Health Warnings Law, Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act, and the act extending the life of the Philippine National Railways, among others.
No real mandate
As the country’s second-highest elected official, Robredo has no real mandate except to assume the presidency in case of the death, disability, or resignation of the incumbent President. Although President Duterte tried working with her by making her a housing czar, this was taken away mere months into her appointment after she criticized his bloody war on drugs campaign.
She continued to work anyway.
Inspired by her work as a volunteer lawyer for the Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (SALIGAN), Robredo created the Angat Buhay program, the Office of the Vice President’s (OVP) flagship poverty alleviation program.
“During that time (SALIGAN), I worked with the grassroots, ‘yung mga nasa laylayan (those in the fringes of society), defending women in impoverished communities, getting to know them, their families, their needs, their way of life,” she shared.
“So when I became vice president, I used what I had learned from my years of work with different communities to set up Angat Buhay. Our efforts have been geared towards more than respect and protection for Filipino women, we work for their economic independence,” Robredo added.
She once shared that women in abusive marriages often couldn’t walk away because they rely on their husbands financially. This was why one of the core components of the Angat Buhay program was the economic empowerment of women by providing them the means and capabilities to earn a living.
The Angat Buhay program spearheaded projects for women entrepreneurs in Luzon called Angat Buhay Workshop for Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs (AB WAWE), which provided seed grants for women to set up or expand their businesses.
Her projects have reached far-flung areas of the T’Boli Tribe in South Cotabato and the Basilan fishermen in Isabela City. She had a special focus on farmers and fishermen by mobilizing the OVP’s and partner organizations resources to provide tools, training, and other resources to the sector.
She had disaster relief and housing projects, too, for transitory shelters in Marawi and Bicol, assistance to typhoon victims, solar power panels, and water systems.
During the height of the pandemic, Robredo also answered the call to meet the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical frontliners, tapping women sewers. Many of them were wives of those who lost their livelihood because of Covid-19 while others were widows of the victims of the war on drugs campaign.
“We have a very small budget at the OVP, but because I am a mother, I look for ways to stretch our funds so we can help more of our countrymen,” she said.
Robredo spearheaded the Swab Cab, Vaccine Express, Bayanihan E-Konsulta, Community Marts, and Community Learning Hubs during the pandemic. With her office’s meager means, they provided dormitories and free shuttle services for medical frontliners, Covid-19 testing kits, gadgets for students, hazard pay, and medical assistance.
During a covenant signing with women groups for the International Women’s Day on March 8, the Vice President expressed hope that there would come a time when women no longer have to prove their strength and abilities, a time when they would be respected because they are women, and a time when they wouldn’t be seen too weak to lead a country.