Three women

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

bu-op-icons-luisBefore Cristina Ponce Enrile announced to the entire country and the world that her husband, former Senate President and chief martial law enforcer Juan Ponce Enrile is, in the words of one of the country’s broadsheets, “a womanizer, yes, but a thief, no,” two women had already figured prominently in what looks like the impending exoneration of Enrile from plunder charges in connection with the misuse of pork barrel funds.

Enrile’s former Chief of Staff, Jessica “Gigi” Reyes and Ruby Tuason, a former Malacañang social secretary who has implicated Reyes and Senator Jinggoy Estrada in the misuse of P10 billion in pork barrel funds, are the two other women.

By leaving the country for the United States shortly after the scandal broke out, whether knowingly or not Reyes made herself appear to be the real culprit and her former boss her victim. Tuason has reinforced that perception by declaring that it was to Reyes and not Enrile that she handed kickbacks from the pork barrel-funded ghost projects of Janet Lim Napoles’ ghost NGOs.

Enrile’s wife Cristina has now joined the chorus — by seemingly condemning Enrile for his alleged infidelities, while actually defending him from charges that he benefitted from, and was a prime mover of, Napoles’ allegedly siphoning billions in pork barrel funds into her and her associates’ bank accounts.

Infidelity’s an offense that in patriarchal Philippines is usually either dismissed as of little or even no consequence except to women — who should realize that boys will be boys — or even celebrated as a masculine virtue. Mrs. Enrile’s disclosure of what has long been one of the least-kept secrets about the political elite in this country was both credible — she is, after all, the long-suffering spouse that’s the stuff of both the noontime soaps and celebrity gossip — as well as a celebration of Enrile’s prowess. It doesn’t detract from Enrile’s public image and in fact even enhances it, in a country where the double standard — one for women and another for men — reigns: where a husband can amass any number of mistresses that he wants, while a wife has to remain as virtuous as the Virgin Mary.

But what’s even more crucial is that Mrs. Enrile’s swearing to high heavens that her husband is no thief adds to the credibility of his claims of innocence before the public, and, together with Reyes’ being pinned down for supposedly being the culprit in Enrile’s alleged involvement in the pork barrel scandal, is likely to have convinced much of the public — at least that part of it unfamiliar with Enrile’s other, past attempts at tinkering with the facts — of Enrile’s alleged victimization at the hands of Reyes.

If Mrs Enrile’s interview was not the brainchild of some public relations maven, it should have been, based as it is on a sound understanding not only of Philippine macho culture, the double standard, and a society that despite appearances is still patriarchal to the core, but also of how the media frames such stories.

Consider the following. A woman, Janet Lim-Napoles, is accused of masterminding one of the biggest scams in recent history. (By provoking massive outrage against the misuse of pork barrel funds even among those habitually indifferent to governance and other public issues, she just might have unintentionally contributed to the democratic imperative of citizen engagement. But that’s another story.)

Nobody’s holding it against women, which does suggest that even in this patriarchal society, there has developed a recognition that it’s not one’s gender that’s responsible for one’s virtues or vices, but one’s moral compass (or its absence). Other women, in any case, are playing prominent roles in exposing the misuse of pork barrel funds through their involvement in amassing the evidence against Napoles and her alleged co-conspirators, and in prosecuting them.

The prominence of women in both the public and private sectors is already part of the Philippine reality and has been for some time. The country has had two women Presidents. Several women are cabinet secretaries, and a woman is currently Chief Justice, a post she’s going to occupy for about two decades. A woman is the country’s ombudsman.

In the media, women broadcasters outnumber men, the editors of two of the three leading broadsheets are women, and so are the leading networks’ heads of news and public affairs units. Women doctors, lawyers, professors and CEOs are also in ample evidence. I suspect that women students outnumber men in Philippine universities. They certainly outnumber men students in the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication — which is both a reflection of the increasing primacy of women in the media and a cause for it.

It’s a seemingly ideal situation for which the Philippines is envied by women in other Asian societies where even going to college, or going to school at all, can be problematic for women — although, as a Pakistani woman journalist observed when surprised by the information that a divorce bill in the Philippine Congress was unlikely to pass either the Senate or the House of Representatives, the absence of divorce contradicts the supposed equality between men and women in the Philippines.

So do the statistics on domestic violence challenge that idyllic image. The National Commission on the
Role of Filipino Women reports that the physical abuse of women occurs in six out of 10 relationships between men and women. The Department of Social Welfare reports that incidents of violence against women and their children are actually increasing.

Citing records of the Women and Children Protection Center of the Philippine National Police, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said in 2012 that in 2011, some 15,104 cases of domestic violence were reported, 5,619 cases more than the 9,485 cases in 2010, while some 12,948 cases were recorded from January to August of 2012.

One out of five women has experienced physical violence, while 14.4% of married women have suffered physical abuse from their husbands; 37% of separated or widowed women have also experienced physical violence, Soliman said, quoting the National Statistics Office’s 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey.

The contradiction implicit in these statistics and the seemingly ideal state of women in the Philippines is the context that makes the Cristina Enrile claim that while her husband is a womanizer, he’s no thief so credibly exonerative of Enrile’s involvement in the misuse of pork barrel funds. The irony is that it takes women — at least three of them so far — to make a man, no matter how unfaithful he may be to his marriage vows, seem as innocent as a lamb.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
March 6, 2014

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