Congress marks milestone in legislating gender equality bills in 2023

By Filane Mikee Cervantes

January 18, 2024, 3:01 pm Updated on January 18, 2024, 3:05 pm

<p>House of Representatives plenary hall <em>(File photo)</em></p>

House of Representatives plenary hall (File photo)

MANILA – The Philippines continues to lead as the most gender-equal country in Asia with a 79.1 percent gender parity based on the 2023 Global Gender Gap Index Report by the World Economic Forum.

Last year, the Philippines also improved three notches to 16th place among 146 countries in gender equality based on economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

The House of Representatives has made legislative efforts that reflect the government's commitment to address gender-based disparities and create a more equitable society.

A key legislative milestone is the passage of a measure prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) at the committee level.

The SOGIESC bill, which has been stalled for more than two decades, gained a bit of traction after the House Committee on Women and Gender Equality approved the substitute bill consolidating House Bills 222, 460, 3418, 4277, 5551, 6003, and 7036 in May 2023.

The Commission on Human Rights welcomed the approval of the SOGIESC bill at the panel level, saying its passage “will give better meaning to the guarantees of equality and non-discrimination under these standards and statues.”

In the Senate, the SOGIESC Equality bill already hurdled the committee level after 19 senators signed a committee report recommending the measure in December 2022, a significant improvement from the previous 18th Congress where only eight senators approved the bill.

Committee chair and Bataan First District Rep. Geraldine Roman said the bill aims to protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) community and guarantee their rights as Filipino citizens and human beings.

"Although it is claimed the Philippine society is tolerant and accepting of members of the LGBT community, in practice and in terms of legal protection, there are no specific national laws that address this kind of discrimination from which this sector of society suffers," Roman said in a previous media interview.

Roman said the proposed law seeks to put an end to the situation of non-protection and neglect, while upholding the fundamental rights and human dignity of the members of the LGBTQIA+ community to attain "an inclusive society where all citizens are equal".

Quezon City First District Rep. Juan Carlos Atayde, author of the measure, noted that those belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community have suffered marginalization, oppression and other forms of abuse due to their SOGIE.

Atayde said the bill does not seek to provide special treatment for the members of the LGBTQIA+ community but to ensure that they are treated "equally to every other human being".

The bill outlines discriminatory acts against a person's SOGIESC, which include:
--Advertising, producing, and publishing materials promoting, encouraging, and perpetuating stigma or inciting violence and sexual abuse against any person or group on the basis of SOGIESC;
--Denying access to public services to any person on the basis of SOGIESC;
--Including SOGIESC, as well as the disclosure of one’s SOGIESC, in the criteria for hiring, promotion, transfer, designation, work assignment, re-assignment, and dismissal;
--Refusing admission or expelling a person from any educational or training institution, such as police and military academies or training institutions, on the basis of SOGIESC;
--Imposing disciplinary sanctions, penalties harsher than customary or similar punishments, requirements, restrictions, or prohibitions that infringe on the rights of the students on the basis of SOGIESC; and
--Denying a person access to or use of establishments, facilities, utilities, or services open to the general public on the basis of SOGIESC.

This development in the lower chamber aligns with the broader efforts of the Marcos administration to address gender-related issues through Executive Order (EO) 51, creating a special committee on LGBTQIA+ affairs.

Based on EO 51, the special committee is tasked to ensure that policies, plans and programs that effectively promote equality, equity, non-discrimination, inclusion and well-being of the LGBTQIA+ community in both the national and local government levels are incorporated in the reinforced Diversity and Inclusion Program (DIP).

Bill protecting women, kids from online violence

The House of Representatives has also approved on final reading a bill seeking to protect women and children from all forms of electronic violence, including those who are involved in the manipulation of technology, back in May 2023.

House Bill 8009, or the Expanded Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act, defines electronic violence or ICT-related violence as “any act or omission involving the use or exploitation of data or any form of ICT which causes or is likely to cause mental, emotional, or psychological distress or suffering to the woman and/or her children.”

Electronic violence also include recording, reproduction, distribution, use, sharing or uploading of any photograph, video, or other forms of electronic and/or artistic presentation, “without authorization” that show or depict in any form or manner the private parts of a woman or those of her children’s; scenes with sexual content or portrayal of sexual conduct, and nudity.

Electronic violence would also include harassing or threatening women and their children through text messaging or other electronic means; stalking, which includes hacking of personal accounts on social networking sites; and fabrication of fake information or news, among others.

Protection measures were expanded to include the immediate blocking, blacklisting, removal, or shutdown of any upload, program, or application that causes or tends to cause violence against a woman and/or her children.

Proposed amendments to Safe Spaces Law

The Safe Spaces Act, which has been pivotal in addressing and preventing sexual harassment, has received proposed amendments at the lower chamber.

The Republic Act No. 11313 or The Safe Spaces Act (Bawal Bastos Law) covers all forms of gender-based sexual harassment (GBSH) committed in public spaces, educational or training institutions, workplace and online space.

The amendments are focused on imposing stiffer penalties for gender-based sexual harassment in the workplace and in education or training institutions.

4Ps Party-list Rep. JC Abalos, author of House Bill 7537, cited a 2020 study by the Philippine Commission on Women that around 33 percent of female students and 10 percent of male students in higher education institutions experienced sexual harassment in the previous year.

The study identified verbal harassment, unwanted physical contact and sexual jokes or gestures as the most common forms of sexual harassment.

Abalos also cited a UN Women Philippines report in 2020 that showed the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, attributing the lack of workplace policy implementation and insufficient legal protection for victims as contributing factors.

"As such, there is a need to reevaluate the existing penalties and consider putting in place penalties that better reflect the severity of the offense that shall deter potential offenders," he said. "By doing so, the Philippines can ensure that its laws regarding sexual harassment remain up-to-date and effective in protecting individuals from gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace and educational settings."

The bill proposes the penalty of prision correccional in its maximum period or a fine of not less than PHP250,000 but not more than PHP500,000, or both, if the person is found guilty of gender-based sexual harassment in the workplace or in education or training institutions.

If the perpetrator is the head of the workplace, school or organization, his or her appointment shall be automatically deemed revoked upon conviction.

These bills signify a critical step forward in the pursuit of gender equality in the Philippines.

Ratification of ILO pact

Last month, the Philippine Senate adopted Resolution No. 877, concurring with ratification of the International Labor Organization Convention No. 190 (ILO C190).

Senate Majority Floor Leader Joel Villanueva, co-sponsored the measure, said it was a fulfillment of the government's obligation to protect workers.

ILO C190 or the “Convention Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work" provides a global framework to address violence and harassment among workers, including gender-based violence.

Villanueva said he was grateful that President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. has endorsed the convention for immediate concurrence of the Senate.

“Harmonizing our local legislation with our obligations under ILO C190 is a step towards realizing the world we envision — a world where everyone can contribute and thrive without the fear of violence or harassment; a world where dignity reigns supreme,” he added

Villanueva believes that the concurrence will help address the violence and harassment at work, both domestic and abroad, especially overseas Filipino workers who remain vulnerable to all types of harassment.

According to the Department of Migrant Workers, the top three countries with recorded labor and welfare cases are Riyadh with 65,136, Kuwait with 43,225 and Malaysia with 29,049.

“Each number represents a Filipino migrant worker who faced maltreatment, mistreatment, contract violation, contract substitution, sexual harassment, or rape, among others,” Villanueva said.

He also cited the Senate’s concurrence to the treaty as not only a commitment, but also a moral imperative to ensure that no worker, here or abroad, will suffer any form of violence and harassment in the future.

Senate Deputy Minority Leader and Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality Chairperson Senator Risa Hontiveros was also co-sponsored the measure.

Hontiveros cited the concurrence as an "achievement and another milestone to celebrate."

The resolution was sponsored by Senator Imee Marcos as chairperson of the Foreign Relations panel after ILO C190 received a unanimous concurrence from key government agencies and non-governmental organizations during the panel discussions. (with a report from Wilnard Bacelonia/PNA)