First Philippine female speaker dismays women activists

Former president Gloria Arroyo back in the fold after being elected Speaker of the Lower House of Congress
First Philippine female speaker dismays women activists

Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (left) attends a Labor Day celebration this year with President Rodrigo Duterte. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)


Women activists in the Philippines said they were unimpressed by the election of former president Gloria Arroyo as the new speaker of the Lower House of Congress.

For Arroyo, who served as the country's 14th president from 2001 to 2010, it completes a political comeback after the dismissal of plunder charges against her had seen her placed under "hospital arrest" for five years.

The former president's return came after the ouster of former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a political nemesis of President Rodrigo Duterte's daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, on July 23.

After taking the oath as the new House Speaker, Arroyo vowed to ensure the passage of Duterte's priority measures.

Judy Taguiwalo, former head of the Social Welfare Department under Duterte, said Filipinos should "rage on the return of a woman whose rule meant plunder, cheating, and Machiavellian moves."

"I feel grief for the mothers, wives, children of the thousands of human rights victims under her reign of terror," said Taguiwalo.

Nanette Aldrin, a mother who lost her son to the government's anti-narcotics war, said Arroyo is "the dark side of woman power."

"We expect passage of laws that would justify a Duterte crackdown on dissenters," she said, adding that she is "bracing for more bloodshed."

Arroyo was elected speaker by a vote of 184 -12. A total of 238 legislators attended the session that elected the former president who claimed she was a victim of "political persecution" under the previous administration of former president Benigno Aquino.

She spent five years in detention owing to a now-dismissed plunder case filed by former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.

Arroyo, head of the Lakas Christian-Muslim Democrats Party, joined Duterte's Philippine Democratic Party in October "to consolidate support for the president."

She has been included several times in the list of the world's most powerful women. Born to privilege, Arroyo can play a frail damsel as well as a dragon lady.

She topped the Senate race in the 1990s by playing up her physical resemblance to a popular Filipino movie star. She later trounced rivals for the vice presidency.

Arroyo's ties with people who placed her in power quickly frayed as she battled a series of corruption scandals, a failed coup, and an all-out war that failed to crush communist rebels and Muslim insurgents.

Cristina Palabay of human rights group Karapatan said Arroyo's nine-year rule resulted in the killing of at least 1,207 activists. 

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"We recorded more than 200 enforced disappearances and thousands of arrests and torture," said Palabay.

"What kind of feminist creates thousands of widows and orphans," she added.

"She is absolutely anti-women," said Jean Enriquez, head of World March of Women-Philippines and one of the convenors of the #BabaeAko anti-misogyny campaign.

Enriquez, a women's representative of the government's National Anti-Poverty Commission during Arroyo's administration, recalled asking the president to certify as urgent a bill shifting criminality away from prostituted women to buyers and profiteers. 

"She replied that prostituted women are petty criminals and cannot be decriminalized," Enriquez said.

Enriquez also cited Arroyo's penchant for declaring states of emergency during her reign marked by massive protests, including a violent police dispersal of a Women's Day rally in 2006.

Arroyo, who admitted to using contraceptives during her child-bearing years, later ordered agencies to strike out the word "reproductive health" from all policy statements and programs during her administration.

The move, critics charged, was the result of the influence of pro-government Catholic bishops whom Arroyo showered with donations during her term. Duterte has referenced that as evidence of corruption among church leaders.

Carol Araullo, head of the New Patriotic Alliance group, said Arroyo's new post only shows the elite's consolidation of political power that also includes the heirs of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

"This axis of power represents a cabal most corrupt, most murderous, most power-hungry and most subservient to foreign dictates," said Araullo, adding that it bodes of "harder and harsher times for Filipinos."

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