Filipino women march to mark International Women's Day in Manila. (Photo by Jire Carreon)
Young women, some still in their teens, stood in front of an 81-year old nun.
Across the room, an inter-generation group in white and purple listened to speakers at an "unprecedented" gathering of women from different ideological and economic backgrounds who are fighting against misogyny in the era of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
"Misogyny is infectious," Benedictine nun Mary John Mananzan told the audience. "Abuse is infectious," she added.
Filipino women have struggled with abuse for centuries, but have never faced the kind of overt hostility displayed by the current president.
He has cursed female opposition leaders and jailed a woman senator after a vilification campaign that trumped the most salacious tabloid writers. He has ordered troops to shoot women rebels in their vaginas. He has bannered rape as a spoil of war and a privilege of power.
Duterte has jeered at thousands of mothers and wives seeking justice for spouses, children and siblings killed in a mad three-year "war on drugs" that has covered the alleyways of urban poor communities with blood.
He has thrown teachers of indigenous girls into jail and thrown out of the country a woman missionary for helping besieged farming communities.
"We have different methods of struggles and different political beliefs, but on March 8, we will make history," said Teresita Deles, a presidential peace adviser in the previous administration.
The event, coinciding with the observance of International Women’s Day, will feature hand-made flowers, songs, dances, and collective gestures to convey the message, "Enough! Onward, women!"
It is the cry of this year's movement organized by the groups EveryWoman and #BabaeAko, religious organizations, and families of drug war victims.
This year’s commemorative action is a protest that, for the first time in decades, will involve civic organizations that often shy away from political actions.
The stakes are high.
Police claim to have killed more than 5,000 suspected drug dealers and users, saying all fought back, while refusing mostly to cooperate with investigations into possible extra-judicial killings.
The government continues to reject calls for a probe by United Nations experts or any third party, and the solicitor-general has just reiterated his position that case files of the killings remain under wraps.
Duterte, meanwhile, has vowed to accelerate and pour more resources into a drug war characterized by the absence of due process.
Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, who ministers in some of the country’s worst killing zones, is hounded by death threats as are bishops and priests of the Philippine Independent Church that aid the rural poor.
Duterte’s top legal adviser has also bared and defended a foreign power’s surveillance of drug suspects, a clearly illegal action that almost everyone believes also targets political dissenters, including clergy and religious groups.
He said the United States, Israel, China and Russia had "provided" the Philippine government with wiretapped information about local politicians involved in drug trafficking.
The Children’s Rehabilitation Center noted that Duterte’s many wars have victimized children. At least nine were reported killed in Mindanao from July 2016 to December 2018. More than 30 children have died in anti-narcotics operations.
Children are now fair game in military anti-insurgency campaigns with 21 reported cases of frustrated killings, torture and abductions. Youth indigenous leaders have been included in "terrorism" posters that lump together rebels and activists.
The young women speaker at the gathering said: "In our homes, our schools, our workplaces, we pour our hearts, our minds and talents to build a just society where people can live with dignity."
They proclaimed pride at "the strides our grandmothers and mothers, and generations of women before us have taken to bring us nearer to this dream," while acknowledging that so many women remain hungry and poor and battered at home and in workplaces.
Filipino women face an existential threat. Duterte has signed a few landmark laws for women, including one that lengthens maternity breaks. He has pressed ahead with a national program to allow access to family planning services.
And yet, in many ways, he seeks to tear down what has been built and hurl Filipino women back to the Dark Ages where they were seen but unheard.
One event, one more breakthrough in recent breakthroughs by women in the Philippines will not solve the problem that is Duterte.
But there are times when a public display of unity can work wonders.
On March 8, women will send Duterte a simple, powerful message: You will not succeed. We will overcome.
Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.