Pia S. Cayetano

Senator Pia S. Cayetano stands tall as a champion of women’s rights, health and education. The youngest woman elected in the history of the Philippine Senate, Senator Pia excelled in her first term from 2004 to 2010, and was re-elected to a second term in 2010. She has pushed for the passage of several laws benefiting women, children and the elderly, while also working to improve public health services and make quality education accessible to all. Her recent legislative accomplishments include landmark laws on health, including the Reproductive Health Act (RA 10354), a measure that had languished previously in Congress for over a decade.

The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, having been occupied and colonized by the Spanish in the 1500s. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has dominated the Filipino social political life.  And despite a constitutional provision separating Church and State, the Catholic Church continues to have a strong influence in policy-making.

The long absence of an RH program has resulted in a consistently high birth rate compared to our Asian neighbors, an increase in unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions, maternal deaths, teen pregnancies and being tagged as one of the nine countries with an increasing rate of HIV and STI cases.

Over the years, women and health advocates started to clamor for a reproductive health policy that provided access to information and family planning services to the poor. This was met not just with stiff opposition from the church but worse, translated into the Catholic Church pressuring policy-makers to shut down any program, funding or legislation that had to do with reproductive health.

Many elected officials chose the path of least resistance and turned a blind-eye to the needs of women for reproductive health. They did not want to earn the scorn of the church, to be castigated from the pulpit, campaigned against in the coming elections and threatened with ex-communication.

In 2010, the political climate changed. The newly-elected president Benigno Aquino III declared that he was open to an RH policy. More legislators started speaking out as well about their support for such a policy. Surveys showed that Filipinos in fact wanted reproductive health, wanted a family planning program and access to contraceptives. The Catholic Church reacted by downplaying the surveys and threatening ex-communication to public officials who showed support for such a program.

I liken the defense of the RH law to an endurance race. You put one foot in front of the other and you keep going on.

But the declaration of support by the President and a handful of legislators wasn’t enough. Philippine politics being male-dominated was a definite obstacle. At the time of the deliberations for RH, only 21% of representatives in the Lower House were women, and in the Senate, we were only 3 women out of 24 Senators. Debates on the floor, included many anti-women statements and clearly showed a lack of understanding of women-related issues.

Every step of the way, obstacles were thrown on our path. But finally, just before Christmas of 2012, after 11 years, the RH bill was approved by both Houses of Congress. There was singing and dancing in the streets. Many of the advocates had spent years on RH programs in the poor communities. This was a victory for them, for women, for poor women who needed reproductive health.

I would have packed away my books and notes, but within a few days, Catholic laymen’s groups filed cases in the Supreme Court. Armed with my law degree and my immersion in the defense of the bill in the Senate, I joined the team defending the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Court where we emerged victorious.

They said:

“…we would never get enough signatures for my committee report….” We did.

“…it would never be calendared on the Senate floor…” It was.

“…there were too many questions, we would not be able to answer them…” There were, but we did.

“…we would not garner enough votes on the bill to make it a law…” We did and it became a law.

“…it would be declared unconstitutional when brought to the Supreme Court…” After lengthy arguments, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld its constitutionality.

I liken the defense of the RH law to an endurance race. You put one foot in front of the other and you keep going on. As an endurance athlete, I can run for 3 hours, I can bike for 6 hours. What’s another 5 hours every day spent trying to save a life?