Thursday, December 8, 2016

Still in Style amid the Struggle

While the spotlight hovered around Vice President Leni Robredo’s who bared her disappointment over the President’s reckless communication of his directives, another woman is “still processing" the impact of the same brash action. But like any independent woman, she holds onto her mandate.

Patricia Licuanan, the head of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) also received a text message from the Cabinet Secretary, who conveyed President Rodrigo Duterte’s order for her to stop attending the Cabinet meetings. But unlike the Vice President, the CHED Chair chose to deal with the situation with her signature grace. No screenshot of the message was ever publicised, except for a succinct statement that she would “comply” and continue with her work. 

Tatti was appointed to her post by former President Benigno Simeon Aquino. Her acceptance of the CHED chairship ended her stint as the President of Miriam College. What is not commonly known is that this has left another vacuum within the social movements. There is more behind the woman with a coiffed hair. 

Aside from being an educator, Tatti has been a feminist-activist. The woman who has been living in a gated community delivered some significant progress in our international human rights standards that we now enjoy. It was under Tatti’s leadership as Chair of the Main Committee of the 4th World Conference on Women’s Rights in 1994, that the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) was born. 

The BPFA is one of the bibles which feminists across generations have been using in our advocacies, along with the the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), among others. The BPFA highlighted the areas where women’s exercise of human rights has been quite challenging. These areas include the women’s experience of violence within marriage and family life, access to income and other forms of capital, experience of armed conflict, representation in the media, and political leadership. 

Because of the BPFA, the reality of the girl child was recognised for the first time since women across the world organised themselves and engaged the United Nations. This was not easy advocacy in the 1990s. It was part of the conversation about women’s bodies, a subject that remains thorny especially among the right-wing conservatives, including the Catholic church to this day. We owe Tatti and other feminist-activists in the 1990s the International Day of the Girl Child. 

The feminist-activist in Tatti may not be obvious because of her class origins. But she is gifted with the powerful combination of the strong conviction on women’s human rights and sincere diplomacy. I was in my early 20s, working in a migration-focused NGO when I first met her. It was a meeting in a small NGO which barely had the budget to serve merienda to its guests. Tatti dressed simply but her gait, poise and Taglish language suggested a breeding that is capable of empathy and flexibility. She could withstand an impassioned but crude criticisms and still walk out of the room like a queen. 

Another meeting was held, this time in her office. Most participants arrived almost an hour late, given the difficulty in commuting within the Katipunan area. She could have left me and another early bird on our own or ask her staff to entertain us but the president of one of the country's most exclusive schools chose to wait with us. It was not unusual to see her in a crowd of women community leaders and NGO workers in gathering such as those on the reproductive health bill. 

She has never denied her class origins. Neither has she let it prevent her from engaging diverse stakeholders. Instead Tatti has shared her power with those who have less. Fifteen years since the BPFA, Tatti was quite instrumental in enabling women from Asia-Pacific to organise around Beijing+15. At a time when resources for women’s rights organisations started to dwindle, she opened the grounds of Miriam College and mobilised both teaching and non-teaching personnel for this regional gathering. The rich conversations from this process was not only critical to feminists movements which survive because of robust and evolving analyses and practices. It also enabled younger women to partake in these conversations. 
Tatti is happy when she sees younger women in a room, especially when they ask intelligent and  challenging questions. Perhaps these moments reassure her that there are people who could continue the work of older women, who have gone through protracted struggles over their identities, bodies, mobility and rights. And it is the power to make these moments possible that keeps her working. 

Because being a feminist educator is more than a job. It is an advocacy that must be pursued deliberately but delicately in the most trying times.

Photo by the United Nations