MANILA - The University of the Philippines Women Lawyers' Circle (UP WILOCI) and Gabriela Party-list condemned President Rodrigo Duterte's allegedly inappropriate gesture recently towards his house helper.
The organization of women lawyers from the UP College of Law said "it is not a small matter" and "ought not to be dismissed as a joke."
"Our laws prohibit an employer from making an indecent gesture towards an employee. Our laws punish lewd behavior towards strangers done in public places or online. Local governments have issued “anti-manyak” ordinances," the group said in a statement issued on Wednesday, the last day of International Women's Month.
"There is no way that the proscriptions and policies forwarded by these laws and rules can be harmonized with the President's supposedly 'joking' attempt to grab his employee's crotch as she served him cake, captured in a video clip that's been widely shared on social media," added the statement, a copy of which was posted on Facebook by Atty. Dot Balasbas-Gancayco, a member of the group's Board of Trustees.
The UP WILOCI, led by Atty. Arlene Lapuz-Ureta, urged government agencies, legislators and officials to prove that they are indeed "champions of women".
"If they are indeed interested in protecting women from the normalization of indignity, or if they genuinely want to help change the mindset of many Filipinos that casual pambabastos is just something that men do, they ought to at least publicly express concern that the highest official of the land has thought nothing of making an indecent gesture towards his female employee, and that his spokesperson lost no time in shrugging it off as a harmless joke," they said.
"It is not harmless. It is not funny," they added.
"It sets a deplorable example, especially to the youth. It normalizes indecent, dehumanizing and unlawful behavior."
The viral video showed Duterte seating at a table on what appeared to be his 76th birthday over the weekend. He then appeared to reach out towards the crotch of a woman who was approaching him, holding a cake.
Gabriela said the act sends a "very troubling message" that Duterte, as the president of the Philippines, can do away with anything.
"“The act carries with it a very troubling message to the public: that the President can do anything with women and easily get away with it,” it said in a statement.
The party-list organization also blasted Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque and others who defended Duterte's action.
"This also speaks volumes of how Duterte, Harry Roque, and the rest of his minions have been actively normalizing the view that marginalized women should be submissive towards men, especially those in power, to make unwanted sexual advances against women look like a spectacle,” it said.
Roque, a former human rights lawyer who was also affiliated with the UP College of Law, had dismissed criticisms against Duterte, arguing that there was "no malice" in his actions.
"Matagal na niyang kasambahay iyon," Roque said in a press briefing last Monday.
"Talagang palabiro ang ating Presidente. Pero wala pong malisya iyon dahil nakaharap si Ma’am Honeylet [Avanceña]," he added, referring to the President's partner.
(That's his longtime help. Our President is fond of joking. But that has no malice because Ma'am Honeylet was there.)
Duterte in 2018 said he touched the private parts of a female helper when he was still a teenager. His then spokesman Salvador Panelo said this was a "laughable anecdote."
The Commission on Human Rights, among some groups, have repeatedly reminded Duterte and some of his officials about the need to respect the rights of women.
Duterte has several times drawn criticism for sexist comments and rape jokes. He even called several women "bitch."
In November 2020, he and other government officials joked about sex and womanizing during a post-typhoon briefing in calamity-hit Camarines Sur. This prompted a reminder from CHR that the objectification of women is a form of violence.
In January, he said women were not fit to be president.
Earlier this month, Duterte said the government can “proudly claim” that it took actions “to create an environment where women's rights are respected and their contributions to society are recognized.”
March is celebrated as Women's Month, both internationally and in the Philippines.
"Sa mga kapatid nating kababaihan, huwag tayong pumayag umiral ang kabastusan ng maski sinuman. Huwag palalampasin ang pambabastos bilang isang nakakatawang biro. Ito ay labag sa batas", the UP WILOCI said.
- with reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News