MANILA -- Vice President Leni Robredo took her seat at the head of the table, flanked by retired generals and law enforcers who were were used to having a man like them at the top of the chain of command.
It was Robredo's first meeting as co-chair of an inter-agency body tasked to implement President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, known both for its brutality and machismo.
Some officials of the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), including Robredo's co-chairperson, Aaron Aquino, have expressed reservations over her capability to lead the narcotics crackdown.
Her critics on social media have been more unforgiving about her supposed lack of competence and experience.
But what they were probably not saying openly, Robredo’s spokesman said Thursday, was the one reason they also believed so — she happens to be a woman.
“When they question her experience in law enforcement and say that she should attend a police operation so she should understand the realities on the ground, I can’t help but think that to a certain extent, that’s a dig on her identity as a woman,” lawyer Barry Gutierrez said.
Robredo, who was thrust into politics after her husband, former Interior Sec. Jesse Robredo died in a plane crash 7 years ago, declared before her come-from-behind election victory in 2016 that the "last man standing is a woman."
During their first ICAD briefing, Aquino, who heads the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) asked Robredo in front of news cameras to join actual anti-drug operations during their joint press conference
Philippine National Police officer-in-charge Archie Gamboa also questioned why the vice president needed to see the list of “high-value targets.”
Interior Undersecretary RJ Echiverri earlier told CNN Philippines about supposed concerns by some ICAD agencies over sharing certain sensitive information with Robredo.
Gutierrez on Thursday spoke about the vice president’s early struggles as ICAD co-chair before a gathering of advocates behind the #RespetoNaman campaign against gender-based violence at the Swedish ambassador’s residence in Makati City.
Just days into her new job, Robredo “already had to endure the condescension and mansplaining from so many quarters,” her spokesman said.
Issues raised about the vice president’s capabilities were “just a more polite way of questioning her identity as a woman and therefore, her capacity to do what many would expect should be a man’s job,” he added.
Robredo’s new role was expected to give her a better view of a brutal anti-narcotics campaign, which has killed more than 5,000 people based on varying estimates from government agencies.
She has so far spent the last 2 weeks looking for credible data on, say, the number of drug users in the country, to assess how effective the drug war has actually been.
Robredo also sought to rally government agencies, civil society organizations, and church groups behind community-based drug rehabilitation, instead of a mainly law enforcement approach to the problem.
“I think over the course of the past 2 weeks that has been made very very clear—she’s the one ready to do this job,” her spokesman said.
“That’s really a testament, not only to her own personal capacity, but also to the strength she has had to develop precisely because she was a woman working and moving in a world that is, to a large extent, traditionally deemed only for men.”
But Robredo’s meetings with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes and United States Embassy officials did not sit well with President Duterte, who said she “talks too much” and could not be trusted.
The lack of trust from the president puzzled Robredo and her supporters, who asked why she was appointed to ICAD to begin with.
“Sa ‘kin naman the solution is very easy: if they want her out, they can kick her out...So kung gusto n'yo, diretsuhin na natin. Wag na tayong may mga paliguy-ligoy pa.”
(To me, the solution is easy... if they want her out, they should straight to the point. Let’s not go around in circles.)
So far, Gutierrez said Robredo’s experience at ICAD had been positive “for the most part” as officials were “very open and receptive to the new approaches that she is attempting to introduce.”
But Gutierrez acknowledged questions on whether it’s only a matter of time before Duterte showed her the door and that his latest criticism was perhaps intended to pressure her into leaving
“That’s really a problem that they have to confront... hindi naman hiningi to ni VP. Binigay nyo,” Gutierrez said.
(The vice president did not ask for the designation. It was given to her.)
For now, the woman stays.