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(Lecture delivered by REP. EDCEL C. LAGMAN, Honorary Chair of PLCPD,on 10 August 2019 at Tagaytay City)

The rights of women and children are related and interlinked

It is very easy to see how the lives of women and children are intertwined.

At the very beginning of their relationship, at conception and from inside the womb, a mother and her baby share the same blood supply and the same reserve of nutrients. When it is born, one of the first things a baby sees is its mother’s face; the voice that soothes a child when it is hurt or scared would most likely be the familiar voice of its mother.

It is important to remember that the first year of a child’s life impacts on a lifetime. A mother is likely to be a constant presence in the first year of her baby’s life. What happens during this first year will have far reaching effects on the future of children – their long-term health, whether or not they do well in school, their ability to find work, their feelings of self-worth, the qualities of the spouse they choose to live their lives with, and the kind of parents they will be to their own children.

These realities are all backed by years of scientific research on children’s outcomes and the interconnection of a mother’s health, age and educational attainment with her own children’s prospects for the future.

Clearly, the lives of women and children are interlinked. But we must remember that if their lives are connected, so are their rights.

Women and children fall plainly in the category of marginalized sectors. One is more likely to be poor and suffer from ill health if one is a woman or a child. Both women and children share in the inexcusable and persistent experience of discrimination. More often than not, women are paid less than men for the same kind of work, and children, if they are engaged in work, are paid pittance, if they are paid at all, notwithstanding the prohibition against child labor.

In protecting, promoting and fulfilling women’s rights, we are also doing the same for the rights of their children.

This is because women are traditionally the primary caregivers of children, and a healthier, more educated, financially independent woman will be a less harried, more prepared and ultimately will be a better mother and a more informed, reliable and capable parent.

Moreover, whatever resources and skills women gain because their basic rights are fulfilled, are resources and skills that will most likely be used to benefit their children. Studies have shown that this rarely applies to men as any extra income of mothers (compared to extra income of fathers) impact positively on household nutrition, health and education of children. Verily, the non-fulfillment of a woman’s basic rights and discrimination against women is damaging not only to women themselves, but also to the next generation.

A joint booklet of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) conclude that “[p]rotecting women’s rights is important in itself. But it also tends to reap benefits for their children. Conversely, protecting the rights of children – particularly girls – is the first step in promoting gender equality for women. The stereotyping of gender roles and gender-based discrimination begin in childhood. Efforts to support gender equality must start there and address the roles of girls and boys, men and women, in the household.”

It is evident that children survive and thrive if women’s rights are defended and upheld. Fighting for women’s rights, preserving the rights of children, and enacting legislation that safeguard and realize these rights go hand in hand and are indispensable to improving the lives of women and children.

That is why members of the 18th Congress must be committed to enacting laws that will address inequities and inequalities suffered by women and children and advance their basic rights, especially the right to health and genuine human development.

Health is a human right

The Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) unequivocally states that, “[t]he enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

That these words have remained as powerful and as relevant today as they were almost 72 years ago when the WHO adopted its Constitution is an indictment of the prevailing disparities and imbalances of health care around the world even as it is a testament to the commitment and continuing obligation of nations to maintain and sustain the overall health and welfare of their citizens.

Health indeed is a human right and one that is directly connected to the most supreme of all rights – the right to life.

The bottom line of the basic human right to health can be summed up in this wise: No one should get sick and die because they are poor, marginalized and discriminated against for reasons such as sex, religion or race or because they cannot access the basic preventive and curative health care services they need.

When crafting and proposing health legislation, lawmakers must bear in mind that health is not as simple as the absence of disease.

In 1948, or 71 years ago, the WHO, which is the United Nations agency primarily tasked with international public health and is the world leader in global health responses, defined health as the “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

The human right to health is comprehensive, holistic and encompasses the life cycle of people from the moment they are conceived to the time that they are interred.

The human right to health is often fulfilled and complemented by other basic human rights such as the right to nourishing food, access to potable drinking water and sanitary toilets, adequate housing, relevant education, safe working conditions, and freedom from violence and exploitation. 

As the proud father of the Reproductive Health Law, I would be remiss if I do not emphasize that the right to health also means the right to reproductive self-determination, which includes having access to sexual and reproductive health information, services and commodities free from coercion, violence and discrimination. 

Human rights-based approach to health and development

The track record of the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) in championing progressive and forward-thinking legislation is impressive. As members of the PLCPD in the 18th Congress, we must sustain this record.

In deciding which piece of legislation to sponsor or support and which legislative proposal to oppose, we must employ the human rights-based approach to health and development.

The human rights-based approach, which is now widely accepted and proven to be key to genuine and lasting development, was a concept that was long in coming.

Human rights as a strategy for development and progress is a relatively contemporary idea.

It was only in the late 1980s that “women’s rights are human rights” became a famous and effective battle cry. It opened the eyes of policymakers that there can be no real progress and lasting justice if half of humanity is fettered and held down by age-old and unremitting violations of women’s basic human rights. It also took a while for the international community and individual countries to recognize that children have intrinsic rights and freedoms too, just like adults.

Human rights for all and the interconnection between health and human rights have grown and developed significantly in recent years.

In the 60s and 70s the focus of human rights was on civil and political rights. Gradually it came to include economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

More than ever before, it is now understood that responsible and responsive health legislation can pave the way to the realization of other human rights and ultimately genuine and sustainable development for everyone.

In the WHO paper entitled “Women’s and Children’s Health: Evidence of the Impact of Human Rights”, the authors Flavia Bustreo and Paul Hunt assert that “as human rights become more operational, they become more effective as tools to help governments strengthen their health systems, deliver health care for all and improve health.”

They also maintain that, “there is an interplay between biological and social determinants of health, such as equality and non-discrimination. Women’s health needs go beyond sexual and reproductive concerns, while children’s health needs extend beyond under-five mortality. Chronic diseases, injuries and mental ill-health take a terrible toll on women. United Nations studies have highlighted the magnitude of the problem posed by violence against women and children.”

The same paper highlights that health legislation has contributed substantially to promoting public health and could be used more vigorously to promote the health of women and children and ultimately had a positive impact on development in countries as disparate as Nepal, Brazil, Malawi, and Italy.

According to the WHO, the human rights-based approach to health and development is based on seven key principles: (1) availability of the services, information and medicines or commodities; (2) accessibility of the health facilities and medical personnel to the greater majority; (3) acceptability and quality of facilities and services; (4) participation or the involvement of the beneficiaries in ensuring that the health services and information they receive are relevant to them and applicable to their needs; (5) equality or the impartial allocation of funds and resources for medical services and medications, (6) non-discrimination which means that no one will be favored over another because of gender, age, income, religion or political beliefs; and (7) accountability of government and public officials to always act in the best interest of society or otherwise, they will be held responsible for their actions.

More than a guide, these principles can be used as a lens through which legislative proposals on health and development and government programs can be assessed and reviewed for their intrinsic human rights value.

Legislators and other policymakers should bear in mind that the purpose of the human rights-based approach is not only the realization of specific objectives or purposes. More importantly, it is about achieving a set of goals through a participatory, inclusive, transparent and responsive process.

An enabling environment for a human rights-based approach to women and children’s health

The RH Law is a rights-based, development-driven and health-oriented statute that aims to provide an enabling environment wherein women can freely decide on the number and spacing of their children and will have the information on and access to a wide variety of family planning methods to achieve their desired fertility goals.

For the human rights-based approach to legislation to gain national traction and acceptance, a similar enabling environment is also needed. This environment can be realized if we have well-informed and well-intentioned policymakers, strong political leadership, an unwavering advocacy for human rights, a deep understanding of the correlation of all human rights, and an active, dynamic and courageous civil society.

Applying human rights to women and children’s health laws, policies, and programs will help the Philippine government comply with its binding international obligations as States Party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), but will also contribute to improving the health and welfare of generations of women and children through adequate legislation and proper and speedy implementation.

Women, Children and the SDGs

Almost twenty years into this new millennium, it is only appropriate for the United Nations to recast and make necessary modifications to what were previously known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of concrete objectives that became the centerpiece of all development efforts of the developing world.

Tailgating the achievements nations like the Philippines made under the MDGs from 2000-2015, UN member nations have carefully curated a new and expanded set of goals known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the period 2016-2030.

Much like the MDGs, the 17 SDGs will continue the united fight against extreme hunger, poverty, ignorance and ill health, and are enlarged to include targets that will ensure, among others, more equitable development; social justice and peace; gender equality and the eradication of discrimination; responsible consumption and production; decent work for all; and environmental sustainability with the primary goal of mitigating the menace of human-induced climate change.

Not surprisingly, the central figures in a great majority of these goals are women and children who are the most vulnerable sectors, most in need of protection, and whose rights are often blatantly violated and whose opportunities for advancement are severely limited, if not denied.

We should take our cue from the SDGs and train our attention to uplifting the lives of women and children through relevant and inclusive legislation that would improve their overall health and wellbeing, employment and educational opportunities, and social and political participation even as we must learn to focus our limited resources on programs that would directly strengthen basic rights and lessen social injustice and discrimination and projects that will educate and empower women and children so that they will be emboldened and encouraged to claim for themselves the rights which are justly inherent in their humanity.

The importance and impact of legislation on the lives of women and children

Lawmaking is a long-drawn-out and often protracted process. We have limited time and even more limited resources. To be able to make the most positive change, it is imperative for us to concentrate our efforts on health and development legislation on sectors that need help most. This way, the laws we pass maximize their impact on uplifting the greatest number of lives.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, explains clearly why women and children, especially young girls, are the most defenseless and need to be the target of our efforts:

“Women and girls are disproportionately affected by hunger, food insecurity and poverty, largely as a result of gender inequality and their lack of social, economic and political power. In many countries, girls are twice as likely to die from malnutrition and preventable childhood diseases as boys, and it is estimated that almost twice as many women suffer from malnutrition as men.”

No matter the nation, culture or geographic location, practically all over the world the picture is alarmingly the same – women and children remain to be to be poorest and most sickly; gravely ignorant; and the most disenfranchised.

If we want a world where women and their children will not only survive but endure, prosper, and flourish then we should lose no time in ensuring that the government has their backs by spearheading programs and projects that will pull them out of poverty and ignorance even as they have the full protection of the law through statutes whose earnest objectives are to defend, encourage and fulfill their human rights.

We are in the position to make a great deal of difference. We have the power to do this. Let us not forfeit it by inaction, apathy or partisan interests.

PLCPD’s past victories and current crusade

In the past three Congresses, the 15th, 16th and 17th Congresses, PLCPD and its legislator-members have been instrumental in the enactment of the several laws which directly improve the lives of women and children and safeguard and realize their various basic human rights. Topping this list is the landmark Reproductive Health Law, the HIV and AIDS Policy Act, First 1,000 Days Law (Nutrisyon ng Mag-nanay Act), 105-Day Expanded Maternity Leave Law, Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Act, and the Republic Act on Higher Excise Tax on Tobacco.

We also successfully blocked the enactment into law, by campaigning in the Senate and allying with civil society, of the bills lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility and the reimposition of capital punishment, both of which were passed in the House of Representatives by force of numbers but destitute of compelling reasons.

There were some bills not enacted during previous Congresses but refilled in the current 18th Congress that would need our full support this time around like the bills on Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy; Prevention of Child Marriage; the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression or SOGIE bill; Expanding the Coverage of the Mandatory Basic Immunization Program; the Institution of Inclusive Education for Children with Special Needs in Public Schools; Ensuring Equality of Men and Women Under Marriage and Family Relations Laws; Defining the Crime of Electronic Violence Against Women and their Children and Providing Protection and Prescribing Penalties for offenders; Protecting Human Rights Defenders; and of course, the Absolute Divorce bill, which has passed on third and final reading in the House of Representatives in the 17th Congress, but was not acted upon by the Senate.

The Absolute Divorce bill is the sequel to the Reproductive Health Law where women are the prime beneficiaries – women who are the victims of unremitting risky pregnancies and women who are slaves of irremediably failed marriages due principally to their husbands’ cruelty and infidelity.

Paraphrasing the Supreme Court in Te vs. Te, it was held that the dissolution of a marriage is a decent burial for a long-dead marital union.

There are several more bills worthy of our support like those seeking to expand the bed capacities of a number of lying-in clinics, granting special medical privileges to pregnant women, the protection of women against violent crime, renewed promotion of breastfeeding practices by regulating the advertising and marketing of breast milk substitutes, protecting children from cigarette smoke exposure, and establishing a mandatory screening program for newborns.

Again, we must stand together and remain vigilant against renewed efforts to enact the bill lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the reimposition of the death penalty, and other bills which attempt to erode or infringe human rights, especially those of women and children.

These draconian and inhuman legislative proposals of the administration on revival of the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal culpability will further plague our skewed justice system and will erode the significant gains we have made in the protection of human rights. Empirical studies show that both errant initiatives will not deter the commission of crimes.

The right to life is supreme among human rights. The death penalty has become a penal aberration in the overwhelming majority of modern and civilized countries. Out of 195 independent states of the UN:

  • 103 or majority have abolished death penalty for all crimes

  • 6 retained capital punishment only for exceptional cases like wartime offenses.

  • 49 retained but do not enforce capital punishment for at least 10 years (de facto abolition).

  • Only 37 retain death penalty in law and practice.

Moreover, no child of tender age must be considered a criminal or be treated as one. The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act must be fully implemented and adequately funded, instead of making children felons.

It is a no-brainer. Healthy, educated, employed, and empowered mothers are better equipped and more prepared to raise strong and vigorous, accomplished, assertive and confident sons and daughters.

When women are empowered to overcome the often-crippling consequences of poverty and poor health, they can and will live full and productive lives. And when mothers are given the tools they need to climb out of the pit of destitution and despair, they pull up with them their children, families, and communities.

Improved health means improved lives. Improved lives mean people would be able to assert and claim the rights to which they are fully entitled. 

When we empower women and children with health, education, and opportunities, everyone wins.