As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prepared for his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, his third since assuming power in 2016, protesters took to the streets in and around Manila. Police expected around 40,000 protesters against his administration and 40,000 in favor of the controversial leader.
Among those anti-government protesters are women’s rights activists, who have increasingly been speaking out against the Duterte administration. Since taking office in June 2016, the 73-year-old leader has ordered soldiers to shoot female rebels “in the vagina,” made inappropriate comments about his female Vice President’s legs, joked about raping Miss Universe, and equated having a second wife to keeping a “spare tire” in the trunk of a car.
“When he says these things, he’s sending out a message to all men out there that ‘I get away with it, so you can,’” says Inday Espina-Varona, a 54-year-old journalist and one of several co-founders of the #BabaeAko movement. Translated as ‘I Am Woman,’ the social media campaign began in May after Duterte declared that the next Chief Justice of the Philippines could not be a woman.
For some, the Philippines’ position in World Economic Forum’s top ten countries in the world for gender equality merely masks deeper cracks in society. The country of 103 million may have had two female presidents, but Duterte has nevertheless managed to capitalize on a deeply-entrenched strain of misogyny. Just as women across the U.S. have come together to protest President Donald Trump’s comments, including his boast about grabbing women by the pussy, women in the Philippines have now mobilized to call out sexism in the Duterte administration.
Both veterans and newcomers to the Philippine women’s rights movement took part in Monday’s march in Manila, along with several other rights groups in their own version of a SONA. “We knew we had to get together to answer him,” says 55-year-old actress Mae Paner, another co-founder of #BabaeAko. Under the hashtag, women across the Philippines uploaded videos of themselves to social media platforms calling out Duterte’s sexist rhetoric. Among them were high-profile female leaders, including Congress representatives, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, and a former cabinet member of the Duterte administration, Judy Taguiwalo.
That did nothing to stop Duterte, who kissed a married woman in front of an audience of overseas Filipino workers on June 4 in Seoul, South Korea. (Although the woman later said that there was “no malice” in the kiss, the stunt was condemned by politicians and women’s rights groups as an abuse of power.) The kiss prompted the women’s movement to take to the streets eight days later, with some calling for his resignation.
“That kiss has been framed as a playful gesture of a father to one of his children, which resonates with many women who feel they have to tolerate this behavior as it is more costly to point out,” says Sharmila Parmanand, PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. “There is still this very overt sexualization of women, and the infrastructure to combat sexism is struggling against a political culture that is still very patriarchal.”
Although a recent McKinsey report also showed that the Philippines leads the Asia-Pacific Region on gender equality in the workplace, many women still say there’s a long way to go more generally. “We have to look at what type of gender equality are we talking about when there are all these festering pushbacks against the status of women in Philippine society,” Maria Tanyag, research fellow at Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Department in Melbourne, tells TIME. The Catholic Church wields a strong influence in the country, where abortion and divorce are still illegal. Activists are pushing to raise the country’s age of consent up from 12 years old, which is the lowest in Asia, and despite the passing of a landmark reproductive health bill under the previous administration, observers say the country’s sexual education framework still falls short. And a series of blunders in the past year illustrate broader underlying sexist attitudes, including a marketing campaign run by San Miguel beer that was criticized for promoting rape culture, a callout for game show contestants with “sexy legs,” and a police-issued rape prevention poster that advised women not to “dress provocatively.”
To his critics, Duterte’s sexism has emboldened others. The president has not shied away from using gendered insults and threats, particularly against female critics both in the Philippines and abroad. Vice President Leni Robredo, a political opponent of Duterte, has slammed his “tasteless” remarks about her legs and “short skirt.” Senator Leila de Lima, a strong critic of the drugs war, filed a lawsuit against Duterte in 2016, alleging sexual harassment and slut shaming after he alluded to owning a sex tape of her and her driver. The President has even made lewd comments about foreign representatives, such as a United Nations representative whom he derided as a “daughter of a whore” after she investigated extrajudicial killings as part of the country’s war on drugs.
“It was really that impact of Duterte coming into power and making terrible statements about women that fueled my fire. I saw that there was something that needed to be done,” says Mich Dulce, a co-founder of Grrrl Gang Manila, a feminist collective created in March 2017. It holds regular safe space meet-ups for women and girls in the Philippine capital on themes such as ‘Feminism 101’ and ‘Toxic Masculinity,’ tied together with music performances, demonstrations and talks in local schools and workplaces about the barriers women face. “It’s just like Trump, where people who didn’t care before are looking for ways to make a change,” says 37-year-old Dulce, who also fronts an all-women feminist punk band called The Male Gaze. “We are not the only group or collective that came out of that time—it’s part of a whole conscious collective, where we are all reacting to the same things,” agrees fellow co-founder Marla Darwin.
Official from the administration have dismissed criticisms of sexism and misogyny as “over-acting” and taking Duterte too seriously. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque has used this defense of Duterte’s behavior multiple times, imploring critics to “not take the words of the President literally, but of course, we should take the President’s word seriously.” Another top aide has condemned the #BabaeAko movement as “clearly political,” and Duterte himself has batted away backlash against the incident in Seoul by saying critics were “just jealous.”
Duterte is not the first strongman leader in Philippine politics, but his comments reflect something deeper about his style of government and the kind of leader he wants to be. For many Filipinos, President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and brutal rule through martial law in the 1970s remains a fresh memory. And today, Duterte has Southeast Asian ‘strongman‘ compatriots in the form of Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump further afield. “We are seeing the exaggeration of masculinity to serve a purpose to legitimize certain foreign and domestic policies,” Tanyag tells TIME, speaking of this broader trend.
Indeed, Duterte’s macho leadership may have a more pragmatic basis, particularly regarding the war on drugs—arguably the centerpiece of his domestic policies. Philippine authorities say 4,500 drug suspects have been killed since July 2016, although human rights observers estimate that the number is closer to 12,000. “There is this macho mindset of the war on drugs being justified because it protects women and children,” Parmanand says, calling this rhetoric “benevolent paternalism.” In fact, the drug war has had a major impact on women and children, whether because of losing family members or facing financial difficulty due to lower family incomes as a result of extrajudicial killings.
Beyond the drug war, Dutete’s leadership has displayed hallmarks of “hypermasculinity” elsewhere, Tanyag says. In May 2017, the southern island of Mindanao was placed under martial law after ISIS-backed militants seized the city of Marawi. Despite the government declaring victory over the extremists in October, Duterte was granted the power to extend martial law in the region for a further year the following month, with critics arguing against increased powers for the military. According to Tanyag, this kind of reaction from the president shows that he “prioritizes violence, domination and aggression” in his leadership.
As Duterte’s leadership becomes a major cause for concern, women of all ages have come together to protest. “His actions are reversing so many of the gains we had worked so hard for,” says Teresita Quintos Deles, one of the country’s most prominent civil society advocates and chair-convener of EveryWoman, a coalition of women’s rights organizations from across the Philippines.
Speaking ahead of Monday’s march, Deles sounded energized, looking forward to marching with women from all sections of Philippine society. “I thought I had fought the fight of my lifetime already,” Deles says, referring to her activism for women’s rights and peacemaking after the ouster of President Marcos and under the leadership of President Aquino. “I didn’t think I would have to do this again at the age of 69, but we are back marching in the streets again, and the happy thing is that is it intergenerational.”
Members of Grrrl Gang Manila, as well as the #BabaeAko founders are also marching, with supporters wearing purple and fuchsia to mark the traditional colors of the Philippine women’s movement. “Young Filipinas are taking up action and recognizing that yes, there is a thread that criss crosses the generations, and that sisterhood is real,” says Deles. “More and more people are saying that this can’t be the end of our story.”