Global news giant CNN hosted an impressive IWD Embrace Equity Summit in The Philippines

 August 15, 2023

Global news giant CNN held an impressive International Women's Day (IWD) summit in The Philippines that brought together a diverse group of women from various industries and generations to learn, inspire and empower each other. These women shone an important light on current issues faced by the sector, from social changes to the art space.

The Summit saw a full day of talks and other activities designed for women by women across various industries and generations, highlighting women's decades-long challenges as well as the needed actions to help them confidently take up space. Experts and advocates stressed that women from all walks of life still fight for inclusivity and equity.

The Summit concluded a month-long campaign held by CNN titled Embrace Equity that sought to increase awareness about the IWD 2023 campaign, while challenging people to take a stand on gender equity through programs and content on-air and online.

Bringing together diverse women from leading industries

The CNN event saw a full day of talks and panel discussions dedicated to women by women across industries and generations.

Migrant Workers Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople was the keynote speaker for the event. Susan shared her story as a woman and as the voice of Filipino migrant workers.

Professor Nathalie Verceles of the Department of Development Studies in UP Diliman, Miss Trans Global 2020 Mela Habijan and LGBTQIA+ advocate Thysz Estrada discussed social change through inclusivity, with Dr. Gia Sison, GTalks host and mental health advocate, moderating the panel discussion.

The topic, Promoting Equality through Social Leadership, featured speakers who have made a mark in public service and other fields. Speakers included Department of Health Officer-in-Charge Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire; San Manuel, Tarlac Mayor Donya Tesoro; Philippine Commission on Women Chairperson, Sandy Montano; UN Women Philippines Program Officer, Catherine Torres; and Binibining Pilipinas International 2022, Nicole Borromeo. CNN Philippines Chief Correspondent and Anchor Pia Hontiveros moderated this discussion.

Another set of equally notable speakers discussed the Role of Gender Equality Towards Economic Development. Marla Garin-Alvarez, BDO Unibank Vice President for Sustainability; Cherrie Atilano, AGREA Philippines President and Founding Farmer; and Tina Boado, Queer and Safe Spaces Co-Founder, who shared their thoughts and insights to inspire the audience - moderated by CNN Philippines New Day Host, Paolo Abrera.

Highlighting women's contribution to the art world, wood carving artist, Charming Baldemor; creative director of The Zarah Juan brand, Zarah Juan; actress, screenwriter, film producer and director, Bela Padilla; and artistic director and CEO of Ballet Manila, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, spoke on a panel moderated by CNN Philippines New Day Host, Christine Jacob-Sandejas.

Event participants also accessed a marketplace that showcased businesses led and supported by women.

Sharing an empowering message for women and youth

Secretary Susan "Toots" Ople, the first to lead the new Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), shared an empowering message on how women and the youth can take charge of their lives while staying grounded. "To all the women and the youth out there, design your life. Your best will always get noticed. Be known to be the best. Do not aim for mediocrity. Be patient, your time will come. Excellence does not need a hashtag. If you are excellent, you just are, and people will recognize that," said Susan.

Susan also reminded the youth of what they can miss out on because of their fast-paced lifestyles. "If you are reaching out more for your phone rather than the hand of the person you love, then you're missing out on what real life is about," added Susan. "Create your own moments rather than watching or recording others have fun with theirs…Just because everyone seems on the go, you do not need to be perpetually in motion. Be who you are, aim for self-improvement." 

Susan also shared her life story to the audience. Susan recalled how her father, late journalist and Former President of the Senate of the Philippines, Blas Ople, had shaped her life and how he continues to inspire her even years after his death. "My dad, he was my hero. He wrote, so I wrote. At 9, I knew I wanted to be a writer because of him. He cared deeply for our workers so guess what, I am the same way," explained Susan. She also highlighted her father's simple lifestyle, despite holding one of the highest positions in the legislative branch during his term.

Susan travels without a security team, and her vehicle does not have sirens or blinkers. "Simple works best for me and clarity matters even more qualities that go hand in hand. On leadership, it is living simply that is very important…There will come a time when people won't open their doors for you anymore. Simple is just knowing who you are," explained Susan.

Despite acknowledging the privilege of being the daughter of a man who was instrumental in the framing of the Labor Code of the Philippines, Susan believes her dedication and fearlessness to fight for the rights of migrant workers led her to being appointed as the DMW secretary.

Discussing LGBT+ rights in the Philippines

Holding discussions during Women's Month is seen as a good start for the Philippines to "understand the value of inclusion," said Miss Trans Global 2020 Mela Habijan when interviewed by by Dr. Gia Sison, GTalks host and mental health advocate. "It amazes me that we have come this far, because if we are to look back, women like us, we won't be here in this conversation about women," said Mela. "It's still sad that the Philippines is not open to women like us, but we are happy that we're opening up the conversation."

LGBTQIA+ advocate Thysz Estrada echoed Mela's statement, saying that every person must feel seen and heard. However, Thysz also acknowledged that topics on the LGBTQIA+ community still remain a "taboo" in The Philippines.

Professor Nathalie Verceles of the Department of Development Studies of the University of the Philippines Diliman backed Thysz's observation, stressing that Filipinos have many social norms to "unlearn." Unloading social norms, which could be "harmful" for women and those belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community, is hard as these are embedded in the minds of Filipinos since childhood, Professor Verceles explained. "We cannot unlearn what we don't know as harmful. We should educate ourselves about how unfair it is to box people, judge people, not to accept diversity, not to practice inclusivity."

Some of the issues raised during the talk were micro-aggressions and other people's refusal to use their lived names. Professor Verceles explained that microaggressions are "subtle" comments that communicate biases against a marginalized sector, such as women, LGBT+, or persons with disabilities. The impact of this, Thysz commented, could be "incredible" no matter how the comment was said or what the intention was. Likewise, Estrada added, the refusal to call people by their lived names shows "disrespect. For Mela, enabling trans women and non-binary students to attend schools and come as they are, would further expand inclusion across the country. "If all opportunities would be given to each person, regardless of their sex and gender, most probably the Philippines will be a mover of inclusion across the world. That's the hope," explained Mela.

Promoting equality through social leadership

CNN Philippines Chief Correspondent and Anchor Pia Hontiveros, who moderated the discussion, asked Department of Health (DOH) Officer-in-Charge Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire about her role in the agency sans a Cabinet position.

"I do not look at the hierarchy of our structure. In terms of doing my service, I am here to serve the people. I will look at what the people need," said Dr. Vergeire.

On taking a lead in communities, the DOH chief believes there is a strong representation of women in government, especially in boosting the fight against COVID-19, noting that 90% of experts are women. "Women can do it with them, and women can do it better sometimes," added Dr. Vergeire.

San Manuel, Tarlac Mayor Donya Tesoro shared a similar view: "When women lead, we lead by heart. We listen to our constituents. It's a plus to be a woman in politics because we know how to designate tasks."

To engage more women, United Nations (UN) Women Philippines Program Officer Catherine Torres said the organization creates conditions where women flourish. Catherine said that if women are empowered, the situation would trigger a just and peaceful world.

In the pageant arena, Binibining Pilipinas International 2022 Nicole Borromeo said the space has been witnessing changes as more women become relentless in making their stands on issues heard. Nicole also stressed the need to talk about inequality and gaps such as women's lack of resources and opportunities, as discussions on these can help bring solutions.

Role of gender equality towards economic development

"We have a lot of work to do," said Marla Garin-Alvarez, BDO Unibank Vice President for Sustainability, as she acknowledged gender gaps in the workforce as cited by the World Economic Forum. Marla said 75 percent of BDO’s workforce is female, while the lender also extended its product portfolio to support the needs of women as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, Cherrie Atilano, AGREA Philippines President and Founding Farmer, said its organization has been increasing its efforts to encourage more women, including single mothers, to join the labor force, particularly in the agriculture sector. "Women are building the economic workforce of the country, the children," stated Cherrie.

Tina Boado, Queer and Safe Spaces Co-Founder, also noted that most of the people in the country who are not in the labor force are women and mothers. Tina said that one of the reasons why more men are in the labor force is because of the gender gap in pay, with males earning more than women. "We believe that economic empowerment is a crucial ingredient to gender equality. We hold seminars to upgrade our queer members' skills," said Tina.

This discussion was moderated by CNN Philippines New Day Host Paolo Abrera.

Celebrating women in the art world

There are different forms of art, but all of them require creativity, bravery, perseverance, and strength.

Moderated by CNN Philippines New Day Host Christine Jacob-Sandejas, four women shared how they successfully emerged stronger as they tried to break from what was expected from women.

Christine said the strength of women comes from within. "We put 100% into everything that we do. So instead of dwelling on that, hurtful words, I took it as a challenge. Without any formal training, I worked around the techniques, developed my own style," commented Christine.

"Working on hardwood is not easy. It requires physical strength," said wood carving artist Charming Baldemor as she recalled the time when someone was shocked after learning that she could produce a good piece of wood art.

Zarah Juan, Creative Director of The Zarah Juan brand, commented that she had seen raised eyebrows when she sought to secure dominance in a segment that was usually dominated by men. Without missing her chance, Zarah excelled in her mastery for creating bags, espadrilles, and ballerina flats, subsequently growing her business while introducing to a wider audience the diverse communities in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, popular actress Bela Padilla said she didn't let anyone put her in a box, as she expanded into writing several scripts, producing, and even directing films. "I think in the Philippines, we are not used to women who are multi-hyphenates 'cause we are told, "You only fit in one box." And that is so sad because there are so many of us who do more roles than one," said Bela. "Women are multi-hyphenates without even asking for it and yet we are not acknowledged."

Providing advice for young women, Prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde suggested women should try to learn from every opportunity and rejection. "Keep opening that door. You need to give yourself deadlines and be realistic about what you want to become. You also have to keep the heart in what you're doing," suggested Lisa.


IWD Toolkit

Join the global IWD Community