Is gender inequality really so low in the Philippines?

Author: Fiona MacPhail, UNBC

The Philippines ranked ninth out of 142 countries in terms of gender equality, according to the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2014. As one of the top 10 countries, the Philippines keeps company with high-income Nordic countries, such as Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Perhaps surprisingly, several low-income countries such as Nicaragua and Rwanda also made the top 10.

 Filipino nurses take an oath during induction ceremonies of new certified health workers in Pasay City, south of Manila, Philippines, 14 March 2011. (Photo: AAP).

The WEF global gender gap index is comprised of 14 indicators measuring educational attainment, health and survival, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment. The global gender gap index measures the difference between men and women’s access to resources and opportunities rather than the total level of attainment. For example, the Philippines and Norway achieved the same rank of one indicating virtually no gender gap in secondary education enrolments, despite very different levels of overall enrolment. In the Philippines, 67 per cent of girls and 56 per cent of boys are enrolled in secondary education, compared to 96 per cent and 94 per cent respectively in Norway.

The Philippines’ overall ninth place ranking is driven by high performance on two indicators: education, and health and survival. In both dimensions, the Philippines has achieved the highest rank of one, with virtually no gender gap in literacy rates, primary, secondary and even tertiary education enrollment, and life expectancy.

Despite these impressive results, gender inequality persists in economic opportunities and political empowerment, where the Philippines ranked 24th and 17th respectively. The Philippines’ ranking for labour force participation was even lower, at 102 out of 142 countries. This is due to a female labour force participation rate of just 53 per cent, which is extremely low compared to a male participation rate of 81 per cent.

Women’s participation in paid work is constrained by unpaid domestic and care work, and a lack of productive employment opportunities. According to statistics from the Department of Labor and Employment, 30 per cent of working-age women reported that household or family duties prevented them from participating in the labour market. The Philippines’ relatively high WEF ranking arises partly because despite barriers to women’s labour force participation, many women who are able to participate in paid work do access high-status occupations such as legislators, senior officials, managers, professionals and technicians. This likely reflects effective gender equality policies in these particular areas.

Thus, the overall ninth place ranking needs to be interpreted with caution. The construction of the WEF gender gap index masks underperformance in the economic and political spheres where many women are still excluded. Also, rankings of gender inequality are highly sensitive to the indicators used. For example, compared to its ninth-place ranking on the WEF gender gap index, the Philippines ranked only 78th in the 2014 United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index.

While the degree of gender equality in the Philippines, relative to other countries, is debatable, the Philippines has an extensive — and impressive — institutional framework to promote gender equality. The Philippines has ratified key international agreements, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the constitution affirms women’s equality with men, and the Magna Carta of Women requires the state to uphold women’s human rights.

The Philippines Commission on Women (PCW) promotes gender equality through a comprehensive strategy of gender mainstreaming and good governance. This likely contributes to the Philippines’ high ranking for education on the WEF index. The PCW utilises gender budgeting and auditing tools to strengthen accountability; implements specific projects, such as the GREAT Women Project to support women’s economic empowerment; supports sex-disaggregated data collection; and conducts research to make laws and policies gender-sensitive. For women able to overcome barriers to participation, gender equality is promoted through the Magna Carta and Labor Code which include temporary special measures.

But further advances in gender equality will require more effective implementation of some legislation, particularly acts relating to child care and women’s economic inclusion, such as the agrarian reform law. Current legislation on labour standards and contracts also needs to be better enforced. Improving the well-being of women requires increasing overall living standards, not just reducing the gender gap. Disadvantaged women need specific attention in a country with high levels of overall income inequality.

The Philippines’ institutional framework offers a good model for the promotion of gender equality. But the Philippines needs to address the key challenges of implementation and enforcement in order to eliminate gender inequality across all aspects of life.

Fiona MacPhail is Professor of Economics at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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