WILL voting for a woman push women's needs to the forefront?

As May 10 draws near, there's a noticeable positioning of candidates and parties as champions of women's rights.

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How do voters tell genuine advocacy from political opportunism?

Sharing the stake

Representation of women in decision- and policy-making bodies is seen as key to women's emancipation and empowerment.

The liberation of women from voicelessness and multiple burdens begins with their equal partnership in managing households and progresses to their participation in governance.

Cebuanos have a record of choosing female leaders. This was revealed by a March 8 Sun.Star Cebu article, "1 in 5 Cebu mayors is a woman."

Eleven women sit as mayors in the province's 50 municipalities and component cities. Out of 16 seats, five women are members of the Cebu Provincial Board.

According to the same Sun.Star article, these developments are in keeping with the Magna Carta for Women, which targets that by 2014, 50 percent of government positions will be held by women.

Raising the bar

Women's better access to community leadership and service should not only be gauged by the numbers.

"We still need to educate women for them to try different careers," observed Lahug Barangay Captain Mary Ann de los Santos in the same Sun.Star article. "(Leadership) is more a question of qualifications rather than gender," pointed out Rachel "Cutie" del Mar, the chief of staff of Rep. Raul del Mar.

The importance of purposively fostering gender consciousness in leaders of both genders is echoed by the findings of a Buenos Aires-based nongovernmental organization that studied the incorporation of gender awareness in public policies, particularly the justice system.

"Numbers say nothing about the real degree of inclusion in public life or about how much influence women have exerted from their positions and the impact they've had," stated the 2005-2008 Gender and Human Rights Report of the Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (ELA).

Even more essential than correcting the "male-female imbalance" is giving gender-awareness training to establish the priorities and guide decisions made by executives of both genders, recommended the ELA report (ipsnews.net).

In for the long haul

To know whether candidates are genuinely pro-women, voters should assess the politician's track record. This includes not just a candidate's professed stance and advocacy but also the silence or the avoidance by candidates of sensitive issues affecting the welfare of women, children and families.

For instance, reproductive health may be most controversial at present. However, it is not the only crucial concern affecting women's welfare. The Philippines has passed 27 laws concerning women's rights but the lack of full and strict enforcement renders these laws nearly useless for women and children threatened by poverty and abuse.

Despite opportunities and legal protection, there are still "layered levels of discrimination," contends the United Nations Development Fund for Women. According to an article by the Inter Press Service news agency, women's participation in the labor force may be increasing but they remain vulnerable to discrimination in employment, education and training.

Voters must assess whether a candidate's gender-sensitive track record can be sustained by a realistic platform of government for correcting the continuing, hidden marginalization of women.

Security during disasters and other crises, comprehensive health care and information, equal treatment before the law and in matters relating to marriage, and rights to fundamental freedoms like cultural identity, development and peace are just some of the areas affecting women's welfare, according to the Magna Carta for Women.