A cheerful group shot of The Forum Board by Kevin De Vera

“A practice is accepted as valid until you challenge it.”

Career diplomat, senator, critic, and up to her last years, a farmer mulling over a better agricultural method to produce carabao milk and cheese, Leticia Ramos-Shahani showed her stance on how to question the status quo to young women journalists and writers in March 2015.

The event was an intergenerational forum to celebrate the 20th year of the Fourth International Conference on Women in 1995 held in Beijing, China that produced the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), considered the landmark document that prescribed a framework in advancing women’s rights that has become the guide for countries in formulating policies for women.

But before all of these milestones and monumental outcomes came into reality, there was Shahani who started it all in the Philippines and in the global arena, when it was tough to be a woman even if she was already in the United Nations.

“In the beginning, there was very little interest in women’s rights at the UN,” she said, as majority of high-ranking UN officials were men and there were only a few women ambassadors in the 1960s and 1970s.  “But we fought for a niche that did not yet exist. People laughed and thought it was a joke to raise certain awareness about women’s rights because there was hardly any,” she said.

Shahani’s career in diplomacy and international relations continued to stand out when she chaired the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1974 and, under her leadership, recommended that 1975 should be celebrated as “International Women’s Year” and that there should be an international women’s conference.

The UN declared the “International Decade for Women” from 1976 to 1985 and adopted the theme, “equality, development, peace.” Shahani always referred to these three words as her “favorite trilogy” – “equality encompasses equal rights between women and men, development covers economics and social issues, and peace deals with the political aspect.”

Her favorite words would figure in UN deliberations, legislative and societal discussions and all forms of discourses on gender parity and equality for many years even up to today.

The first world conference in women was indeed held in Mexico City but it was headed by a man. The second was held in Copenhagen in 1980 but it was marred by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1985, Shahani was appointed secretary-general of the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya while concurrently holding the post of UN Assistant Secretary-General for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs.

She led preparatory meetings and conferences that produced a policy document that became the basis for the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies that reversed the thinking about women’s issues solely as welfare concerns that did not consider women in the economic and political agenda.

In Nairobi, Shahani was able to wrestle the changes she wanted for women, reversing the unequal thinking to one that reaffirmed the equality of rights of men and women and for women to be given the opportunity to participate in political and economic development.

Shahani is also the first co-author of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the first human rights treaty to affirm the reproductive rights of women, define discrimination against women and set up an agenda for action by governments to end discrimination. CEDAW made rape become a crime against a woman’s right as a human being and not merely a crime against her chastity. It officially recognized women’s work with remuneration and value.

These were products of hard negotiations on difficult issues that started in Nairobi, when Shahani even had to ask the UN to hold cocktails daily so that women could meet and discuss, as she saw the international feminist movement already looming at that time. She also disregarded protocol by barring clearance from the Philippine government to finish the draft with a mostly Filipino UN staff.

She also collaborated with the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the only state willing to support the Philippines in filing the draft CEDAW (the first working draft was known as the Philippine-Soviet Draft) for UN consideration at the height of the Cold War. She led women in fighting fundamentalists, traditionalists and religious conservatives led by the Vatican in lobbying for the draft treaty.

As one of the few top-ranking women of the UN, Shahani also served as chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the Seventh Congress on Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders. She held various positions in the Philippine Foreign Service and thUN. She was the first Philippine ambassador to Romania and was later appointed ambassador to Australia.

After serving the UN, she returned to the Philippines to become the deputy minister for foreign affairs after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. In 1987, she won the elections as senator and chaired the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and vice chair of thCommittee on Justice, Welfare and Development, and Women and Family Relations. She also headed the Senate Committee on Education, Culture and Arts. In 1993, she was elected Senate President Pro-Tempore, the first female to hold the position in the history of the Philippine Senate.

She introduced laws that address gender discrimination at work, the Anti-Rape Law of 1997 and the Gender and Development law that directed government agencies to provide for five percent of their budget allocated to gender and development.

Shahani graduated in 1951 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts with an undergraduate degree in English Literature. She finished her graduate studies in Comparative Literature at the Columbia University in New York, and was awarded a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature with highest honors from the University of Paris in Sorbonne. She spoke several languages. She was also dean of the College of International, Humanitarian and Development Studies of Miriam College.

Before she passed on from colon cancer at age 87, she ran her carabao milk and cheese business in Pangasinan, where she was born, and where she turned her thoughts on helping improve the country’s state of agriculture.

In the history of the UN and in international diplomacy, Shahani was one of the women stalwarts besides Helena Benitez, Rosario Manalo and Patricia Licuanan who made history by presiding over four world conferences on women and led negotiations to craft the world’s agenda for the human rights of women and girls.

During the March 2015 Media Workshop and Intergenerational Forum organized by the now defunct Women’s Feature Service that celebrated the 20th year of the Beijing conference, Shahani exhorted women in media to “be students of history” and “to stand and help the heroines who made this possible because that is your duty to the past and your obligation to the future.”

“Women have to make men stronger by raising sons who will be strong to honor their mother and to be able to do the housework,” and reminded that “equality should not be at the expense of the men.”

Shahani speaking before young women journalists March2015
Senator Shahani asks women to continue the journey during a forum on the 20th year of the 4th International Conference on Women in March 2015 (WWW Phils photo)

In her final years, she spoke up against “the new crises that we are confronting today” as she reiterated the Philippine Constitutional provision that there is a need to pursue an independent foreign policy in order to protect the country’s interests and right to self-determination because “once you lose jurisdiction, you lose sovereignty of the government.”

She criticized the government’s response to recent incidents involving the harassment of fishermen and China’s building of structures in the country’s disputed waters. “We seem to be losing the psychological aspect of war, as if Filipinos are wimps compared to the Chinese, as if Filipinos are cowards compared to the Chinese,” she said.

Noting that government officials have been saying that the country can’t counter the military power of China, she said it is time to sound off alarm bells. “We don’t do paper protests. It’s no longer an issue of foreign affairs. This is also a domestic affair. This is an issue where the vital interest of poor fishermen coincide with the most stylish diplomat we have in the Philippine foreign service,” she said of protecting territorial rights. “We have to know how to defend ourselves because no one else will.”

On the drug war being waged by the current administration, she said “it is the responsibility of government to protect their citizens not to kill them” as she stated that killing is not the solution to drug use and peddling.

She also urged President Rodrigo Duterte to be more careful in his language because he is the country’s chief diplomat. “Diplomacy is a linguistic career, so as a diplomat you are trained to be careful about every word you say especially to the country to which you are accredited,” she said.

Shahani’s journey would easily be the world’s historical path to women’s rights, empowerment and the quest for equality that are now part of free conversations today, and it is immensely because of her. In her admonitions, exacting and steady as they were, the power of her wisdom will certainly endure.