DAVAO: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has a problem with women, says the woman who has known him longer than perhaps any other: his sister Jocellyn. “He’s a chauvinist,” she said in a recent interview. “When he sees a woman who fights him, it really gets his ire.” Then Jocellyn ran through a list of Duterte’s female critics that included his vice-president, a prominent senator who is now in jail and the head of the Philippines Supreme Court.
All three have sparred with Duterte after denouncing his brutal war on drugs, which has killed thousands of people in the Asian nation since he took office in June 2016. Duterte has joked about rape, insulted the Pope and baffled friends and foes with often contradictory public statements.
Neither this, nor his profanity-laden reactions to women critics, seem to have dented his popularity among Filipinos. On the campaign trail last year, he joked about the abuse of an Australian missionary who was killed in a prison riot.
Speaking to Philippine troops in May, he said he would take responsibility for any abuse they might commit.
But women’s rights advocates also praise him for handing out free contraceptives in his hometown, Davao City, where he was mayor for 22 years, and for championing a reproductive health bill opposed by the country’s Catholic Church.
In a recent statement, even Human Rights Watch — a fervent critic of the drug war — acknowledged Duterte’s “strong support” for legislation aimed at protecting and promoting women.
After nearly 15 months in power, he remains highly popular with men and women alike, according to the latest survey by Manila-based pollster Social Weather Stations.
While foreigners frown at Duterte’s jokes, says Gina Lopez, a former environment secretary in Duterte’s male-dominated cabinet, Filipinos judge him by his actions not his words.
“When I see him dealing with women in the cabinet or whatever, he has been very above-board, very decent,” she said.
She said this decency also once extended to Vice-President Leni Robredo, who has publicly fallen out with Duterte. She is from an opposition party and was elected separately.
“He really liked Leni. They got along and he was always flirting,” said Lopez. “That’s what men do, right.”
In a statement to Reuters, the president’s office called Duterte “an advocate of women’s rights” who had launched a “massive campaign against gender bias” while mayor of Davao.
As president, it added, he had “hand-picked the best and brightest women” for his cabinet.
Three of the country’s 25 cabinet secretaries or ministers are women.
Duterte spends up to four days a week in his far-flung hometown Davao, ruling a nation of 100 million people not from the presidential palace in the capital, Manila, but from a modest house shaded by a jackfruit tree.
According to Jocellyn Duterte, Duterte is also fighting with the woman he hopes will cement his political legacy: his daughter Sara.
Sara Duterte reluctantly replaced her father as mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines when he became president. Father and daughter barely speak, said Jocellyn.
In 2016, Sara ran as mayor again, but only because she was “pressured” by her father’s supporters, she said. “If it were up to me, I would not have run,” she said.
She said she now only saw her father on special occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas, but denied they had differences. “He’s very busy,” she said.
She said she wanted to practice law and, once her three-year term as mayor was up, had no wish or intention to continue in politics.
But in a country famous for political dynasties spanning many generations, Duterte wants his daughter to “preserve what the family has done for the city,” said Jocellyn.
“He is trying to instill in Sara that it is our legacy,” she said. “Maybe she needs more time.” — Reuters