The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) is one with the nation in celebrating the life of its former Commissioner and outstanding Filipina woman leader who has put the Philippines on the international map.
On July 14, former Senator Helena Z Benitez succumbed to natural cause. The woman icon was 102.
Prior to her stint as a Senator in 1968 to 1973 and assemblywoman in the interim Batasang Pambansa from 1978 to 1984, Benitez represented the country through various roles in the United Nations (UN) including the chairpersonship of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 1966.
Citing the publication “Shaping the Women’s Global Agenda” commissioned by the PCW in 2007, PCW noted that Benitez is the first Filipina to head the UN CSW. During her term, she successfully presided over the first major policy statement adopted by the Commission -- the draft of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1967 – which paved the way for the creation of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) after being adopted by the UN General Assembly.
“We are grateful for her life and the contributions that she made throughout the years. She led a full life,” said PCW Executive Director Emmeline L. Verzosa.
“From the very beginning until the end, Senator Benitez broke the glass ceiling as she proved that women can indeed make a difference. Her passion to uplift the lives of women ignites ours and we vow to continue her legacy,” she added.
Senator Benitez served as a Commissioner of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW), the former name of PCW, from 1975 to 1986. Her last engagement with the PCW was during the filming of the All-Women Cast Lupang Hinirang Video where she was featured along with the other women leaders who represented the Philippines in various international bodies.
Benitez was born in Manila on June 27, 1914 to Conrado Benitez and Francisca Tirona-Benitez, both educators and founders of the Philippine Women's University (PWU).
In her early years, Benitez was already seen with innate leadership qualities that began to emerge especially during the World War II. At 29, she was one of the organizers of the Volunteer Social Aid Committee (VSAC) to Filipino and American prisoners-of-war interned in San Fernando, Pampanga and Capas, Tarlac.
After the war, Benitez accompanied her father to the United States to secure scholarships and educational materials to fast track the recovery of the war-ravaged university.
She took courses at the University of Chicago and Iowa State College, and obtained her MA degree at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University in 1939.
Aside from leading the UN CSW, Benitez became the highest ranking woman in the UN Secretariat in her capacity as Special Advisor on Human Settlements to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Director General. As such, she chaired the UN Preliminary Preparatory Planning Group otherwise known as Habitat, which would tackle major issues on the effectiveness and structuring of international human settlement programs.
Working at top level to promote and develop innovative projects, programs and institutions, Benitez emerged from her UN experience as a symbol of achievement. After leaving her UN post in 1974, she served as Chair of the Philippine Delegation to Governing Council for the Period 1795-1946. She was the first woman and Asian to occupy this post.
As a Philippine legislator, on the other hand, Benitez was behind the significant laws, including the passage of RA 6142 which provided funds for low-cost housing, environmental safeguards and new town development; the RA 6541 or the National Building Code, and the RA 6147 or the first law protecting the Philippine Eagle, among others.
In recognition of her invaluable contributions to society, Benitez was conferred with Order of Sikatuna, the highest award that the President of the Philippines confers on outstanding persons who are international contributors to the well-being of the country. The award, with the rank of datu, was given by then President Fidel V. Ramos on June 4, 1998. She was the first Filipina to receive Order of Sikatuna.
The entire PCW family extends its deepest condolences to the bereaved family of Senator Benitez.