Rowena Guanzon: Who’s this poll exec in a fighting mood days before retirement?
BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines — The daughter of one of the country’s first female politicians and a World War II hero, who were both lawyers, Election Commissioner Rowena “Bing” Guanzon grew up in a family where intellectual ability was constantly tested and courage was instilled at a young age.
The experience toughened the outspoken and feisty 64-year-old native of Cadiz City, Negros Occidental province, who learned to never back down from an argument when she knew she was right and often had the last word.
Barely a week before her retirement, she surprised the nation on Thursday when she disclosed her vote to disqualify Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. from the presidential elections on May 9 and said that there was a “conspiracy” to delay the release of the resolution on the petitions against the former senator after she leaves office so that it won’t be counted.
Unfazed by threats from the chief lawyer for Marcos Jr.’s party to sanction her with disbarment for the “premature” disclosure of her vote as a member of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), she challenged him to try, and also to debate with her on national television.
“I want to be remembered as a commissioner who served with honor and excellence. I stuck to independent decisions and was the lone dissenter in several Comelec decisions,” she said in an interview with the Inquirer on Saturday.
Guanzon was appointed to the election commission by the late President Benigno Aquino III in 2015.
Aquino’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said he was not surprised by Guanzon’s action as she was known to be a “very strong woman” who “speaks her mind.”
“The way she projected herself has always been as a fiercely independent [official]. And that’s how we came to know her,” he told the Inquirer.
“In my own personal view, she wanted to reveal her opinion to the public because it was her valedictory opinion, her very last opinion as Comelec commissioner,” Lacierda said. “I think she would like to leave a [lasting] mark on her last decision, and that she felt very strongly that there’s enough evidence to rule that way.”
Pro bono cases
Growing up in Cadiz, Guanzon was already exposed as a young girl to her parents’, particularly her mother’s, public service.
She said she saw a steady stream of people seeking help, including pro bono legal assistance, from her mother, Elvira Guanzon, who had served as a board member of Negros Occidental and as a politician for 36 years.
Guanzon’s father, former Judge Sixto Guanzon Sr., was only 17 years old when he joined a guerrilla intelligence unit in Kabankalan City. He was captured and beaten up by the Japanese but later escaped to continue fighting. He later received the United States Congressional Gold Medal for heroism.
Her mother passed away on July 11, 2020, at the age of 95, and her father, also 95, died three months later on Oct. 1.
“My parents were courageous, patriotic people. They taught us to stand up and fight for what is right even if it cost you your conveniences and your life,” Guanzon said.
Fighting back vs boys
Guanzon is the fourth of eight children. She has five brothers and two sisters — one is a retired judge, Frances Guanzon; four are doctors — Mateo Guanzon III, Casten Guanzon, Jeffry Guanzon, and Ma. Luz Vicena Guanzon; another is a board member, Sixto Guanzon Jr.; and the artist and linguist, Pengar Louie Guanzon.
Dealing with five brothers, her parents trained her “to fight against boys.” Her father told her not to let boys bully her.
Guanzon said her personality was very much like her mother’s — hardworking, sociable, and friendly “but fierce to her enemies.”
“My mother stood up for people who could not defend themselves. She was very compassionate to the poor. She spent time with them, listened to them, and defended them,” she said.
“The life experience of my mother shaped my character and my principles,” Guanzon said.
She said her mother, the daughter of a mayor, was a teenager when the war broke out.
Guanzon said her grandfather refused to surrender to the Japanese and the family was forced to evacuate and suffer hardships during the war.
Her mother started government service as a municipal attorney and also served as councilor and vice mayor of Cadiz City. She was a provincial board member for 18 years “when women could barely enter politics because it was [a] man’s world then.”
Almost kicked out
Guanzon said she became feisty and dauntless by the way she was brought up.
She was almost kicked out of Silliman University High School for protesting against school rules in her fourth year.
Her father at the time wrote her a letter, saying, “You are a shade better than the rest.”
“He told me to study well and train yourself to master your environment because someday people will rely on you,” Guanzon said. “It was my mother who told me that if you are a lawyer you can be anything.”
After graduating from high school in 1974, Guanzon enrolled at the University of the Philippines (UP), finishing a degree in economics. She later entered the UP College of Law, and was sixth in her class, receiving a Dean’s Medal, on graduation.
She also earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she was an Edward Mason Fellow and class marshal.
After dictator Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, she was appointed officer in charge, or acting mayor, of Cadiz by President Corazon Aquino. She was elected city mayor in 1988 and served until 1992, a total of seven years as chief executive.
Before joining the Comelec, she was a commissioner in the Commission on Audit where she was appointed in 2013.
Guanzon was also a litigation lawyer, Philippine Daily Inquirer Visayas columnist, and a law professor who was well known for her expertise in gender equality and laws on violence against women. She also taught election law and local government subjects.
A champion of women’s and children’s rights, she wrote articles and books on the subject.
Her article, “Legal and Conceptual Framework of Battered Woman Syndrome as a Defense,” was published in the Philippine Law Journal.
She was the lead author of “Engendering the Philippine Judiciary,” published by the United Nations Fund for Women and the UP Center for Women’s Studies Foundation, and “The Davide Court: Its Contributions to Gender and Women’s Rights,” published by The Asia Foundation and the UP Center for Women’s Studies Foundation.
‘Disgusting’ Duterte joke
She said the books she wrote were all important but the “most useful” would be the “Anti Sexual Harassment Act: Notes and Cases,” and “The Government Auditing Code of the Philippines” because they were helpful to everyone, including those in the bureaucracy.
Guanzon was among those who sharply criticized then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte for his infamous remarks on the rape slay of an Australian lay missionary in 1989.
“Out of about 54.3 million Filipino voters, there are 27,896,668 women voters. That’s 1.7 million more women voters than men. That’s 29.9 million women voters who can be raped. And Rodrigo Duterte, a presidential candidate, makes a disgusting ‘joke’ about it, talking about rape and murder victim Jacqueline Hamill, an Australian missionary who was taken hostage in a Davao City prison as if she was not a human being,” Guanzon said in a statement.
She was the lone dissenter in the Comelec’s decision to accept the certificate of candidacy as substitute candidate filed by Duterte but later voted not to disqualify him.
—WITH REPORTS FROM MARLON RAMOS AND INQUIRER RESEARCH