SOCIETY spoke with the new Ambassador of the Philippines to Austria, H.E. Maria Cleofe R. Natividad about her vision to transform the Philippine Embassy as the science diplomacy center and the strong role of women in the Filipino culture.
You have been Ambassador of the Philippines to Austria and Permanent Representative to the International Organizations since January 2018, what will be the main focus of your work during your term?
Indeed, I presented my letter of credentials to Federal President Alexander van der Bellen at the majestic Hofburg on the 8th of January this year. During the ceremony, I shared with President van der Bellen my plans to further enhance the political, economic, and cultural ties between the Philippines and Austria. In response, the President noted the vibrant and well-integrated Filipino community in Austria and recalled the warm friendship between the Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, and Ferdinand Blumentritt, an Austrian teacher in Bohemia.
I mention this conversation with the President about the meeting of two great minds – Dr. Rizal and Mr. Blumentritt – because the main focus of my term as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the various international organizations here in Vienna is precisely to facilitate such people-to-people exchanges, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields, between our countries. With its 100-million strong population, the Philippines is currently in a demographic “sweet spot”. The government’s long-term vision under President Rodrigo R. Duterte, Ambisyon 2040, sets the policy framework that could spur this economic growth to realize the immense potential of our favorable demographics. The key is educating the youth and facilitating opportunities in human capital development, science, technology and innovation.
My vision is to transform the Philippine Embassy and Mission as the science diplomacy center among the various foreign service posts of the Philippines. I believe that here in Vienna, we are perfectly situated to provide critical support in seeking and creating opportunities for the acquisition of relevant scientific knowledge, skills, and trainings for Filipinos. The Filipino community here in Austria, including the Philippine-Austrian Cultural and Educational Society (PACES), is our active partner in pushing for STEM education. PACES, composed of scientists based in Vienna, provides scholarships in the STEM field for deserving undergraduate students. The same focus on science diplomacy animates my work as the Philippine Permanent Representative to the various international organizations.
When I accompanied the head of the IAEA, Director General Yukiya Amano, to the Philippines last February, I made sure that he had the chance to interact with the university professors and heads of the science and engineering faculties of the country. An agreement between our science and education ministries, which provides a basis for the sustained roll-out of a nuclear science and technology curriculum among high students was also signed during this visit. I consider it as part of my work to raise the awareness of our legislators and government executives about innovative technologies which could provide solutions to challenges that ordinary Filipinos.
Your predecessor as Ambassador, H.E. Angara-Collinson was also female, does the Philippine government have a quota for women working in the diplomatic service?
In fact, the past three Ambassadors of the Philippines to Austria immediately preceding me were all female. The Philippines is the most gender-equal country in Asia. It is the only Asian country in the top 10 of the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum which benchmarks countries on their progress towards gender parity across dimensions such educational attainment and political empowerment. We fare very well in areas of economic participation and opportunity, including in handling managerial and executive positions.
There is no Philippine government quota specifically for women working in the diplomatic service. What we do have is a Magna Carta for Women which is a comprehensive women’s human rights law that seeks to eliminate discrimination through the recognition, protection, fulfilment and promotion of the rights of Filipino women, especially those belonging in the marginalized sectors of society. One of the salient features of this law is increasing the number of women in certain positions in government to achieve a fifty-fifty (50-50) gender balance.
We also have a long tradition of gender equality – our origin myths speak of both a man and a woman breaking out of a bamboo and our pre-colonial history point out to reverence for women who had, among others, leadership roles as healers in the community and strong matriarchal lineage. Even in ancient times, Filipino women could own property and engage in trade.
Speaking from personal experience as a mother of two daughters, do you think it is harder for women than for men to combine professional and private life?
“We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers.” I would like to begin with this quote from Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book. Looking back, it was always a constant balancing act – to be a mother and a professional. There were many challenges, considering the demands of my job as a diplomat, and eventually Ambassador. But I want to believe that my job, in turn, has offered many unique opportunities to my daughters. Both multi-lingual and fiercely independent, they have faced exciting and challenging situations as children of an itinerant globe-trotting diplomat.
However, I would be remiss if I don’t mention that it does take a village – or a community – to raise a child. And women, because of their innate talents to build and work with and within communities, have an easier time than men to mobilize community resources for the family. In Filipino culture, parenthood is a shared responsibility with members of the extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, relatives, all pitch in. In this sense, with this tremendous support, I do not believe that it is harder for women than men to combine professional and private life.
There is a diaspora of 30,000 Philippine citizens living in Austria, does the Embassy create any special activities for them?
The diasporic Filipino community (Filcom) in Austria are partners of the Embassy. I am proud of this community – Filipinos are very well-integrated in Austrian society. Just a few weeks ago, I was at the Rathaus to witness the conferment of honors on Filipino nurses by the Austrian Integration and Education Council for their 40 years of service! Mr. Jürgen Czernohorszky, the Councilor for Integration and Education, delivered his speech praising the Filipino nurses for their professionalism and long years of service.
While highly integrated in their host society, Filipinos remain, at the same time, very active in Philippine affairs and concerns – raising funds for scholarships, or in case of natural disasters, and so on. We work closely with the Filcom organizations in various initiatives. On the other hand, the Embassy regularly meets the community for consultations. We also celebrated Women’s Month with a skills training activity targeted at the women in the Filipino community. The activity equipped the participants with skills which they can later build on for livelihood purposes. During this activity, I reminded the participants of the important role women play as stakeholders and contributors to the country’s development goals. I expressed hoped that the skills they take away from the activity will help empower and inspire them to aspire more and do more.