First lady bus drivers in UAE who feel like ‘rock stars’ in Dubai

Filipinas Ailen Francisco and Marygold Cez de Castro talk of their exemplary empowerment

By Angel L. Tesorero

Dubai: It has been almost two years since two Filipinas got behind the wheel to become the first lady bus drivers in the UAE. The novelty hasn’t worn off as they continue to elicit smiles from passengers, and more importantly, inspire women to excel.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) first deployed Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco, 46, and Marygold Cez de Castro, 34, in the city’s internal bus network back in July 2020. A third one, a Kenyan expat named Gladys, also joined them.

Employing female drivers was actually something not new as the RTA at that time already had 165 female taxi drivers, 41 female limo chauffeurs, and one school bus driver.

Marygold Cez de Castro and Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco say what men can do, they can do too. (Gulf News)

But seeing a woman behind the wheel of a long public transport vehicle – a bus that could carry between 30 to 50 passengers or more – which was exclusively driven by men, was not only trailblazing, it also sent a strong message of “empowering women and achieving gender balance across various jobs”.

Breaking the glass ceiling

“It was unprecedented,” Francisco and de Castro told Gulf News, adding: “We felt like we broke the glass ceiling and removed the prejudice against women.”

“This pioneering effort of employing female bus drivers is compatible with RTA’s principle of empowering women and achieving gender balance across various jobs… It creates job opportunities for women in a field dominated by men and promotes the culture of using public transport,” Ahmed Hashim Bahrozyan, CEO of RTA’s Public Transport Agency, earlier had said.

‘We can do too’

The size of the bus they are driving has also increased. Recently, Francisco and de Castro said they just finished their training on a double-decker bus.

Marygold Cez de Castro and Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco were recently trained to drive double-decker buses. (Gulf News)

“Imagine someone like me who is barely five feet and weighing around 54kg driving a 40-feet-long, 15-feet-high and 6.5-feet-wide two-storey bus,” De Castro told Gulf News. “It only proves that what men can do, we women can do too.”

“Almost every day, we (de Castro and Francisco) encounter passengers smiling and giving us a thumbs-up sign. We made women proud and, as Filipino expats, we also made our kababayans (compatriots) proud,” added de Castro, who is also a mother of two girls – a teenager and a six-year old.

Tackling misconceptions

“During the first days and weeks I was on the road, motorists would always give me a thumbs up sign and my colleagues and fellow drivers at the RTA would always say ‘hi’ and wave at me,” said de Castro.

Francisco said, “I think commuters are used to seeing a woman behind the wheel of a standard bus now.”

Thomas Edelmann, founder and managing director of RoadSafetyUAE, meanwhile, asserted women drivers are generally safe drivers and gender prejudice should be erased. He noted: “Female drivers often don’t receive the due appreciation of their driving behaviour. Gender prejudice still seems to play a role. However, an overall more careful attitude can be observed as female drivers have been less involved in road accidents than male drivers in the last seven years.”

Heart-warming reactions

On another bright note, up until now, passengers are still taking photos and selfies with de Castro and Francisco in their blue RTA uniforms – amazed and in awe of their profession.

Francisco said: “Just recently a 74-year old man approached me and introduced himself. He gave me two thumbs up and he said it was the first time he saw a lady bus driver.”

“There was also a heart-warming reaction from an Arab woman who crossed the street with her children. She proudly pointed me to her kids and they all waved at me,” shared Francisco, adding: “Another woman stopped her car near me and as she pulled down her window she extended her hand offering me a cash gift. I almost blushed and told myself: Wow! What a generous way showing her appreciation of hard-working women like me.”

Francisco, a widower and mother to two grown-ups, said she felt like a “rock star.” She added: “I’m already a middle-aged woman but there is always this spring in my step that makes me feel energetic and happy because of the positive reactions I receive from people.”

Maternal instincts

More than being trailblazers, both Francisco and de Castro said they are proud of their road safety records. “It must be because we are both mothers and those maternal and caring instincts are also reflected in the way we drive on the road. We think of our passengers as our children – we want them safe always,” they said.

Ailen Pueto Leaño Francisco with her family. (Gulf News)

At home, Francisco and de Castro steer their respective families with motherly care. They are also home makers who wake up early to prepare breakfast and would always check on their children – even while at work – if they had eaten or needed anything.

De Castro said she is proud that she is an inspiration to her two girls. “I’ve shown my kids how to be courageous and bold. I’ve failed in my first attempt to get the bus driver’s licence but I did not give up; I’ve undergone hours of rigorous training and proven myself as a pioneer in my chosen field,” she underlined.

“As a woman, don’t ever doubt yourself,” added Francisco. “Yes, it was really ‘weird and awkward’ at first working in a male-dominated world but eventually the bias will be gone, especially when we stay focused and determined.”

The duo added: “We also would like to thank Dubai and RTA for giving us the opportunity to work here in the UAE. We know that every day we are on the road, we do not only carry passengers, but we are also out there to prove that women are strong partners in steering the community and driving the nation.” #

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This article was originally written for and was published by Gulf News, the UAE’s largest English language newspaper where the author is a senior reporter.

Dalawang tula sa Araw ng Kababaihan


Ni Bibeth Orteza

Babae ako.

Nagdalaga at nagkaisip,

panahon pa ng pasador.

Babae ako.

Breast cancer survivor,

magla-labingwalong taon.

Babae ako.

Anak ng matapang na Waray

na nagturo sa aking lumaban.

Babae ako.

Manugang ng tagapagtaguyod ng awit

at kalayaan sa pamamahayag.

Babae ako.

Kasal sa lalaking tapat at nanindigan,

hindi nagmahal sa suso ko lang.

Babae ako.

Palaban, militante.

Sana, all.

– International Women’s Day

March 8, 2022


Ni Ibarra Banaag

Sadya, mahaba ang buhay ng mga babae,

Marahil dahil sisidlan ng dangal at binhi,

Tahanan ng nabubuong hininga at buhay,

Duyan ng natutulog na bunso o panganay.

Buong tikas na kalong-kalong ang bigat,

Salo ng yaring balakang ang manas-balat,

Pinagpala ng bahay-bata at talimpusod,

Nagkakanlong sa kumikislot na sandugo.

Sakaling pumulandit itong sangalang-tubig,

Bugtong ng siyam na buwan panghaharana,

Tagos sa sinapupunan ng Inang nagbataris,

Buntong hininga ng matagumpay na pagtitiis.

At tinapos ng hilab at diliryo mga buwan,

Tanging lukso ng dugo nagpakilala sa tanan,

Ang syensya ng pusong ginupit sa palahaw,

Bumangon kang taas ang noo sa karaniwan.

Sa kurlong na namamayani ang yabangan,

Babae ang namumukod-tanging huwaran,

Sa likuran ng pinagpipitagang mga lalaki,

Isang Ina ang humuhulma ng mga bayani.

Mayo 12, 2021

One Billion Rising 2021: Campaign demands food security and end to violence against women

Women and other groups gathered at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City Sunday afternoon to participate in the annual One Billion Rising (OBR) global campaign on violence against women.

On its ninth year, the OBR worldwide is themed “Rising Gardens” to underscore the need for food security for the poor, especially women.

Some of the participants dancing to OBR songs. (R. Villanueva)

This year’s event in Quezon City was highlighted by the exchange of vegetable seedlings among participants to symbolize the women’s sector call for food security as well as a Php10,000 cash assistance for poor families.

The organizers said that aside from their continuing demand for an end to violence against women, they are intensifying their call for food security, livelihood, accessible health services and justice as the pandemic and worsening economic crisis batter the poor.

“The spread of the coronavirus exposed [the] worsened inadequacies in the delivery of public health and [other] social services in a neoliberal economic system. The militarized lockdown, one of the longest and harshest in the world, has caused an unprecedented crisis, with millions out of work and deprived of livelihood,” GABRIELA secretary general Joms Salvador said.

The LGBTQI+ community are once again present in this year’s OBR. (R. Villanueva)

Established in 2012 by playwright Eve Ensler and held annually across the globe on February 14, OBR has since become the biggest continuing global mass action in history.

Instead of celebrating a commercialized Valentine’s Day, the OBR gathers hundreds of thousands of women and supporters to join dance protests against violence against women.

OBR is also celebrated in key cities across the country, including Baguio, Iloilo and Davao.

One Billion Rising global director Monique Wilson. (R. Villanueva)

OBR global director and artist Monique Wilson said country directors all over the world decided to highlight the need for food security amid worsening social injustices this year.

“The theme Rising Gardens is a huge political resistance against violence against women and the violence of food insecurity, poverty, tyranny and the marginalization of women,” Wilson said.

Community garden destroyed

In her speech, Wilson pointed out that a community garden in Marikina City was destroyed by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Sunday morning, depriving the community called Olandes harvestable vegetables.

In posts on her Facebook account, Gabriela member Lita Malundras reported that heavy machinery bulldozed a community garden that Wilson herself helped establish.

Community women look helplessly as their garden is being destroyed. (Lita Malundras)

“Ang bigat ng makita mo ngayong araw ng mga puso ang kawalan ng puso ng mga nasa gobyerno ang sirain ang pananim na pinaghirapan at ginastusan ng mahihirap. Ang lupa na dapat pinagkukunan ng pagkain. Walang awang tinatabunan,” Malundras said.

(It is heartbreaking that in this day of hearts, the heartless in government destroyed the crops painstakingly planted by the poor. The land that should for food production, they heartlessly filled up.)

The once productive vegetable garden was destroyed in a matter of hours. (Lita Malundras)

“Nakakaiyak na makita ang mga tao na pinapanuod na lang ang mga sasakyan na sumisira sa mga halaman na kanilang pinagkukunan ng pagkain sa araw araw. Bukas darating si (Secretary Mark) Villar ng DPWH at (Secretary Frank) Cimatu ng DENR, kaya daw minamadali nila upang makita ang kautusan ng mga hari. Isigaw natin ang walang katarungan na ginagawa sa mga mahihirap,” she added.

(We are in tears seeing the people helplessly looking at machines destroying crops for their daily sustenance. Tomorrow, Villar and Cimatu are coming. They are rushing things so the kings may see their orders followed. We must tell everyone of the injustices they are doing to the poor.)

The DPWH and the DENR are reportedly undertaking preparatory work for future construction projects along the banks of the Marikina River. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Women join Grand Mañanita vs the anti-terror bill

Women were among those who participated in the Grand Mañanita at the University of the Philippines last Friday, June 12.

According to Clarisse Palce, secretary general of Gabriela Youth, they came to show the people’s strong disagreement with the measure.

She said the bill will worsen attacks on women, such as those implemented at checkpoints during the coronavirus lockdown where police officers solicit sexual favors before allowing women to pass. (Video by Maricon Montajes)

‘No VAT on Pad’ protests prompt Bangladesh government to remove proposed tax

Hefty tax on sanitary pads called “disgraceful” and “anti-women”

By Pantha Rahmanrez / Translated by Rezwan

BANGLADESH–In June 2019, activists in Nigeria demonstrated over their government’s intention to reinstate a tax on sanitary pads in the 2019/2020 budget. Last year, amidst protests, India removed a controversial tax on sanitary pads, which was introduced in 2017. Now, Bangladesh joins the global debate on period poverty.

Recent protests called for a halt to the proposed 40 percent value-added tax (VAT) and supplementary duties on imported raw materials of sanitary napkins in the country’s new budget. Locally made pads are already subject to a 15 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) on the shelf price, so additional taxes on the imported ingredients would make these products out of reach for many — even those already using hygienic disposable pads.

Amidst calls to break the silence and widespread use of the slogan “No VAT on Pad”, the Bangladesh government, in an unprecedented move, scrapped the proposed tax hike on feminine products — but that doesn’t mean they are now affordable for women in Bangladesh.

The period taboo

In rural Bangladesh, women’s periods are still a taboo subject. Because menstruation is deemed impure, this imposes many restrictions on what women can do and where they can go. Even women who can afford these products rarely buy them at regular shops, mostly out of embarrassment.

According to 2014 Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey, during their menstruation cycle, 40 percent of girls miss school, for a median of three days a month.

Many girls miss school during their period. Photo by Firoze Ahmed, via Demotix.

Prohibitive costs

According to a report by the non-profit SNV Bangladesh, over 89 per cent of Bangladesh’s 78.4 million women still use old clothes or rags, as many cannot afford disposable sanitary napkins.

The annual market worth of the sanitary napkin industry (including adult diapers) in Bangladesh is around 3 billion Taka (US $35.5 million), 90 percent of which is supplied by local manufacturers. The per-packet price of sanitary napkins is 100-160 Taka (US $1.25-$2), so many in rural areas cannot afford them.

The cost of pads has remained high because of the need to pay existing customs and regulatory duties on the foreign-sourced raw materials needed for local assembly.

According to some manufacturers, the scrapping of the proposed increase in tax, however, won’t impact the current price. If the 15 percent value-added tax at the shelves is scrapped, manufacturers say, then the price will come down.

Old clothes or rags as alternatives

Many women are not aware of the health risks of reusing old clothes instead of sanitary napkins. The 2014 National Hygiene Survey discovered that embarrassment and lack of affordability contribute to women resorting to reusing rags and other available alternatives.

Noting that the use of rags instead of pads increases women’s health risk, Facebook user Shamima Islam explained that 73 percent of Bangladeshi women suffer from urinary tract and vaginal infections — which can lead to cancer — all because of a lack of menstrual hygiene.

Students of Rajshani University form a human chain June 29 demanding the scrapping of value added tax on sanitary pads. (The Daily Star through Global Voices)

On Facebook, Shahriar Shuvo recommended not only getting rid of the tax, but also introducing subsidies for sanitary napkins:

We have duty-free car facilities for our ministers and members of parliament. However, we impose 40 percent tax/VAT on essential menstrual hygiene products for women.

“Not only should the taxes be scrapped, I demand subsidies for these products to make them affordable to most women.”

Different sections of people also went offline and took to the streets to protest. Here in this video, a small section of university students are seen protesting the increase, forming a human chain in Dhaka’s Shahbag area:

Bangladeshi doctor, Sakia Haque, who traveled to all 64 districts of the country raising awareness about reproductive health and hygiene among schoolgirls, commented on the issue:

“[During my travels] I requested that every girl should use disposable sanitary pads instead of unhygienic cloths during menstruation. What can I say to them now?

“For those who were earning a mere 2,000-3,000 Bangladeshi Takas (US $25-$38) per month, disposable pads were a luxury. And now?”

On a feminist website called Nari (Women), Puspita Mondol shared a story about visiting a childhood friend in the Ashulia township near the capital, Dhaka:

“She (my friend) worked in a ready-made garment factory along with her husband. I realized it was the time for my period and I did not have sanitary pads with me. I asked her and she said that she doesn’t use (disposable) sanitary pads. So we went out to buy these. Usually, these are available in local pharmacies. I went to several pharmacies, and they didn’t have sanitary napkins on their shelves. The shopkeepers told me that they don’t keep the product on the shelves as (almost) no one buys them. I was immensely surprised as this is an industrial area where many women work. Nobody uses (disposable) pads! Maybe because of the high price, these workers cannot afford them and want to save money.”

Part of the challenge in making feminine products accessible is changing cultural norms. For women to realize their right to affordable supplies in order to stay healthy, menstruation must be seen as natural and normal. In an op-ed in the Daily Prothom Alo, Mohammad Syed Bin Abdullah, a law student at Dhaka University, said that a civil awareness movement is what’s needed to make the government keep the cost of supplies down, so that feminine hygiene product will finally be affordable for all Bangladeshi women. #

(This article was first published by Global Voices, an international and multilingual community of bloggers, journalists, translators, academics, and human rights activists. It is republished by Kodao as part of a content sharing agreement.)

Si Ate Melod at ang patuloy na pakikibaka ng SUMIFRU workers

Si Ate Melody “Melod” Gumanoy, 43 taong gulang, ay isa sa mahigit 300 manggagawa ng Sumifru, isang Japanese company sa Mindanao na nag-eexport ng mga prutas. Nagtungo sa Maynila ang mga nagwewelgang manggagawa ng Sumifru upang ipanawagan ang pagpapatigil ng kontraktwalisasyon ng kumpanya.

Mahigit 23 taon nang manggagawa si Melod sa Sumifru. Siya rin ang secretary ng Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Suyapa Farm (NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU). Nagsimulang magwelga ang mga manggagawa sa iba’t ibang planta ng Sumifru noong Oktubre 1, 2018, dahil ito sa pagmamatigas ng management ng kanilang kumpanya na gawin silang regular.

Sa kawalang suporta ng LGU sa kanilang lugar sa Compostela, Compostela Valley at patuloy na pandarahas sa kanila sa ilalim ng batas militar sa Mindanao, sa Maynila na nila ipinagpapatuloy ang kanilang laban. Isa lamang si Ate Melod sa marami pang kababaihang manggagawa na biktima ng hindi patas ang pagtrato, walang sapat na sahod at hanggang ngayon ay kontrakwal pa rin.

Patuloy na ipinaglalaban ng mga manggagawa ng Sumifru ang kanilang karapatan sa sapat na sahod, regularisasyon at pagkakaroon ng sapat at tamang benipisyo para sa mga kababaihan at matatanda. (Bidyo ni: Jo Maline D. Mamangun/ Kodao)

Teacher Rose–kabataang guro ng mga Lumad

Isinalaysay ni Jeany Rose Hayahay, 21 taong gulang at isang fulltime volunteer teacher ng Salugpungan (Lumad school) sa Mindanao ang kanilang nararanasan sa kabila nang matinding atake sa kanilang paaralan ng mga militar.

Pursigido sila na ituloy ang pag-aaral at mabigyan ng maayos na edukasyon ang mga Lumad na tanging hangad ay magkaroon ng malaking papel sa lipunan at pahalagahan ang kanilang kultura.

Narito din ang kanyang panawagan sa kapwa guro at kababaihan sa pagdiriwang ng International Womens Month. (Bidyo ni: Maricon Montajes/ Kodao)


One Billion Rising 2019 condemns abuse of women and children

Women’s groups Gabriela and Babae Ako, along with other progressive organizations gathered for the annual One Billion Rising (OBR) 2019 at Rajah Sulayman Park in Manila last February 16.

With the theme “Rise, Resist, Unite! Labanan ang abuso sa Babae, Bata at Bayan”, the event condemned what it called the Rodrigo Duterte administration’s misogynist and tyrannical attacks against women and people.

According to Gabriela, OBR 2019 was part of the continuing global campaign to end violence against women and to show solidarity with women from all around the world who are rising and raging against all forms of violence against women, especially those perpetrated by the state.

Through street dancing and protest, the groups vowed to intensify their struggle for women’s dignity, democracy and people’s welfare. (Video by Joseph Cuevas)

Women human rights defenders decry State attacks

Women group Tanggol Bayi and Gabriela along with other progressive groups held a picket protest outside Gate 1 of Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City Thursday, November 29, in commemoration of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. They also call for an end to the continuing attacks against Women Human Rights Defender (WHRD).

Tanggol Bayi said that as of September 2018, 33 WHRD have been killed under the Rodrigo Duterte government and 45 are imprisoned based on trumped-up charges.

The group cited the arrest of Hedda Calderon, a long-time women activist and council member of Gabriela Womens Party, last October in Sta. Cruz in Laguna as wekk as the killings of Elisa Badayos, secretary general of Karapatan in Central Visayas in November 2017 and Mariam Uy Acob, paralegal of Kawagib (Moro Human Rights Alliance) last September.

Tanggol Bayi noted that “these attacks are far from isolated; they are fueled by a patriarchal and militarist society that flaunts the humiliation of women as décor to toxic machismo and thus, an inevitable outcome of State terrorism.”

“We reiterate our call to stop the attacks against women and WHRDs. This situation is urging us to unite and further strengthen our voices against misogyny and rising tyranny and dictatorship,” Tanggol Bayi ended. (Report and video by Joseph Cuevas)


IAWRT, charging towards the future

Travelling almost 10,000 kilometers to the other side of the globe, four members of the Philippine chapter of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) attended the organization’s Regional Conference in Entebbe, Uganda from October 2-5, 2018

Themed “IAWRT Looking into the Future,” the global event gathered 50 participants from five continents representing 11 of the 14 IAWRT chapters worldwide.

IAWRT International President Violet Gonda in her opening speech underscored the importance of the conference as a milestone in IAWRT’s events calendar.

“It is here that we will share with the members the work done in the last 10 months of the new leadership. More importantly, it is here that members will get involved in mapping out the road ahead for the association,” Gonda said.

IAWRT is moving quickly into the future, its officers said. At the conference, two new chapters were formally acknowledged, Afghanistan and Iraq-Kurdistan, represented by their respective chapter heads, Najiba Ayubi and Awaz Salim Abdulla.

The conference also created a new Committee for Chapter Development with the objective of strengthening chapter capacities and capabilities.

This brings the number of committees created by the current leadership to 12 in the span of just 10 months, which Gonda noted is the biggest in IAWRT history.

Some of the other committees created are the following: 1) Committee in Relation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women; 2) Scholarship Committee; 3) Gender Mainstreaming Committee; 4) Asian Film Festival Committee; 5) Rural Women and Media Committee; 6) Community Radio Committee; and 7) The Gender Based Online Harassments Committee.

Meanwhile, IAWRT’s 2018 full-length video documentary “Displacement and Resilience: Women Live For A New Day” was launched at the conference that features the stories of five women refugees from Syria, Tibet, Myanmar and the Philippines. Segments of the video were directed by five individual members from the said countries.

“Displacement and Resilience” presented the following:

  1. The stories of Mariam and Haifa, two Syrian women who fled Allepo and are now seeking refuge in two different countries, as told by Eva Anandi Brownstein and Khedija Lemkecher, respectively;
  2. The story of Namgyal from the Tibet Movement for Self Determination, as told by Afrah Shafiq of India;
  3. The story of Lumad indigenous peoples leader Bai Bibiaon, as told by Erika Rae Cruz of the Philippines; and
  4. The stories about the Rohingya Refugee Crises of Myanmar, as told by IAWRT Board member Archana Kapoor together with Chandita Mukherjee.

Mukherjee also served as the executive producer of the entire project who was responsible for combining these five stories into one documentary.

The International Board and the Philippine chapter launched Amplifying the People’s Voices: The Philippine Community Radio Experience and Challenges, a handbook on community radio prepared by IAWRT-Philippines recounting three decades of community radio experience in the country at the conference.

A workshop on community radio was conducted during the conference that showed participants how a community radio narrowcast program is organized and held. It was facilitated by IAWRT-USA’s  Sheila Katzman with the Philippine Chapter delegates.

In addition, the conference approved two new organizational documents: the Code of Conduct and Election Guidelines.

Lastly, the membership also affirmed the International Board’s decision to set-up an International Secretariat office in the Philippines.

IAWRT-Philippines head Jola Diones Mangun welcomed the decision, saying “the Philippine chapter is elated and honored with the decision.”

“We will do our best for IAWRT as it charges towards the future,” Mamangun added.

The Conference ended with the members extending the term and mandate of the International Board until 2020.  # (Report by Walkie Miraña / Slideshow by Lady Ann Salem)