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Honoring Dr. Esperanza Cabral: A Tribute to Exemplary Leadership in Reproductive Health Advocacy

Updated: Feb 29

This 2024, the global community of Reproductive Health (RH) advocates stands at a significant juncture, marking the 30th Anniversary of the UN International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action. This pivotal agreement, forged in 1994 with participation from nations including the Philippines, remains a cornerstone in the pursuit of reproductive health and reproductive rights worldwide.

 

To honor this milestone, Likhaan began a series of initiatives leading up to the commemoration of ICPD@30. To jumpstart this campaign, a tribute to Dr. Esperanza Alcantara Icasas-Cabral, an esteemed medical doctor who became Secretary of the Dept. of Social Welfare and Development and the Dept. of Health was held. Dr. Cabral's leadership and feisty defense of the national Reproductive Health Law and program has been instrumental in shaping the landscape of reproductive rights in the Philippines.

 

As Chair of the Reproductive Health Law National Implementation Team from 2016 onward, Dr. Cabral led the NIT in blocking conservative religious groups’ further attempts to undermine the RH Law, forging a strategic framework that responded to the most pressing RH issues, and wielding a diverse crew of national and local government, nongovernment and development organization advocates and implementors.

 

On February 21, 2024, a program dedicated to honoring her outstanding contributions was organized by colleagues in the Board of Trustees of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health. Here are the highlights of the event:


  • There was a photo exhibit that captured the high points of the RH journey where Dr. Cabral was involved. The pictures and featured quotes, often showed her speaking out against the many obstructions thrown in the way of RH and sexuality education.

Tere Carpio, USAID, looking at the Photo Exhibit


  • An AVP collectively produced by Likhaan researchers and communications and advocacy staff showed the many dimensions of Dr. Cabral’s accomplishments as physician-cardiologist, scientist, public servant, health system and RH leader, and mentor. Underpinning her versatile capacities were “her being an activist at the core, who, when she saw something wrong, tried to right it.”


  • Cong. Edcel Lagman, lead author of the RH Bill in Congress lauded Dr. Cabral's impact on advocacy for the RH Law in a speech sent to organizers because of a concomitant hearing in the House of Representatives:

Espie was one of the leading lights of the reproductive health campaign; a calming presence during the sometimes heated and bitter debates, a single-minded and steadfast fellow crusader, and a reasonable and lucid voice rising above the cacophony of mostly unsound and discordant arguments of oppositors of the RH bill.
Her impact on the advocacy and struggle to finally enact a rights-based, development-driven and health-oriented reproductive health law that places a premium on the health and welfare of women cannot be over emphasized.

  • Dr. Yolanda Oliveros, Deputy Director for Health of USAID and who worked closely with Dr. Cabral when she was DOH Director of the Disease Control and Prevention Bureau (DCPB) described Dr. Cabral as a lifelong mentor. She narrated an encounter with then Secretary of DSWD Cabral during a typhoon disaster when they did not have any milk for infants in the evacuation site because the Philippines’ Milk Code banned the use of infant formula.

This was an unforgettable encounter… at the evacuation center in NCR… She asked me ‘So, how can we feed these children?’ That question challenged me and I asked myself.  I remember reaching out to the breastfeeding groups… Her question challenged me to respond to the situation strategically. Thank you, Dr. Cabral, for challenging me with that simple question.

Dr. Yolanda Oliveros in her speech enumerating her learnings from working with Dr. Cabral


  • Dr. Brian Cabral, kidney and transplant surgeon and director of St. Luke’s Medical Center, described his mother thus:

Mom’s journey is one of resilience, courage, and unwavering dedication. From her early days as a medical director during the Cory administration to pivotal roles in various cabinet positions including the Dept. of Social Welfare and Development and the Dept. of Health, Mom consistently advocated for policies that uplift the most vulnerable in our society… Her instrumental role in championing the Reproductive Health Bill stands as a testament to her commitment to women’s rights and to healthcare accessibility. Despite facing opposition, Mom fiercely fought for the passage of the RH Bill, ensuring that women across the country have access to essential Reproductive Health services and information.

Dr. Cabral and her family listen to Dr. Brian’s video message


  • Government officials who could not come but sent their messages via AVP included Sen. Pia Cayetano, Cong. Janette Garin, DOH USec. Rosario Vergeire, and Muntinlupa Mayor Ruffy Biazon. Sen. Cayetano and Mayor Ruffy Biazon are neighbors of Dr. Cabral in Brgy. Ayala Alabang and were both involved in a campaign led by Dr. Cabral, including a protest rally to oppose and lift a barangay ban on condoms and contraceptives in 2011.

  • The talks were spiced up by a dance number by Likhaan Trustees and staff to one of 2 favorite songs of Dr. Cabral, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” The lack of dancing skills was camouflaged by the throwing of yellow confetti and waving of yellow banners.

Yellow confetti dotted the room in place of yellow ribbons

Another audience-perker was a skit, “A Day in the Life of the NIT” that showed how Dr. Cabral would chair the meetings of the NIT (National Implementation of the RH Law). This included her quotes on the propriety of being on time, the ethics of rigor in data collection and analysis, the fine balance between strategic and practical interventions (eg between research and pragmatic actions to address “low-hanging fruits.”) Another favorite quote is her reference to policy makers and health practitioners who refuse to provide services, like contraception to minors or post-abortion care, as akin to them saying “here, tie my hands.”

Dr. Miriam – and Beth Angsioco as themselves with Likhaan staff act “A Day in the Life of the NIT”


A rousing number was the rendition of the RH anthem, Lila, composed by activist-songwriter, Rom Dongeto, for the Purple Ribbon Campaign for the RH Bill. In the RH community, this always entails community singing and dancing, and the waving of the purple banners, the color of the RH movement.

RH personalities Dr. Jimmy Tan (former DOH Secretary) and Ben de Leon (former DENR Undersecretary) join the roomful of RH advocate wave their purple banners.


  • The most poignant parts of the program Included the community singing of “Paano Kita Pasasalamatan?” (“How do I thank you), led by Rochit Tanedo and Likhaan singers. This was followed by the presentation of the sculpture "Esperanza ng Inang Bayan" (Hope of the Motherland) by Cecil de Leon, clay sculptor, who described her work thus:

Hope for Mother Land - she’s a woman with the heart as colossal, warm, even fiery and gold as the sun; always bringing light to every dark path she traverses. She bears the courage to always subdue the strong waves and is ready to face challenges upfront. She is undaunted to even go against the tide in order to bring about the truth. She’s the woman who with fortitude weighs everything in balance. So that, healing may eventually transpire for the good of the Mother Land, for the good of humanity.

Cecil de Leon explains the inspiration for her sculpture


Other heart-tugging numbers were Lea Salonga’s surprise greetings and the YouTube video of her version of Imagine (June 2020). Dr. Abe Marinduque, Vice President of the Phil. Society for Responsible Parenthood read a poem he wrote specifically for Dr. Cabral titled “Nauubos ba ang pag ibig sa bayan?”

Hindi kami makakalimot, Pangako, hindi mauubos ang pag ibig namin sa bayang sinilangan. Salamat po, Ma’am Espie.

Dr. Abe Marinduque reads his poem for Dr. Cabral


The final number was the 15-minute toast to Dr. Cabral

Dr. Ken Hartigan-Go extending his toast to Dr. Cabral


  • Dr. Cabral’s response:

…I feel the love from each and every one of you, and I hope that I can reciprocate this love back to you. Someday, all our dreams for women and youth will also come true. Thank you!

Dr. Cabral upon receiving the thank-you sculpture


With this tribute to one exemplary champion of Reproductive Health and Rights, Likhaan starts the year of celebrating the remarkable contributions of many more. From their examples the younger generations of advocates can draw much inspiration and the will to sustain the fight for Reproductive Rights and Justice for all Filipino women and their families.

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