Overlooked No More: Leticia Ramos Shahani, a Philippine Women’s Rights Pioneer

Leticia Ramos Shahani, center, during a commencement ceremony at the Philippine Military Academy in 1997, when she was a senator. Her brother, Fidel V. Ramos, left, was president at the time.

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people.

Leticia Ramos Shahani is a name every feminist should know.

Shahani, a Philippine diplomat and lawmaker, was a pioneer in the international women’s movement. At a time when few women had a place in statecraft, she became one of the highest-ranking women at the United Nations. In her native Philippines, she made labor and rape laws fairer to women and integrated gender into all kinds of policymaking.

There were “a lot of firsts in her long life,” said Aurora Javate-De Dios, executive director of the Women and Gender Institute at Miriam College in Quezon City, where Shahani was a dean in her later years.

In the 1970s, she led the drafting of a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, also known as the international women’s bill of rights, and defied Cold War tensions by enlisting the Soviet Union as a co-sponsor to get it off the ground.

Beyond that, she played a role in four international conferences over 20 years that put women’s rights on the global agenda.

Later, as a Philippine senator, she was instrumental in expanding the legal definition of rape, including the recognition of marital rape. She also fought for equal pay and a mandate that all Philippine government agencies allocate at least 5 percent of their budgets to gender and development issues.

“Her pioneering work has indeed created a lot of ripples here in the Philippines,” said Emmeline L. Verzosa, executive director of the Philippine Commission on Women, an organization that Shahani founded.

Shahani died on March 20, 2017, of colon cancer. She was 87.

In her early years at the male-dominated United Nations, Shahani said there was little interest in women’s rights.

“People thought it was a joke — they were laughing at it,” she said in an interview with Isis International, a women’s advocacy organization. “There was hardly any awareness.”

She continued her work, and the United Nations declared 1975 International Women’s Year, with the next decade to be dedicated to women as well. That summer, Mexico City hosted the first World Conference on Women (it was led by a man).

“For the first time, governments met to discuss women’s issues at the highest levels,” Shahani told Isis International. “Women got together — north and south, rich and poor.”

Shahani was a vice chairwoman of the second conference, in Copenhagen in 1980, and secretary general of the third, in Nairobi in 1985. The Nairobi conference laid out a plan of action until 2000 on a broader range of issues than ever before, including a new focus on gender-based violence.

Shahani was tough on the people she worked with, but she was also caring, said Ambassador Rosario G. Manalo, a career diplomat from the Philippines who organized the Nairobi conference with Shahani. “She just wanted efficiency like all intelligent women,” she said.

In 1995, when the fourth conference was held in Beijing, Shahani led the Philippine delegation.

Leticia Ramos Shahani was born on Sept. 30, 1929, in Lingayen, Pangasinan Province, the second of three children in a politically prominent family. Her father, Narciso Ramos, was a lawmaker and diplomat who served as foreign secretary in the 1960s under Ferdinand Marcos, Shahani’s second cousin. Her mother, Angela Valdez, was a high school teacher.

Shahani’s education and career took her to the United States, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Wellesley College in 1951 and a master of arts in comparative literature from Columbia University in 1953. She earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Paris in 1962, and joined the United Nations in New York two years later.

She had met her husband, the Indian writer and professor Ranjee Shahani, when she was 22 but didn’t marry him until 10 years later, after she had finished her studies and started working.

“If a woman wants to achieve in her career, she has to delay marriage,” Shahani told The New York Times in 1985.

After her husband died suddenly in 1968, Shahani left her job at the United Nations and moved back to the Philippines with her three young children: Ranjit, Chanda and Lila. But the family’s time together was limited by Shahani’s work.

“It was hard, but it was also very inspiring to see her succeed in a man’s world,” Lila Ramos Shahani said of her mother.

From 1969 to 1975, Shahani was the Philippines’ representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where she became chairwoman.

During those years, she was also the founder and later the chairwoman of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, a government agency now called the Philippine Commission on Women.

In 1975, she went to Romania as the Philippines’ first ambassador to any Communist country, and the first female ambassador Romania had ever received. She was concurrently accredited as ambassador to Hungary and East Germany, and later served as ambassador to Australia.

She returned to the United Nations from 1981 to 1986 as assistant secretary general for social development and humanitarian affairs, making her one of the organization’s highest-ranking women.

But she “was becoming very concerned about matters back home,” she told The Times in 1989.

While visiting the Philippines in December 1985, Shahani was asked which presidential candidate she supported, the long-ruling Marcos or Corazon C. Aquino.

“I am for change — that’s why I am for Cory,” Shahani replied. She was the first high-ranking Philippine official to come out in Aquino’s favor, despite her family ties to Marcos and the prominent role that her brother, Fidel V. Ramos, played in the military and police command.

“That was a class act — coming from a close Marcos relative — an unheard-of stance during those tumultuous days,” Ramos wrote in a tribute to his sister last year.

A few months later, Aquino became Asia’s first female president after top military officers, including Ramos, broke with Marcos and said she was the election’s rightful winner. (Ramos later became president himself.)

Shahani’s declaration of support for Aquino raised her profile at home after years overseas. After a year as Aquino’s under secretary of foreign affairs, Shahani ran for senator and won, serving 12 years in office and becoming the country’s first female Senate president pro tempore.

She lost a campaign for governor of Pangasinan in 1998. But she soon found another calling in her home province: farming.

She believed that developing dairy products from carabaos, a type of water buffalo, could help local farmers improve their livelihoods.

Shahani managed the processing facility and was “constantly weeding and hoeing,” her daughter said. On Sundays, she ran her own stall at the farmers’ market.

“To go back to where you began is really a wonderful lifetime experience,” the elder Shahani told CNN in 2016.

Lila Ramos Shahani said she had gained a new appreciation for her mother’s work when she entered government herself.

“I learned from Mom that you have to be able to provide solutions to the problems you identify,” she said. “It’s not enough to just call out the problems and act as if that’s the end of your responsibility.”

Shahani remained vocal on public affairs to the end of her life, advocating for the Philippines in its territorial disputes with China and suggesting that President Rodrigo Duterte take “a beginner’s course in diplomacy.”

Her varied career is reflected on her gravestone, which reads: “Patriot. Humanist. Feminist. Farmer. Beloved Mother.”

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