Leading the Charge: Trustee Tolentino’s Journey as a Woman Leader

In the tumultuous landscape of the 1970s, amidst the fervent waves of the feminist movement, especially in the United States, one individual embarked on a journey that would shape both her career and her understanding of gender equality.

In this mini-spotlight on one of our country’s foremost woman leaders, Ms. Maria Aurora Francisco-Tolentino, one of CFI’s Trustees, reflects on her leadership journey in the country’s development sector.

Amid skepticism and discomfort with the stridency of feminist expressions, she found herself drawn to Pilipina, a feminist group deeply committed to the cause of equality. Ms. Tolentino or Ma’am Rory, as her staff fondly refer to her, recalled a pivotal moment spent with the late Karina Constantino-David, discussing a transformative micro-lending program. This initiative aimed not only to provide financial support to women but also to address the intricate web of responsibilities they juggled daily. Ma’am Rory shared that “under the program, women participants were organized into cells, with the cells approving each other’s loans.  They also helped each other make their micro-enterprises succeed, with the staff of the organization facilitating weekly cell meetings so the women could share what it was that they were interested in.  Most of the women spoke about helping their spouses in the field, taking care of their children, doing housework, and also fetching water, etc…so many roles and responsibilities they had to fulfill. We were all so in awe of these rural women, but what was the solution to women’s triple burden”.

The program’s ripple effects were profound, challenging traditional gender dynamics at the barangay level and within households. As women gained economic autonomy, their influence in decision-making processes expanded, reshaping perceptions of their value and worth. Marital relations shifted, with men increasingly sharing household responsibilities and consulting their spouses on economic matters.

Witnessing the transformative power of this program, Ma’am Rory became impassioned saying that the way “to institutionalize gender balance and power relations is by women earning power and using the power wisely”.

On mentoring and being a woman leader in the development field

In the field of development, she found a platform to champion women’s empowerment. Recognizing the innate multitasking abilities of women, she actively sought to mentor and uplift younger generations of female leaders. “Realizing that, and the fact that I had many wonderful mentors who shared their knowledge and talents, and who encouraged me, I began looking for younger women with talent and potential, and who showed a generosity of spirit that my mentors showed me.  I tried to mentor them as well, putting them in positions of responsibility and allowing them to test their capacities,” Ma’am Rory shared.

Her approach to mentorship emphasizes not only professional development but also the importance of encouragement and support. Simple gestures, such as acknowledging a job well done, can fuel the confidence needed for women to flourish in their endeavors. It’s a philosophy rooted in the belief that empowerment thrives in an environment of encouragement and solidarity. “I firmly believe in coaching, in mentoring, and in letting younger women leaders fly. Encouragement, sometimes a pat on the shoulder, “good job” or “you’re doing well” is more than enough to allow women to bloom. We don’t say this enough, I think, to each other”, she rued.

In a world where gender equality remains an ongoing struggle, Ma’am Rory’s story serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Through her tireless efforts, she embodies the spirit of empowerment, proving that every individual has the power to effect positive change and pave the way for a more equitable future.

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