In a now-viral video, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was filmed reaching towards his maid’s crotch while she served him birthday cake, sparking outrage against a leader with a track record of sexist remarks and lewd jokes.
Duterte celebrated his 76th birthday on Sunday in Davao City, his hometown in the southern Philippines, as Manila went into a one-week lockdown to stop a second wave of the coronavirus during a busy holy week.
In a video of the small party attended by family members, Duterte motioned as if to grab the crotch of a maid serving cake. She moved away to dodge Duterte’s advance. Both Duterte and the woman were laughing as he blew out the candle on his cake.
The footage went viral, provoking widespread anger over the gesture. But the president’s spokesperson fell back on a familiar defense: that Duterte was only kidding.
“On what you’re saying as groping, she has been a long time househelp,” Harry Roque said in a media briefing, adding that the president is “fond of jokes” and that the presence of his own partner at the event meant “there was no malice.”
“Whether what happened was right or wrong, the context is the close relationship with the president,” Roque said, referring to the maid.
Duterte is notorious for sexist remarks against women, even as opinion polls show he remains popular among women voters. In a recent gaffe, he said a woman couldn’t handle being president, a comment the palace also dismissed as a humor.
In 2018, he kissed a married woman on stage in a televised event and has confessed to molesting a maid as a teenager.
Rights groups have long said the behavior sets a disturbing example for men in the Philippines.
“The act carries with it a very troubling message to the public: that the President can do anything with women and easily get away with it,” women’s rights group Gabriela said in a statement.
A lesser controversy erupted over photos of the food served at his birthday dinner.
Longtime Duterte aide Senator Bong Go shared an image of the president having a simple meal with a cup of rice as cake.
But critics quickly pointed out that images from a different angle showed the president had lechon, a Filipino roast pig, on his table. They claimed he was trying to present a humble portrait of his life at a time when millions of Filipinos are suffering from more than a year of pandemic control measures.
“Acting poor for your birthday photo ops when you're not really poor is just mocking those who truly have nothing to put on their tables for their own birthdays,” Representative Ferdinand Gaite said in a viral tweet.
Duterte’s spokesperson said there was no attempt at deception with the different photos.