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The Shadow Pandemic: State of women and children during quarantine

On the dawn of June 28, 2020, 15-year-old Fabel Pineda was sexually abused, while intoxicated, by two police officers after she was arrested for allegedly violating curfew. After filing a rape complaint, only four days later, she was gunned down by two motorcycle-riding assailants in Ilocos Sur; cases were directed towards Staff Sergeants Randy Ramos and Marawi Torda of the San Juan Municipal Police Station. 

Harassment during quarantine has taken different forms and has saturated different parts of the country. The reality is that—under home isolation—women and children are subdued mostly by abusive family members and peers, or in other cases by persons of authority; some even turn to prostitution in order to get by the pandemic because personal savings and financial assistance from the government is not enough or reliable. There are reports about the “sex in exchange for a pass” where prostituted women were given quarantine passes and relief goods by the police in exchange for their bodies. (Read: To cross coronavirus border, prostituted women abused by cops first

The imposed “militaristic” response of the government to COVID-19 paved the way for various abuses against women and children. Police officers, who are given power, take advantage of their authority which results in forced submission and impunity. Instead of protecting civilians, they contribute to the very crimes that endanger the safety of women and children. To add insult to injury, lack of mobility due to quarantine measures, forces sexual abuse victims to stay at home with their perpetrators, powerless. This exposes them to everyday mistreatment, both physically and psychologically.

The fact that community quarantine already lasted for five months is truly a terrifying afterthought. GABRIELA, a national alliance of women, said that the Duterte government failed to provide necessary economic and social protection, placing women at a heightened situation of abuse and sexual exploitation.

The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) stated that there have been 804 reported cases of gender-based violence and violence against women and children from March 15 to April 30 alone. While the number of reported cases decreased during lockdown, Kathy del Socorro of Gender Watch Against Violence and Exploitation (GWAVE)—a Dumaguete-based organization providing legal assistance to women—said, “It’s been difficult to get hold of these people and really push them to issue a barangay protection order immediately as compared to when there was no COVID-19.” She also added that lower cases may also be attributed to lesser workforce addressing these reports.  

Senator Risa Hontiveros, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Gender Equality and Family Relations, advised the PCW to coordinate with local government units (LGUs) to better address domestic violence by setting up helplines in barangays. She said, “The quarantine is difficult for all of us. But it is a living nightmare for women who are trapped with their abusers behind closed doors. There will be a surge of domestically-abused Filipino women if we turn a blind eye. We must take all necessary actions to stop any form of violence within the family. Those who are living with domestic abusers are suffering from multiple forms of trauma during this pandemic.” (Read: Press Release – Hontiveros warns of rise in domestic abuse during COVID-19 quarantine)

The United Nations Women (UN Women) reiterated that in times of crisis, violence against women and girls (VAWG) are likely to increase because security, health and money worries are accentuated by cramped and confined living conditions; they regarded this phenomenon as a “shadow pandemic” because of the growing cases of domestic violence throughout the world during quarantine. They reported an increase in violence against women and girls across the globe, where France’s domestic violence reports increased by 30% since its lockdown on March 17. There was also a rise of similar cases in Canada, Germany, Spain, and the United States

New normal

Because of the threat of COVID-19, governments across the world implemented policies to contain the pandemic. This includes, but is not limited to, the sudden transitioning of academes from physical classes to online learning, pegging it as the “new normal.”  As not all families have the financial resources to engage in online classes, some resort to the extremes of sexual exploitation. Based on an interview done by ABS-CBN News, 13-year-old Rose* from Marikina went with a 31-year-old man who promised her a cellphone to be used in distance learning; medical findings suggested that she was raped. Rose’s case is just one of many instances of online sexual exploitation done to children. In worst-case scenarios, the parents serve as the perpetrator of these acts out of desperation due to the lack of financial support brought by unemployment. (Read: Students struggling to get gadgets for online classes fall victim to abuse, sexual exploitation

Social media platforms meant for communication, sometimes serve as a platform for illicit activities. During quarantine, various twitter accounts sell videos of minors doing sexual acts at prices as low as Php 100. One account even advertises cybersex with minors through Facebook video calls or other sites with video call features. Republic Act (RA) 9775 or the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 prohibits the production, distribution, and possession of materials that involves children engaging in real or simulated explicit sexual activities, but these social media account handlers blatantly disregard its effectivity and are often off the hook, as they immediately make new accounts whenever they are suspended or mass reported, without even prosecuted. According to Twitter, they have suspended at least 269,188 accounts that were involved in sexual exploitation, globally. (Read: Child sex abuse material now peddled for as low as P100 on Twitter

#HijaAko

The #HijaAko movement—an online campaign that disclosed countless sexual harassment and rape experiences—started when Frankie Pangilinan retweeted a post from the Lucban Municipal Police Station instructing women to dress appropriately in order not to get raped. It was then answered by Ben Tulfo quoted as saying, “Hija, a rapist or a juvenile sex offender’s desire to commit a crime will always be there. All they need is an opportunity, when to commit the crime. Sexy ladies, careful with the way you dress up! You are inviting the beast.”

Tulfo added, at his Facebook page “Bitag Live”, that women should not instigate men’s lust by dressing provocatively. Only a few hours later, Pangilinan tweeted the hashtag #HijaAko to counter Tulfo’s remarks and to explain that the way anyone dresses is never an opportunity to sexually harass. “Hija” is typically used by the older generation to refer to younger age groups. Under the hashtag, thousands of victims of sexual harassment and rape came forward to share their stories in the hopes of receiving long-overdue justice. 

The movement also shed light on the horrifying experiences of students under the administrations of their respective academic institutions. Recently, Mater Ecclesiae School (MES), a Laguna Catholic school, was under fire for asking students to sign an agreement form that prohibits them to post content on social media that may adversely affect the name and any personnel of the school. (Read: Laguna Catholic school called out for ‘silencing students’ over harassment issue).

With the surge of firsthand abuse accounts, it is not shocking that authorities would try to stifle criticisms that wound the school’s reputation. However, it is their responsibility to hold their personnel accountable if proven guilty and to uphold the rights of their students. 

Challenging norms

In an interview with Gabriela Youth (GY) UPLB—the youth arm of GABRIELA in the university—they disagreed with the notion that changing one’s clothing will lessen the likelihood of experiencing harassment. They also shared that there are records showing that women of different ages and social backgrounds were still victims of these instances and that clothing should not be a basis for one’s consent. GY UPLB asserted that telling people to dress more “appropriately” to avoid harassment is victim blaming and lessens the weight of the crime and that there will be victims as long as there are harassers.

When asked about the prevalence of rape culture, GY UPLB said, “Rape culture is still evident in our society in many ways we do not notice. Though our society has been more progressive, there are still a lot of things that has been normalized in our society that perpetuates rape culture such as victim blaming, catcalling, and rape jokes, to name a few. We should continually strive to de-normalize these and hold those who do these accountable, no matter how “seemingly harmless” these actions may seem.”

The organization also said that victim shaming downplays what women have been fighting for the longest time, which is women and gender liberation. 

It is easy for people to say that abuse must be reported and called out, however, it is not practiced by many because the stigma in being a sexual abuse victim and the embarrassment that comes with it hinders these victims in coming forward. By asking “what was she wearing?”, people create the notion that victims brought harassment upon themselves and that they are responsible for the crimes committed to them.

Even with mandated laws against sexual abuse, the real challenge is dismantling age-old beliefs which enable violence against women and children. The very mindset that it is the “nature of men to lust over women” justifies the actions of perpetrators which contribute to ideologies that harm these minorities. Abuse, whatever form it may take, should not be accepted and regarded as “it is what it is.” Society should be open to liberal views regarding the struggle of women and children and should progress towards a system that condemns machismo. Because for as long as domestic violence is treated as a simple “away pamilya”, a cycle of abuse is allowed to remain in society and for as long as a culture of victim blaming exists, harassers will still be able to evade accountability and there will always be fear in coming out with traumatic experiences. [P]

For helplines that assist women and children during community quarantine, you may contact the following hotlines: 

POLICE/INVESTIGATION ASSISTANCE

LEGAL ASSISTANCE: Public Attorney’s Office (PAO)

  • Hotline: (02) 8929-9436 local 106, 107, or 159 (local “0” for operator)
  • (+62) 9393233665
  • Email address: pao_executive@yahoo.com 

REFERRAL SERVICES: Inter-Agency Council on Violence Against Women and their Children 

GABRIELA YOUTH UPLB VAWC Help Desk

Here are some local donation drives to help financially challenged students in the upcoming academic year:

AMBAGAN 2020 is a fundraising initiative led by the UP Society of Management and Economic Students (UP SMES) for the students of Dungan Elementary School in Tarlac and Tipas Elementary School in Batangas; funds raised will be used to purchase school supplies and safety equipment. For in-kind donations, contact Danica De los Reyes (0936 351 9548). Coordinate with Donnabel Aquino (0930 945 9324) for cash donations and for individual donations, fill out the Ambagan 2020 google form. You may also contact them at upsmes.3d@gmail.com or at their Facebook page, UP SMES.

MAKIPAPEL is a donation drive project aiming to collect resources for online resources such as paper, printers, laptops etc. for various public schools in San Pablo, Laguna. For donations, reach them on Makipapel or contact Andrei Palomar (0917 473 0310). For cash donations:

  • BPI account name: Ynez Paula Navata (0039676109)
  • GCASH account: Charming Medina (0945 145 8682)

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