Seeking justice: The uphill battle for safer spaces in academic institutions

Last June 2020, Miriam College High School came under fire after several cases of sexual harassment were uncovered, starting the #MCHSDoBetter hashtag. Consequently, other educational institutions followed, and the #DoBetter movement trended on social media. These women, notably from prominent schools like St. Paul College Pasig, Marikina Science High School, and Ateneo de Manila Junior and Senior High school, bravely shared their own stories—demanding universities and schools to hold perpetrators and enablers accountable.

The movement prompted much needed conversations around rape culture and how we treat survivors. Many educational institutions pledged to implement more progressive policies, including DLSU. But, as proven by the recent developments in General Elections (GE) 2021, it is clear that the University’s battle to change a culture that tolerates and even normalizes sexual violence is far from over.

A paradigm of trauma

Last year, The LaSallian talked to Galilee Tan, a former Lasallian who experienced sexual abuse from her ex-boyfriend, who was also her classmate at the time. Tan took to Twitter to explicitly narrate her experiences. “I’ve only gathered…the courage to talk about sexual assault because I’ve seen others do so,” she shares. Coming to terms with the abuse was a grueling ordeal, especially since their relationship appeared fine on the outside. But she found comfort in the support of her friends who believed her.

Emboldened, she formally filed a case against her abuser in the Student Discipline Formation Office (SDFO). However, she found it a “stressful process” from the get-go, as the SDFO approached the case with “little sensitivity”. “It was extremely disrespectful and dehumanizing to get them to even consider the idea that

[the abuser] needs to be accountable,” she laments.

Until now, Tan has received no updates regarding the progress of her case. She says, “It’s an understatement to say I’d rather be dead than go through their egregious and insensitive process [again].”

Making space for progress

The University Student Government (USG) successfully passed the Safe Spaces Act on November 6 of last year, aiming to counter the lack of a “codified policy to deal with [sexual harassment cases in the University],” shares former USG Chief Policy Advisor Marina Lim. The said policy strives to uphold the safety of survivors and victims and establish clear-cut criteria on what the University should consider sexual harassment and violence.

It mandates that sexual abuse cases be handled by the Committee on Decorum and Investigation. “The processes for other cases being handled by the SDFO cannot be applied to sexual harassment and sexual assault cases,” asserts USG Vice President for External Affairs Cate Malig.

USG President Maegan Ragudo also highlights the policy’s emphasis on gender sensitivity training under the Lasallian Center for Inclusion, Diversity, and Well-being. “The goal was to include gender sensitivity training in our curriculum and in the activity manuals of our student organizations,” she explains, asserting the need for cultural and behavioral shifts.

However, transformative change is easier said than done, with Malig recalling that “the policy wasn’t a silver bullet.” “It took almost four terms for us to pass a policy that [should already be a] given in a University as ‘progressive’ as De La Salle University,” she laments. After all, the Safe Spaces Act is of little use if the people in charge do little to enact it.

Bursting epistemic bubbles

Unfortunately, this institutional complicity in the silencing of victims stretches far beyond the University. It was October 15, 2019, when Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) students protested against the administration’s inaction in the light of reports of a professor who made advances on a student. Jasmine Cruz, events coordinator of Time’s Up Ateneo, recalls this pivotal moment as the one that led to the birth of their organization. “People were [asking], ‘Paano natin masu-sustain ‘to?…sabi ng mga tao, ‘Gawa tayo ng Facebook group.’”

(How can we sustain this? The people said, “Let’s make a Facebook group.”)

From then on, Time’s Up Ateneo only grew in numbers. They continued to call for accountability, but unfortunately, the group’s status as an external organization poses further bottlenecks in the lobbying process. “I’m not satisfied with what Ateneo has done,” Cruz divulges, critiquing ADMU’s lack of concrete reforms. “I mean may changes, may new code, may independent review, pero…After that, what next?”

Changing the culture

For Malig, there is still a long road ahead. “The passing of the policy did not automatically guarantee [that] DLSU is now free from all forms of harassment, discrimination, and assault. It’s still occurring; it’s still a thing within our University,” she asserts. Just this August, allegations of sexual abuse and harassment surfaced against two candidates in the GE 2021 who have since withdrawn.

Lim stresses that the true battle lies in trying to “change extremely entrenched, patriarchal cultures that a lot of people have grown up in without being corrected.” However, it would take a copious amount of time to properly enact such laws if this culture prevails. For Lim, creating such laws is already a step forward, saying, “At the baseline, it creates protection [for victims].”

It’s no longer enough that a few cases go viral and be sufficiently handled by the University. The Safe Spaces Act provides a groundwork for the institution to realign its mechanisms so that survivors can safely come forward. Making a system operable to handle cases is tedious work, but changing how the University handles sexual violence is necessary.

“We do think that this will mean that DLSU will be a safe space for most people or…there will be a course of action to correct that behavior and give justice to the victims of…harassment,” Lim hopes.

The fight to reclaim one’s agency in a broken system is exhausting and often requires survivors to relive their suffering. But despite how petrifying fear can be, courage can be extremely contagious too. Cruz reminds us that one shouldn’t handle this alone, saying, “The community is there to inform the survivor that these are all your options, these are your systems of support.”

At the end of the day, these prominent schools will never lack interested applicants who seek quality education. Those who do should not have to compromise safety in exchange for learning—two rights they constitutionally deserve.

Alexandra Simone Enriquez

By Alexandra Simone Enriquez

Criscela Ysabelle Racelis

By Criscela Ysabelle Racelis

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