Caged in: The truth behind the child sexual abuse conundrum

Many of the child sexual abuse victims and their families fight for justice and accountability from perpetrators.

The country is suffering from a crisis—one that outstands the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now more than ever, Filipino children are increasingly vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence, with over 2.8 million online child sexual abuse cases reported to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2021. However, only 268 of these cases were officially opened for investigation by the DOJ—already four times more than those processed in 2020. Meanwhile, most of the remaining reports were either duplicates or “misleading and erroneously reported” as per DOJ’s anti-cybercrime unit.

But beyond the numbers, many victims are subjected to a culture of silence by their perpetrators, unable to call for help from anyone. One thing is dismally clear for sexual abuse victims: it is a long road to justice—one that is marred by shame, impunity, and the government’s lack of assistance.

Living in darkness

One of the souls who mustered up the courage to tell their story is Marieta “Maya” Monta, founder and president of Maya’s Organization Philippines, Inc. “I was [in] grade two when it happened to me. [I was] nearly eight years old,” she shares. She discloses that her perpetrator was actually her uncle, but Monta kept the truth to herself. When she showed signs that something was wrong, her family and friends dismissed her. “Minsan sa school, kapag umiiyak ako, binubully ako,” she tearfully laments. “I [felt] like…walang nakikinig sa akin [at] that time.”

(Sometimes, when I cry at school, I get bullied. I felt like no one was listening to me at that time.)

Looking back at the incident, Monta realized she was groomed by her uncle. “Noon…bibigyan [ako] ng pera, bibigyan [ako] ng pagkain, or bibilhan [ako] ng damit,” she recalls. Unfortunately, psychologist Isabella Coscolluela notes that this tactic is what perpetrators often use to coerce children. She describes child grooming as “a process where an offender gradually builds a relationship with a child with the intention of sexual abuse.” Typically, these abusers are the people the victim and their family closely knew and are therefore capable of easily deceiving their victims.

(Before, he would treat me with money, food, or clothes.)

The abuser takes advantage of this gained trust by enforcing power and control over their victims. As a result, Coscolluela points out, “The abused person is rendered powerless.” In Monta’s case, the perpetrator imposed threats on her family’s safety to prevent her from calling for help. “To protect my sisters and my family, I [chose] to be silent,” she conveys with sorrow.

The hesitancy of child victims to speak up about their abuse lingers long after being separated from their abuser. Coscolluela admits that the child victims she works with take time to open up about their experiences. To recall is too traumatizing for them; victims may also be burdened with a sense of shame from having been sexually compromised.

But in pursuing legal action against their perpetrator, traumatized children would have to testify about their abuse. Moreover, the country’s minimum age of sexual consent remains at 12 years old as of press time; thus, sexual abuse against children aged 13 to 17 cannot be automatically criminalized. As such, most child victims would still have to face lengthy legal proceedings against their abuser—inflicting them with more stress.

Helping hands

Still, Monta notes that her living in “darkness” is just a smidge of the larger problem. Every year, about seven million children are sexually abused in the Philippines. Among the child victims, 13.7 percent are sexually abused in their homes. However, Fr. Shay Cullen—founder and president of the People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance (PREDA) Foundation—attests, “There are very few reported cases of child sexual abuse of girls or boys in the Philippines.” This inconsistency between the actual number of victims and the cases made known to authorities indicates the far more serious threats faced by victims.

As early as 1992, the Republic Act 7610 seeks to cover the protection against different aspects of child abuse, exploitation, and discrimination. However, with long-standing issues regarding sexism, misogyny, and the improper implementation of laws, Monta worries about the government’s lack of concrete action. In addition, the Commission on Human Rights cites that legislation related to child protection has several gaps that make legal actions in these cases difficult, particularly with online sexual exploitation cases.

A 2020 study on local child protection in the country reveals that formal child protection efforts carried out by government authorities also lack community reach. “Kulang ‘yung action ng government natin kasi nga marami silang inaasikaso.” Monta expresses. The Philippine National Police, through their Women and Children Protection Units, deal with cases of child abuse in different cities and municipalities. However, they admit to being short-staffed and affected by the images of abuse in handling cases.

(The government’s actions are lacking because they are doing other things.)

Monta also worries about the rising sexual abuse cases that happened during the pandemic. “Tumataas’ yung cases because there [are] no schools open and the children are [staying] at home,” she explains. However, during a health crisis, solutions to such problems are very limited—but not impossible to do. “Kaya nandito kaming mga non-government organizations [kasi] gusto namin silang tulungan magpokus sa prevention of [sexual abuse],” she asserts. With the growing urgency of child sexual abuse, she hopes every community can have proper channels where victims are immediately heard and offered sufficient protection.

(That’s why our non-government organizations want to help them focus on the prevention of sexual abuse.)

This is where the various non-government organizations come into play, including those founded by Cullen and Monta themselves. Sexual abuse cases raised to their organizations allow them to offer assistance based on the victim’s needs. “The child or friends or relatives just need to contact [PREDA] and report the abuse to us for immediate response and action,” Cullen expounds, assuring that legal intervention would follow.

Aside from legal assistance, these organizations also serve as support groups for victims; they provide shelter, food, and therapy for those under their care to process what they had experienced healthily. While Monta had only recently opened their organization’s rehabilitation center, she already divulges her primary goals for its future. “They can stay free of charge, we can send them to school, we can give counseling intervention, and give them a livelihood project to divert their mind,” she hopes, tapping into the hearts of those who can give proper funding and sincere donations.

Proper legislation and the stricter implementation of laws protecting the welfare of victims is also a must. “I hope bigyan ng attention ng gobyerno, hindi lang sa pagtaas ng edad [sa] age [of] consent, kundi magbigay din sila ng more information [on] how to prevent [sexual abuse in general],” Monta furthers.

(I hope the government gives attention to increasing the age of consent and disseminating information on preventing sexual abuse in general.)

While preventive measures are crucial, households, communities, and the entire society must be taught that degrading and causing harm to others is unacceptable. The concept of consent must also be emphasized at the earliest possible opportunity. “[There are] so many ways naman [to teach these things and these] really [start] with the family and [in] school. So the education system also plays a part in this,” Coscolluela notes.

Much needed support

It is never easy for one to willingly rehash difficult experiences, so listening to the stories and supporting victims of sexual abuse is essential in averting more of these cases. But, of course, alongside the victims must be “a dedicated group of advocates and campaigners” who can amplify calls for action against child sexual abuse, Cullen explains.

Protection of the abused must urgently come first in society’s priorities and, more importantly, in legislation. Everyone is responsible for the well-being of children, and we are all capable of joining this fight to change this horrid culture of abuse. As Monta eloquently ends, “Kung magtulungan tayo, marami tayong matutulungan.”

(If we help each other, then we’ll be able to help many others.)

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