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Filipinas struggle with women’s law lacking teeth

Women will never feel safe if the law could not protect them properly.

If a country strives for progression, one must be open to progressive ideals—leaving behind texts set in stone. This entails the enactment of laws that cater to all and not only to a selected number of people. With that, the Philippines needs pioneers for progress who do not deny and remain blind toward the inequality of its women.

A step forward

Major progress in women’s legislation has been made in the past four years, with the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) and Gabriela Women’s Partylist at the forefront of policymaking. In an interview, the PCW shares its termly Women’s Priority Legislative Agenda (WPLA): the 10 legislative agendas to be proposed to Congress in hopes of amending law provisions and adopting new legislation centered on women’s rights and empowerment.

Some of these agendas have already become ratified laws that further the protection of women in the country—one being the Safe Spaces Act, which encompasses provisions on sexual abuse and harassment in online and physical settings.

Meanwhile, PCW also cites existing laws that serve as protective measures, including the Inter-Agency Council on Violence Against Women and their Children (IACVAWC) established by virtue of Republic Act (RA) 9262 or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004, and the Magna Carta for Women, which ensures that Violence Against Women (VAW) desks are present in every barangay unit.

Other recent legislation that were endorsed by the PCW include the 105-Day Expanded Maternity Leave Law, the amendment of increasing the age of statutory rape from 12 to 16 years old under the Anti-Rape Law, and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Law.

On-the-ground realities

Even with numerous legislation aimed at protecting women’s rights, a number of Filipinas still experience abuse or violence. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) reveals that around 5.9 percent of women or 640 million Filipinas aged 15 to 49 years old have been victims of physical or sexual violence by their partners in 2018.

Furthermore, the Philippine Commission on Women notes that VAW cases peaked during the pandemic. This is consistent with UN Women’s research that reports an increase in online search volume during 2020 for VAW-related terms, such as “how to stop domestic violence”, “being raped”, and “sexual assault”.

Unfortunately, current gaps in the law have allowed perpetrators to evade justice. For instance, RA 9262 limits its provisions on violence to victims in a direct relationship with their abusers. As such, victims abused by individuals whom they have no direct relationship with are left unprotected by the law.

Bing* (I, POM-MKT) encountered the said law’s ineffectiveness when she experienced abuse from a family friend. “We weren’t dating or anything, so it was hard for me to use that law…because unless you have a relationship with your abuser, then you can’t really put it [to] use,” she expounds.

Hence, she calls for the broadening and strengthening of the current laws “to protect all women” in all situations.

“It’s still super lacking. This law should protect all women, not only women that are in direct relationship with their abuser,” she adds.

Despite her experience, Bing acknowledges that the existing measures remain beneficial for Filipino women, especially those in abusive relationships with their partners or relatives. She shares how the existing Magna Carta for Women protected her friend’s mother from further sexual abuse by hastening the annulment process.

Certainly, the growth in VAW cases amid the pandemic is a sharp increase since the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey results which showed that one in four Filipino women experienced violence from their partners. With these realities, much still needs to be done.

Sharpening teeth

Amid unreported cases and silent battles, the laws created by pioneering Filipino women must sharpen their teeth and be all-encompassing regardless of gender and sexuality.

With the passage of the RA 11313—otherwise known as the Safe Spaces Act or the Bawal Bastos Law—there still remain calls to strengthen the said act in private institutions and in public spaces as harassment still is evident.

In a survey conducted by the Social Weather Systems, it was found that 58 percent of sexual harassment takes place in public spaces such as major streets. Weak established laws remain to be a piece to the puzzle of a fragile justice system for women. This, according to Department of Behavioral Sciences Gender and Multiculturalism Coordinator Dr. Diana Veloso, is because the law has “double standards”.

“For example, the laws on marital infidelity allow a woman to be charged with any form of adultery. However, men can only be charged with concubinage [or the act of keeping a mistress during marriage]. The laws on widowhood also historically required a longer time frame before women who were widowed could remarry,” she explains.

She furthers that the laws are limited in their interpretation, “Women who wait [until] their partner sleeps before they kill them—even if it is a form of self-defense—are still criminalized. [Battered Women Syndrome] is only recognized as self-defense if the woman strikes back immediately, not after the fact.” 

This law is an example of many gaps needed to be acknowledged in the justice system that supposedly upholds everyone’s safety and fair treatment. When asked which laws the government must specifically focus on, Veloso believes that all laws must be taken into account. In closing, she emphasizes how proper revisions, just enforcement, and the timely creation of new laws to protect women are needed to continue building on the legislation to protect women.

With the growing number of discussions for women’s health and safety in the Philippines, these discussions alone are not enough to prevent future violences from occurring. Strengthening advocacies and putting concrete plans into action for Violence Against Women, established bills, help lines, and centers for rehabilitation for women will continue to be a further step in improving the legislation and help for women of the Philippines.

Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

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