#OPINION | Life progresses, women’s rights don’t

by Sequentes Somnia* & Aequitas Wollstonecraft*

*The authors of this article have opted to use pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Content warning: This article contains mentions of abortion, rape and sexual assault, and childbirth.

Presidential candidate Isko Moreno expressed his anti-abortion stance, even for victims of rape and incest, in his interview with TV host Boy Abunda last January 27. He implied that they must live with the consequences of being a victim and rise above it: “Hindi lang ‘yun para sa kanya; buhay rin yung nasa tiyan niya.

(It is not just [the mother’s choice]; there is already a life inside her womb.)

Mayor Isko’s statement is an example of how Filipinos continue to ignore the present sexism and misogyny in the country that are detrimental to women, especially sexual assault victims. If rape survivors are not outright disrespected, they are dismissed — their concerns and trauma underplayed and set aside with tone-deaf statements. Even until now, politicians talk over survivors, maintaining the country’s lack of progress.

“You have to move on.”

“Life must go on,” according to Mayor Isko. This is how easy it is for anyone outside the experience to sweep sexual assault trauma under the rug. However, what he and other Filipinos fail, or refuse, to internalize is the extent to which trauma from rape can affect victims. In fact, they require specialized mental health services to address and overcome the trauma they undergo.

People may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and even suicidal thoughts from such an event. Rape trauma syndrome may also occur, which is disruptive to physical, emotional, and social behavior. The severity of these disorders is why many who work in the mental health field need a specialization to handle it. Thus, it must be understood that these mental health disorders affect the victim’s perception of their strength and self-worth, which hinders their recovery.

Additionally, most citizens do not have access to such services due to location, cost, and environment. Stigma also contributes to this, as many Filipinos still have misconceptions about both mental health and sexual assault. Clothing, alcohol consumption, and one’s behavior continue to be used as reasons for one “deserving” the assault.

Pregnancies and raising children are also costly and challenging, which is why many make sure they are ready to have children before trying. If even couples who want to be parents take in a lot of factors before deciding on their readiness, then there is no sense to force such responsibility on people who didn’t even consent to sex in the first place. Moreover, pregnancy and childbirth can be extremely traumatic for rape victims. Thus, it is morally reprehensible to force them to push through with their pregnancies.

Yet pro-lifers will continue denying women and sexual assault victims this right to abortion, repeating the statement that “all life is sacred.” For rape victims, however, abortion goes far beyond the moral superiority pro-lifers like to hold against mothers who are physically, mentally, and financially incapable of supporting a child.

In fact, this sense of righteousness is never used to protest more definite ethical concerns like the lack of adoption care or rape victim support in the country; it is more often applied to shame people in need of an abortion. It is this hypocrisy that blinds people, and even governments, from the reality that a complete criminalization of abortion is dangerous.

“Why didn’t you come forward sooner?”

Mayor Isko compared the experience of sexual assault victims to the poverty he endured growing up, adding that he just had to “force [himself] to persevere.” This desperation to appeal to the masses with constant anecdotes of his difficult past translated into a ridiculously out-of-touch conclusion about determination. These resilience narratives and “we must simply push through” declarations have long been a staple of Philippine politics, as nothing is safer than to just say nothing.

Politicians continue to rely on the individual to overcome pressing issues on their own. In reality, however, the mishandling of poverty and rape cases is systemically reinforced. They repeatedly place the burden of dealing with the consequences on the victims’ shoulders instead of focusing on what the government can do.

There have been attempts by the government to assist rape victims, as with the establishment of RA 8505: Rape Victim Assistance and Protection Act of 1998. However, after almost 14 years since the conception of this policy, there is still a lack of the rape crisis centers and mental health services it promised for sexual assault victims.

Furthermore, RA 8505 establishes a rape shield under Section 6 that prohibits using the victim’s past sexual behavior against them in prosecutions for rape — yet there are still some prosecutors that regurgitate the age-old “What were you wearing?” and “Why did you go out with them in the first place?” questions. Outside of court, even the police have been guilty of such victim blaming mindsets; take the numerous instances when the Philippine National Police (PNP) posted harmful “Rape Prevention Tips” that held the victim at fault.

“You asked for it.”

Victim blaming mentality starts at a cultural level. In the Philippines, it is still rampant among its citizens, a malicious effect of the country’s conservative culture where people, particularly women, are expected a level of modesty as to not be disrespected. Despite activists and public figures continuously reminding us that rape occurs because of rapists, victim blamers will still find a way to pin the incident on the victim. This toxic culture is exactly what stops a lot of survivors from filing cases against their attackers.

Instead of perpetuating this culture, Filipinos should be taught the concept of consent. There is still a lack of education on sexual assault and harassment in public and private school curricula, which leaves a lot of people with misogynistic misconceptions such as “boys will be boys” or “they asked for it,” letting rapists off the hook.

To a large extent, victim blaming manifests into the “deal with it” thinking that ingrains itself into the minds of Filipinos. It is despicable that victims are expected to just shoulder the consequences of actions that were out of their control. Even if the offender is jailed, the survivor will still have to carry the trauma from the assault; so to brush off these distressing experiences with “Life must go on” statements, especially when coming from a figure of authority, is insensitive to the victim and detrimental to the future of women’s rights in the country.

“What more do you expect us to do?”

Small statements echo far when spoken from the mouth of someone in power.

A politician who chooses to reflect antiquated ideals that are harmful to not only sexual assault victims but women as a whole should not be put in positions of power, lest they push back women’s rights even further. Despite statements of giving psychological support to victims, it is not enough.

With the current state of women’s rights in the Philippines, the next president should aim for the development of a system that properly handles sexual assault, abortions, and therapy, and include such topics in school curricula. And with the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, especially in the case of rape victims, there should also be a push to decriminalize abortions. Without them, the choices of many are taken away as their goals are replaced with the unwanted, and sometimes traumatic, responsibilities of carrying and raising a child.

The Philippines should no longer settle for a leader who only “inspires change” but rather a president who initiates it — a president who can identify the systemic reforms needed in the country and advocate for them. Sexual assault victims deserve the assistance and protection they were promised. If this includes access to abortion for the sake of their wellbeing, then so be it.

Life goes on. And so must the progress for women’s rights.

List of counseling and support groups for sexual assault, harassment, and abuse victims:

Likhaan Center for Women’s Health, Inc.

The Sanggunian: Commission on Anti-sexual Misconduct and Violence (CASMV)

Philippine General Hospital Women’s Desk

Lunas Collective

Maya’s Organization Philippines

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The Science Scholar

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