November 25, 2021

To our guests from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), dignitaries, ladies and gentlemen, good day!

Today, the 18-day day campaign to end Violence Against Women (VAW) has commenced. In the Philippines, Memorandum Circular 05-2021 was issued providing the guidelines to celebrate such campaign. Pursuant to such, government agencies, offices and instrumentalities are mandated to hoist Anti-VAW posters in public and conspicuous places and mount their own information and education drive. The UN marks its Unite campaign against gender-based violence with the continuing call to Orange the world and End violence now.
More than these mandates, we continue to celebrate because numbers continue to haunt us. In his report early this year, the United Nations Secretary-general said Violence against women reports have increased around the world, as widespread stay-at-home orders force women to shelter in place with their abusers, often with tragic consequences. More people at home also means that the burden of unpaid care and domestic work has increased for women and girls, literally driving some to the breaking point
In its call for this year’s commemoration, UN Women emphasized that nearly 1 in 3 women have been abused in their lifetime. In times of crises, the numbers rise, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic and recent humanitarian crises, conflicts, and climate disasters. A new report from UN Women, based on data from 13 countries since the pandemic, shows that 2 in 3 women reported that they or a woman they know experienced some form of violence and are more likely to face food insecurity. Only 1 in 10 women said that victims would go to the police for help.

Locally, allow me to share my favorite subject Davao. For nine consecutive years, I was a councilor of Davao City, tasked at the same time to head the City Council’s Committee on Women, Children & Family Relations. Abuse, in all forms and sizes were no stranger as hundreds of women-victims seek help and relief. Even with a Women Development Code, a local ordinance enacted in 2003, women still have to fight it out on a regular basis.

When the Anti-violence against women act was enacted in 2004, women victims of abuse or violence against women were finally hopeful that their abusive partners would either be sanctioned or rehabilitated under the law. In the process of implementation in Davao City, women were confronted with practical and economic issues. They wanted to file cases but then they had to go to police, then talk to social workers and then if it was a case of physical abuse, they would need to go to the hospital or the barangay health center and then they would need a lawyer or PAO, the initial stage was already grueling, intimidating and distressing. And even if the same law warrants the personal security of the victims and protection from their abusive partners and husbands through a protective order for example by allowing them to stay in their conjugal home, because the threat of being hurt repeatedly or being attacked looms in the background, our women end up leaving the house and being displaced themselves. Luckily for women in Davao, a law creating the Gender Sensitive Crisis Intervention Unit was enacted where police, doctors or healthcare personnel, lawyers paid by the city government and social workers would be in one center including a temporary shelter. The formula a strong VAW community, with organized women engaging the local government and a gender-responsive local chief executive – then mayor now, President Duterte.

This year’s campaign seeks to raise awareness of the Safe Spaces Act (RA 11313 or SSA) among the general public as well as the organizations tasked with enforcing the law. The slogan for this year is “Filipino Marespeto; Safe Spaces, Kasali Tayo.” In light of the foregoing, government agencies and instrumentalities, non-governmental organizations, sectoral groups, private and civil society organizations, and individuals at the national, regional, and local levels in the Philippines are encouraged to participate in any of the 2021 18-Day Campaign to End VAW activities.

To be respected is such an ordeal particularly in a society where men are raised and molded to think and feel that they call all the shots. The Safe Spaces Act defines gender-based sexual harassment in streets, public spaces, online, workplaces, and educational and training institutions. The law penalizes all forms of sexual harassment in streets and public spaces, as well as in online spaces. As per official definition under letter ‘m)’, Public spaces include streets and alleys, roads, sidewalks, public parks, buildings, schools, churches, public washrooms, malls, internet shops, restaurants and cafes, transportation terminals, public markets, spaces used as evacuation centers, government offices, common carriers, public utility vehicles (PUVs) and etcetera. The Safe Spaces Act (RA 11313 or SSA) among other laws crafted with women’s welfare in mind is closely related with Republic Act No. 7877, or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 (RA 7877), the governing law for work, education or training-related sexual harassment.

This “Bawal Bastos” law penalizes catcalling, wolf-whistling, misogynistic and homophobic slurs, unwanted sexual advances, and other forms of sexual harassment in public places, workplaces, schools, as well as in online spaces. The latter is broad and very timely since women, including men and members of our LGBTQ + community are often online to do work, business and even self-expression activities. I daresay this SSA encapsulates what others have wanted for so long—- while safe spaces only used to mean private property, spaces have been drastically expanded to embrace public spaces like streets and malls, and even in cyberspace, where much of the abuse takes place. It is oftentimes tolerated so much so that when women and victims react to such acts, they are branded as arrogant, petty and overacting, or exagg as the millennials and generation x would call it. . When the 1995 law came out, safe spaces were expanded to the public domain – legally described to be in work, educational, and training facilities.

How is it different from the old law? The original law has a limited definition of sexual harassment. It mainly links authority and power to social status and position thereby constricting the definition on an offender. The first definition of sexual harassment is as follows: “…committed by an employer, employee, manager, supervisor, agent of the employer, teacher, instructor, professor, coach, trainor, or any other person who, having authority, influence or moral ascendancy over another in a work or training or education environment, demands, requests or otherwise requires any sexual favor from the other, regardless of whether the demand, request or requirement for submission is accepted by the object of said Act.”

Only persons in authority could be charged as offenders. There are no provisions for harassment by subordinates or peers although belatedly the CSC came up with a circular expanding the class of offenders to include the latter. Now, and recognizing that power is not only defined by authority and social status but by gender relations, anyone can be an offender as the Safe Spaces Act covers even sexist, homophobic, and transphobic remarks. That means you can file a case against someone who says something like, “Ang mga bakla, pang-parlor lang dapat ‘yan eh. (Gay men belong to hair salons.)”

The new law does not supersede the original Anti-Sexual Harassment Act. If someone’s offense qualifies under both the Safe Spaces and Anti-Sexual Harassment acts, they can be charged for counts under both laws. Offenses can also intersect other laws like the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act. Sexual harassment in streets and public spaces. Before the law was enacted, an offense could be committed only in a workplace, educational, or training environment. Now there are more physical spaces that are under the protection of the law. Gender-based sexual harassment in streets and public spaces is committed “through any unwanted and uninvited sexual actions or remarks against any person regardless of the motive for committing such action or remarks.”

The law protects you if you are harassed in any of the following public spaces: * Streets and alleys, public parks * Schools, buildings, malls, bars, restaurants * Transportation terminals, public markets * Spaces used as evacuation centers * Government offices * Public utility vehicles as well as private vehicles covered by app-based transport network services * Other recreational spaces such as, but not limited to, cinema halls, theaters, and spas. Despite these physical spaces specified under the law, a lawyer also said safe spaces “follow persons.” So whether you are in a private or public place, you have a safe, inviolable, space around your body that can only be entered with your consent, online or offline. Anent to this, the SSA touches on online sexual harassment as well because the same law pushes for safer cyberspaces.

Gender-based online sexual harassment includes acts that use information and communications technology to frighten victims through: * Physical, psychological, and emotional threats * Unwanted sexual misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist remarks and comments online whether on public posts or through private messages * Invasion of the victim’s privacy through cyberstalking and incessant messaging * Recording or sharing any of the victim’s photos, videos, or information without permission * Impersonating victims’ identities * Posting lies about victims to harm their reputation, and filing false abuse reports to online platforms to silence victims. The punishable acts can be further qualified in particular cases. Heavier penalties are imposed on persons who commit the violations in a common carrier or a PUV where the offender was the driver and the victim was a passenger; where the offended party is a minor, a senior citizen or a person with disability, or a breastfeeding mother nursing her child; where the offended party is diagnosed with a mental problem tending to impair consent; where the offender is a member of the uniformed services and the violation was committed while the offender was in uniform; and where it was committed by a government employee in the premises of a government agency offering frontline services to the public.

The question as to who can file a complaint is readily addressed. It is a given that the person harassed can do so. However, even persons apart from the victim can file one, because oftentimes victims would not want to live through their trauma again, given the processes of filing a case. However, “unwanted and uninvited” sexual harassment must still be proven, going by the definition of the crime. The victim would also still need to testify to make a stronger case. In the new law, privately-owned public places, employers, schools, local government units (LGUs), and national government agencies (NGAs) are responsible for ensuring our protection. Privately-owned places open to the public, like restaurants and retail stores, must adopt a zero-tolerance policy against gender-based sexual harassment in streets and public places. They are obliged to provide assistance to victims by coordinating with the police, making CCTV footage available, and encouraging victims to report harassment at the first instance. Hence, workplaces and educational institutions are mandated to create an independent internal mechanism or a committee on decorum and investigation (CODI) to investigate and address complaints.

Even without formal complaints, schools are obliged to investigate possible abusers and resolve cases. Educational institutions are compelled to deal with hostile environments, made known by just “reasonable knowledge” of someone committing gender-based sexual harassment or sexual violence. They are compelled to investigate even if a victim does not want to file a complaint or does not request the school to take any action. Educational institutions have the right to strip a guilty perpetrator of his or her diploma, or issue an expulsion order. Among other responsibilities, LGUs are obliged to pass an ordinance localizing the law, and to create an anti-sexual harassment hotline.

The DILG, Philippine Commission on Women, and the Department of Information and Communications Technology are the national bodies responsible for overseeing the implementation of this law. However it is imperative to understand that for all of us in the foreign affairs service, the SSA and all other laws that seek to eliminate VAW must be popularized especially that our migrant women and migrant women workers are facing double if not multiple vulnerabilities. While the breadth and scope of these laws might not be enforceable all over the globe, our continued and consistent conscientization efforts would surely bring about a much-desired effect on all our overseas Filipinos-an empowered community. It is only when we have an empowered community that we can achieve a VAW-free community.