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Rape within the family: The Philippines’ silent incest problem

November 8, 2017 ·  By NATASHYA GUTIERREZ for www.rappler.com

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ILOILO CITY, Philippines – Lori* was just 7 years old when she was raped for the first time.

She doesn’t remember the date, or the time, but she remembers it was in June, a hot, summer day in Roxas City, where her mother is from. It was their first week there. Her mother was out, working as a laundrywoman, while her father toiled in Manila, where Lori was born.

Lori, with her sisters and her Mama, had just moved into their grandmother’s house in Roxas City, north of Capiz province, some 400 kilometers southeast of the noisy, bustling streets of the capital. In Roxas it was quieter, greener, and there, she and her sisters, aged 6 and 5, could play outside.

But that day, Lori’s 23-year-old uncle called them all to come inside. Then he asked Lori to go to sleep.

“He asked me to lie on the bed. Then, he took off my shorts, my underwear, and he took his clothes off too.” Her voice cracks. “And then he put himself inside me.”

Even at 7, Lori knew it was wrong. “I begged, ‘Please don’t.’ But he wouldn’t listen. I told him, ‘Please pity me,’ but he wouldn’t listen,” she said in Filipino.

The 2009 rape was the start of a series of rapes, an average twice per week for over 3 years – “more, when there were no classes.” It often happened before lunch, between 11 am and 12 pm, on Saturdays and Sundays, when her uncle had no work.

And then, he started raping her two younger sisters too.

“He raped me until I was in 4th grade. And he did the same to my sisters.” A pause. “I blamed myself for their abuse.”

Lori doesn’t know when exactly it started for her two sisters, but the 3 girls were helpless, as they frequently saw and watched each other get raped.

“Our house was up on a mountain. Our neighbors weren’t around when it would happen. Sometimes they were there, but he told us not to scream. He threatened us with a knife. And he would tell us, ‘If you tell your Mama, I will kill her.’”

The word incest comes from the Latin word, incestus, which means “impure” or “unchaste.” Incest rape is defined as forced sexual activity between family members.

When it happens in the Philippines, there are commonalities: most cases are perpetrated by fathers and uncles. 99% of victims are girls. The rape usually happens at home. Often it occurs when one or both parents are away, working overseas or in a different city, and the children are left under the care of a relative.

The rapes happen anytime – in the morning, in the afternoon, or at night – and usually go on for years. When there are sisters, it is usually done to all of them, although not always. Victims are frequently threatened death if they disclose the incident.

Most of the time, they are kept a dark secret within families because of the shame and the stigma that surround them.

Always, rape leaves families broken.

In a court document dated September 10, 2015 obtained by Rappler, another incest rape victim, Francesca*, 14, recalled being raped by her father 5 times over the course of 7 years, starting in 2008 when she was just 6 years old. Her father was 26 at the time.

“He raped me on April 2, 2008 at about 10 in the morning, inside my room of our house,” she says, narrating the first time it happened.

“He came to me and I was surprised as he grabbed and forced me to undress my shorts and panty, prompting me to stand immediately. However, he grabbed and forced me to lie down, covered my mouth with a cloth, and told me not to make a noise or else he will kill me. Then he forced me to spread out my legs and inserted his penis into my vagina and began to push and pull,” the document said.

“He dressed me up with my panty and shorts and warned not to tell my mother what he did to me or else he will kill me and our entire family. I felt nervous and so I cried, then slept.”

Francesca’s mother had been working in the rice fields at that time, and the 4 other times she was raped after the first time.

In the country, rape is the most common form of sexual abuse, followed by incest then inappropriate touching. The incest rate is pegged at 33%.

From 2011-2016, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) served a total of 2,770 incest victims out of a total of 7,418 victims of sexual abuse, with a recorded average per year fluctuating between 400 and 500 victims.

DSWD data says majority of incest victims are girls between the ages of 14 and 17. But there are reported cases of below 5 years old.

But even the DSWD knows their data is far from accurate.

Not only is data improperly segregated, there is also lack of coordination among government agencies on the data, and incest rape is specifically also highly under-reported. Authorities believe incest rape happens across all social classes, all over the country.

Laurence Ligier only smiles when told of the government’s data. Ligier is a French national who came to the Philippines when she was 18. At the age of 20, she founded Cameleon – a non-governmental organization that cares for sexual abuse victims. She said adding several zeroes to the reported cases would be closer to the accurate number.

“In reality, [we] who work in the field, we can see that it’s maybe times 10,” she says as she sits in a tiny plastic chair for little girls at the center’s therapy room.

The walls are painted with bright drawings of flowers and sunshine. There are some arts and crafts, and coloring materials. This is where girls narrate their rape experiences to counselors and psychologists.

“Here, about 50% of the girls are victims of incest rape. Maybe the DSWD just sends the more difficult cases to us.”

A 2009 international study from the University of Barcelona further emphasized how significantly under-reported child sexual abuse cases are in the Philippines. In the study, Africa reported a prevalence of about 34.4%, Europe showed the lowest prevalence rate at 9.2%, while America and Asia had prevalence rates between 10.1% and 23.9%.

The Philippines’ official records of sexual abuse prevalence? Less than 0.01%.

The skies are gray in Passi City and light rain falls on the ground. Lori sits underneath an outdoor shed in Cameleon. She lets herself weep at the recollection of the rape. But she wants to keep talking.

What did she do after the first time she was raped in 2009?

“I told Mama and my grandmother but they told me, ‘That’s not true. Your uncle would never do that.'”

Lori told her mother every single time she was raped, and when her sisters got raped too. “She never believed me. She never did anything about it.”

BROKEN. Lori weeps as she recalls years of rape by her uncle. Photo by Dyl Tolentino

BROKEN. Lori weeps as she recalls years of rape by her uncle. Photo by Dyl Tolentino

It was a talk in school in late 2012 that finally saved Lori and her sisters. Local police came to her classroom to inform children of their rights, and encourage students to report any sort of abuse they may have experienced at home or elsewhere.

Lori told her teacher of the rape. Her teacher told her to report it to the head of their village and the police.

In a January 5, 2013 sworn statement to the police obtained by Rappler, Lori told authorities that she “revealed” the abuse of her sisters to her mother and grandmother, “but they kept it, instead they washed the body and vagina of my younger sisters with soap and water.”

Only when she reported the abuse to authorities did her mother finally believe her, and did her father come home from Manila. Medico-legal findings related to her and her sisters revealed vaginal lacerations. She winces at the memory.

In Francesca’s case, she hid from her mother the incidents of rape, according to court documents, even if “my vagina was painful and I was not feeling well as I was bleeding.”

Francesca revealed the rapes only in 2015, when she and her mother fled their home after her father physically abused them.

“They [the village officials] asked me if besides physically abusing us, was there any offense that our father did to us,” the document said. “And so I disclosed to them the whole truth about the rape incidents.”

It had been nearly a decade since the first time.

While rape in itself has traumatic and long-term psychological and physical effects, incest victims face unique challenges because of the complexity of protecting the image of their families, especially in the Philippines.

Many bear the abuse in silence because they have nowhere else to go and are in fear of breaking their families apart. In other cases, the mother sides with the perpetrator – her husband, her brother, or her father – because of economic dependence.

“It’s not just the sexual violence but it’s also the guilt that they feel,” Ligier says. “For example, when they put their father in jail. And because they have the pressure from the family, and most of the time, the mother who would tell them that ‘Because of you, your father is in jail. Because of you we don’t have enough food, your very young sister cannot go to school. You have to pity us.'”

Ligier walks around the Cameleon property – a sprawling 1.2 hectare of land, partly donated by the former mayor, partly funded by herself and donors. It is lush, and green, a private and walled community, in the middle of the forest. She points out the man-made lake, with a bridge that leads to a massive covered court gym where the girls play sports. Benches, roofs, walls, posts, anything that can possibly be painted are splashed with a rainbow of colors. “A safe haven,” says a 20-something who spent years here.

“Here, what we need is to repair this guilt, to repair the fact that their mother is not supporting them,” Ligier says. “They don’t feel loved, and they are not recognized as victims. It’s very hard. So it would take time. It would take therapy, psychological help.”

She comes across a 12-year-old girl with curly hair tied in a tight bun, like a gymnast. “This is Lori’s youngest sister.” The resemblance is there, a round face, a soft nose. The girl doesn’t make eye contact. She manages a tight smile before walking away.

Ligier enters the second of two centers where the girls sleep at night – “Sorry we only have electric fans!” – and opens a door to reveal a room with about a dozen single beds. The beds’ sheets are neatly folded. Pillowcases printed with smiling photos of the girls. Some beds brimming with stuffed animals.

“Many of them are afraid of the dark and scream in their sleep. It helps to hold onto something.”

A teenage girl enters the bedroom, and immediately wraps her arms around Ligier’s waist when she sees her. “Can you show us your closet?” Ligier asks. The girls get their own closet each – for some, it’s the first time they have ever had their own space. It is a source of pride for the girls, and they keep them pristine.

The girl is excited to lead Ligier to hers. Photos line the inside of the closet’s left door. Several are of a one-year-old girl. “This is her baby,” Ligier says, pointing to a smiling infant. The girl nods, giving Ligier permission to explain.

“[She] and her little sisters were raped by her father when her mother died.”

The girl doesn’t flinch with the mention of the baby sired by her own father, her arms still around Ligier in a side hug. “They are all different here,” says Ligier of the girls. Some are like this one, affectionate. Others are extremely introverted, while others are hyperactive – a flood of emotions that many do not know how to handle, overwhelm them. Several are suicidal.

Girls often self-harm, their forearms bearing scars from cutting. Ligier gently lifts the girl’s arms to check hers. Like zebra stripes, there they are – scars, thin, and many. “I don’t anymore,” the girl says proudly.

Ligier talks about the endless manifestations of trauma as she darts in and around the center. Others, like Lori, have a deep hatred for men. Still others fall in love with their rapists, like their grandfathers for instance, because they cannot tell what is normal from what isn’t.

Some girls also have to deal with their mothers who are jealous of the sexual attention given by their fathers. For many, it is their first time to be part of a functional family.

She enumerates the effects, like a grocery list.

There are those who form intimate relationships with other girls at the center. There are those who trust no one, having been abused by the ones they trusted most. Still others get pregnant immediately with their boyfriends, surrendering to the first man who showers them with affection.

Then Ligier slows down her pace and motions to an inconspicuous building across the wall. “You see that?”

A white building looms, about 100 meters from the boundaries of Cameleon, the only other structure in the vicinity. “That’s a jail. The city built it after we already set up here,” she says with visible frustration. “Some of the perpetrators are serving time there.”

“I built a wall because they used to look over and catcall the girls.”

Lori is in a red shirt and gray sweatpants. The cat ears headband she was earlier wearing is no longer on her head. Instead, her long hair is tied neatly in a low ponytail. She says she hasn’t always looked like this – the rape made her feel dirty and different, even after the first time.

“Once it happens to you, even just once, you’re immediately in shock. You neglect yourself. You move differently. It’s as if something is wrong with you. And you feel like you are different from other people,” she says. “After it happened, everything changed.”

Because the effects run deep, the treatment for incest victims also spans years and must be holistic.

At Cameleon, girls stay an average of 4 years, sometimes up to 12 years, before they are reintegrated back into society. The foundation provides everything from the girls once they enter. Their schooling is paid for all the way till college, and they get help finding jobs.

They are provided shelter, food, and a family atmosphere. There is counseling, spiritual healing, and physical rehabilitation through sports and circus activities. Once they leave the centers, even their dormitories are paid for by the organization.

REBUILDING. Cameleon provides a family atmosphere for sexual abuse victims. A board inside their room reads: 'We love you girls.' Photo by Dyl Tolentino

REBUILDING. Cameleon provides a family atmosphere for sexual abuse victims. A board inside their room reads: ‘We love you girls.’ Photo by Dyl Tolentino

But this sort of approach and treatment are rare, and cost money. Cameleon for instance, can only accommodate up to 50 girls at their centers at any given time, and only victims from Western Visayas. Theirs is also far more effective than the government’s own treatment.

In Quezon City, the DSWD main office is across the street from the House of Representatives. The old building is in much need of repair, a stark contrast to Cameleon’s warm and open space.

DSWD Undersecretary Hope Hervilla enters her office in a rush, straight from a previous meeting – “I’m sorry I’m late,” she says – but she is upbeat and eager to talk about incest. She has never talked to journalists about incest in detail before.

Hervilla has an NGO background and is new to her post – just 11 months – and she is first to admit the shortcomings of the department in treating sexual abuse victims, no thanks to a lack of resources and the lack of priority given to these cases.

“Of course, it’s difficult,” she says. “It’s the role of the government to provide a family environment for the child, and it’s on the DSWD to handle incest victim cases.”

DSWD’s services for sexual abuse victims include protective custody, counseling, medical services, foster home and adoption, education, and legal services. It has its own women and children’s centers across the country, but in reality, it barely touches the surface of properly treating victims because it simply cannot provide the same long-term care and attention organizations like Cameleon can.

This is why the DSWD works with NGOs. “We can’t do it alone.”

“We have success stories,” Hervilla says, before admitting that after the DSWD provides its services, “we cannot ensure how well the child can cope because that’s something that sticks with them forever.”

Disgust is the only word that can describe Lori’s expression when asked about her rapist.

Her face contorts into a grimace, when she recalls the first time she saw him since she reported his abuse. “I felt like I was punched in the stomach.”

They met in court, after Lori filed a statutory rape case against her uncle in 2014, 7 years since he first raped her.

“I was so angry. He asked me why I wanted him in jail. I told him, ‘Didn’t you commit a crime?’” Her two other sisters have also filed separate cases against him.

The 3 make sure to attend each others’ hearings for emotional support, especially since their mother and relatives do not support the case against her uncle.

And because the uncle often laughs and smirks in the court room when the girls recall the abuse and describe their rape to the judge. “Every time I see him, he laughs. He insults me. And a lot of our family side with him,” she said. “They make me seem like a liar.”

Then her face breaks into a smile. “He tried to escape but the police found him.”

Ligier said the legal assistance they provide is an important part of the girls’ healing process. Rights activists encourage filing legal cases to help sexual abuse victims get a sense of justice. Being recognized by the state as victims is something that is particularly helpful for incest victims, whose own families pressure them to drop the case, and may not consider them as such.

The Anti Rape Law of 1997 or RA 8353, considers rape a crime – but there are caveats. For one, the Philippines has among the youngest age for sexual consent in the world: 12 years old. So victims aged at least 12 must convince the judge that the act was not consensual.

The law also differentiates between anal or oral rape and vaginal rape. Anal or oral rape carries a penalty of 12 years, while vaginal penetration is punishable with life imprisonment and is non-bailable.

As for incest, the Philippine Family Code specifies that incest marriages up to the 4th civil degree are void from the beginning. But that’s about it.

There are no specific laws on incest rape.

Aside from flaws in the law, many other obstacles in the legal system make pursuing a sexual abuse case easier said than done. The long delays in the process, lack of care given to child victims in court, and the stress of having to relive the trauma, are sometimes too much to bear.

“I’m ashamed to be part of a system that sometimes is not able to pursue a particular case, to abide by the principle of speedy disposition of cases,” says Sedfrey Cabaluna, a young private laywer who defends sexual abuse victims pro bono.

In his striped button down polo and his leather shoes, it’s easy to say why victims feel confident with Cabaluna defending their case. He brings an air of professionalism, and girls immediately feel the change in how they are treated by public judges when they have him by their side.
In some provinces in the Philippines, there are no Family Courts so the cases are not separated, and judges and public lawyers are not always trained to handle such sensitive cases, sometimes asking trivial questions like the size and color of the rapist’s penis, or asking victims in humiliating detail to describe the sexual act.

“When you ask a child victim to narrate what happened to her, it’s like raping her all over again. Abusing her over again. There has to be sensitivities.”

Cabaluna said the laws are actually there to protect children and rape victims – there are more than 37 laws, executive and administrative orders to protect women and children in the Philippines, according to the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR) – but the problem lies in implementation.

For instance, the law says child abuse cases must be given priortity, “but for courts that have more than 40 cases a day, it’s easier said than done,” says Cabaluna.

The Family Courts Acts of 1997 also requires training for judges and court personnel, which is not always followed. Even the Supreme Court, under its Rule on Examination of Child Witnesses, allows special persons to assist the child when giving her testimony, even outside the courtroom via video conference if needed.

“Not everyone should be listening to the testimony of a child like it’s a television series,” he laments, but the segregation of these cases barely ever happens. Neither are there facilities that support this. The consequence of these challenges is that many victims instead choose to settle.

Cabaluna and activists discourage settlements, because they rarely ever help the victim, and allow rapists to go scot-free – making it likely for them to repeat the crime. Western Visayas police statistics in 2015 estimate that up to 84% of sexual abuse and incest perpetrators against minors remain at large.

Much like priests who abuse children and are merely moved to other parishes, most abusers leave their municipalities but are free and likely to repeat their crimes on other victims.

Cabaluna also says he has yet to see any perpetrators express actual guilt or regret. “The closest are those who realize they may serve time in prison for the rest of their lives, and reach out to settle.” Plea bargaining is legal under the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure.

One mother settled the incest rape case of her two daughters without their consent for just P15,000 each.

“You see what you’ve done to a victim? What you’ve done to her future? You cannot put an amount to it. How much would you actually put an amount to it? You go on with your life, this child is changed forever,” he shakes his head. “A few hundred thousand, a few 50,000. I’ve even seen less. It’s crazy.”

It will take drastic efforts to stop the silent incest problem in the Philippines.

Aside from the government’s prevention efforts like information campaigns in schools and villages on proper and improper touching, and its efforts with the communities to train teachers to be vigilant about signs of abuse, Hervilla says the cause of incest rape goes far deeper.

For one, there is a need to address the root cause of poverty, which drives parents to be away from their children to work.

DSWD’s Hervilla says, “Let’s solve the problem of our economy so that even if mothers and fathers did have work, they would not release their stress on their children, and no mother would have to go abroad to provide for their children, so she could supervise them. Let there be a government that can support families and I think we can reduce, if not eliminate it.”

More than that, she adds it is necessary to have a cultural mind shift in how women are viewed in the Philippines. “As long as the culture exists that we women are being looked down as inferior and we are looked down as being sexual objects, this sort of abuse will continue,” Hervilla says.

“These incidents are all about power, and using women as property and sexual pleasure. So when you look at women in that way, it won’t matter whether they are their daughter or what. ‘You are my personal property, so if you are my child that means I own you. Perhaps it’s better that I go first, rather than other people.’”

Addressing the actual causes may take generations, but for victims like Lori and her sisters, it is too late for prevention. Their lives are focused on rebuilding.

Lori says there were years when she dreamt of killing her uncle, but now she wants to see him “rot in jail until the day he dies.”

“He said to me, ‘Please forgive me.’ I told him, ‘I’ve forgiven you before God but what I’m seeking is justice.’ He said, ‘Please pity me.’ And I said, ‘Why? Did you pity my sisters and me when you raped us? No, right? Why would I pity you and let you go, when you never pitied me?’”

Her face lights up when she talks about her sisters – “we’re all going to be nurses” – and jumps out of her seat to call them. From failing her classes, Lori is now at the top of her class.

Her younger sister is starting to open up emotionally. The youngest of the sisters – the one with a tight bun – is learning contortion through the organization’s circus program, and through the process, is reclaiming her body again.

When the 3 sisters stand together, they are all the same height, with similar facial features. They exchange shy smiles. They look like normal schoolgirls, aged 12, 13, and 14.

Ligier breaks the illusion and whispers that the girls will stay in the center for a few more years before reintegrating. “They are far from ready. But we will make sure to keep them together.”

The sisters are some of the lucky few who have escaped abusive households. To Lori, speaking up against incest rape is crucial and the quickest way for victims to get out of their situation.

“They have to speak up,” she says. “There are people willing to help.”

Lori knows many other girls will lay in bed at night, feeling unsafe in their own homes, dreading the footsteps of their fathers or uncles or brothers or grandfathers.

“They should not think they are the only ones who are fighting this situation. There are many of us.” – Rappler.com

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