The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have swept the U.S. in the last year, emboldening women to step forward to name their assailants and to demand justice for victims of sexual misconduct and violence. In the Philippines, more than 7,000 miles away, women and girls can only dream of finding similar relief in a country they describe as full of rapists, where survivors of sexual violence must remain in the shadows, afraid to speak up.
How can there be a #MeToo movement for Filipinas, they ask, when it’s difficult for any woman to step forward to simply say “me”?
Interviews with more than two dozen rape survivors, advocates for victims and concerned government officials reveal that the culture of silence is still pervasive in the Philippines. From rural areas, where advocates go door to door to educate communities on sex and sexual conduct; to college campuses in metro Manila, where young people are encouraged to challenge patriarchy; to shelters in the countryside, where sexually abused girls find safe places to recover and strive to be empowered, many Filipinos nevertheless are dedicated to overcoming the barriers caused by the culture of sexism, religious values and a lax justice system.
Can the vibrant movements in the Western world migrate to the Philippines and help bring changes to the country’s entrenched culture of sexual violence?
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Katherine Alano fell from the top echelons of Filipino show business when she came out as a rape victim in 2014. Alano, at the time the host of one of the biggest TV shows in the Philippines, was bashed by thousands of people online. One said: “It would take one bullet to your head to silence you.” Terrified of being killed, Alano fled her apartment and went into hiding for two months.
The man who had raped her years earlier, Alano said, is a celebrity with millions of followers whom she met through work when she was 19. One night in 2005, she invited him to a bar to join her and her friends. “I didn’t see him do it. But he put a drug in my drink,” Alano, now 32, recalled of that night, saying that the man insisted on driving her home afterward.
“About five minutes or four minutes before we actually got to my apartment, I felt the drug kick in.” Alano got out of the car and stumbled along the way to her door with the man following along. “He insists I open the door and I say no. He’s getting upset at this point, and then I blacked out.”
Minutes later, Alano woke up, finding the man taking her jeans off while her head was banging against the floor. She then passed out. “Every time I woke up, I realized that I was being raped again,” Alano said with tears in her eyes. “I started to cry, and I told him please don’t. Please don’t do this to me.”
The next day, Alano woke up with the scent of the man on her body. “All I wanted to do was shower and forget about it.” As a young woman, whose career in show business was only just starting, she decided that it would be best to go on with her life and keep quiet.
It wasn’t until 2014, when three other women came forward to accuse the same man of rape, that Alano finally broke her silence. On her private Facebook page, Alano wrote: “Justice from the universe. Thank you. After 9 years. Karma people. Don’t ever underestimate it. Just be patient. The truth always comes out.”
The post was leaked to the press. Alano was bashed by thousands of Filipinos throughout the country. “We are in a Third World country where they talk about rape like you should never talk about it, like it’s your fault,” she said. Alano came to understand how the victim-blaming culture is deeply embedded in Filipino society by having to live through it. “People calling me a whore. People calling me a liar, saying that I just wanted to be famous and that there was money in it.”
After the backlash, Alano said, she was blacklisted in the industry. For years, she could not get a job. “Nobody wanted to hire me. Everybody was staying away from me.” She described the desperate moments in her life when even friends and family turned their back on her.
“Because I did the right thing, I got messed with,” she continued. “I see why nobody speaks up about this, because it really messes them up.”
Despite his high profile, Alano has never named the rapist or filed a case, she said, because of her distrust of the justice system. The cases of the three other women who accused the man of rape were dismissed, and one victim was even put into jail.
“I think this is well known for people in show business that when you’re raped and you speak about it, nothing happens,” Alano said. It’s like Hollywood before the #MeToo movement, she said. But the difference is the movement hasn’t yet come together in the Philippines, where there are greater barriers to seeking justice.
“I know enough about the media industry that I’ve worked in here,” she said, “and I know enough about the justice system here and how corruption can buy you freedom.”
Her rapist is still on TV every day, Alano said, and his following remains strong.
“Justice,” she said, “is nowhere near served.”
To hear Katherine Alano’s account of the story above, click here.
Each year, thousands of sexual violence victims in the Philippines, like Alano, decide not to report their cases. The latest data from the Philippine National Police shows that 2,594 rape cases were reported in 2017 and 2,566 in 2016. The Philippine Statistics Authority lists much larger numbers for recent years, including 9,324 reported rape cases in 2016, for example, leaving a nearly 7,000 gap between the two sources.
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In the U.S. one rape is committed every four minutes, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. In the Philippines, with one-third as many residents, the most recent figure from the Center of Women’s Resources shows that one woman is raped every 62 minutes. But this doesn’t indicate that Filipino women are living in a safer environment. In fact, the reality is the opposite.
“The statistic doesn’t reflect the reality,” said Emmi De Jesus, a congresswoman from the Gabriela Women’s Party. To De Jesus, the police reports are not reliable and there is a possibility of officials manipulating the data.
“They have the intention of sanitizing the data,” she said, because higher numbers would hurt their pride. De Jesus believes that this is more likely to happen because of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines.
Another explanation for the inaccuracy of the data is distrust of the justice system. The slow judicial process, the victim blaming from the police up to the judges, the pressure on victims to settle or drop their complaints and the low conviction rate all contribute to an unwillingness to report cases.
“Here, the cases can drag on for even eight years and still have an acquittal,” said lawyer Clara Rita Padilla, founder of EnGendeRights, an organization that seeks to advance women’s rights. As their cases drag on, women often suffer in court because of the pervasive stereotyping of victims and the lack of understanding of victimization even in the justice system, Padilla said.
Court hearing excerpts gathered by Cameleon, an organization focusing on the rehabilitation of sexually abused girls, document what Padilla is talking about:
The opposing counsel (OC) started questioning Sophia (S), a girl who accused her grandfather of raping her about the incident.
Sophia started crying.
The judge interrupts the OC. “Atty., she was financially dependent on him, she needed him to support her basic needs.”
Stories similar to Katherine Alano’s — about the failure of justice, impunity for rapists and silenced rape victims — happen in every class of Filipino society. The situation can be even worse in cases that concern people tied to political power.
Aleja Plaza was a dean at the University of Southern Mindanao when one of her students accused a politician named Andy Montawal of rape in 2008. Montawal, according to online news site Davao Today, is a member of an influential clan in the Philippines. He represented the Association of Barangay Chairmen on the municipal council and his father served as mayor when the incident happened.
While remaining at large, Montawal offered to settle the case by marrying the victim. Plaza was outraged.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ You killed her future” and that “you are just here, a criminal, a rapist and just roaming around as free as if you have not done anything,” Plaza recalled saying to Montawal. She then decided to lead a series of protests against him to demand justice.
On Dec. 18, 2012, four years after the incident, Plaza was accosted by Montawal in a shopping center while she was buying Christmas gifts for her children. “He was showing his .45 caliber on the table and said: ‘Just one bullet will be the end of you.’”
Previous stories about people being raped, kidnapped and then killed, their bodies left floating in the river, suggested to Plaza that her life was in danger.
“You know how it is — people that are killed in the Philippines are just killed like chickens,” she said. Right there and then, Plaza said, she escaped to another city and booked a flight to Los Angeles.
Plaza later filed for asylum in the United States and has since become a caregiver, working with elderly people in Los Angeles. For years, Plaza couldn’t return home to the Philippines because of her legal status. Her student, the victim, whom Plaza once supported, has chosen to move on and declined to be interviewed.
Aleja Plaza fled to the U.S. after being threatened by a man accused of raping one of her students. Here, she tells her story.
Unlike Plaza’s student, who was lucky to gain support from others, Jinelyn had no one to fall back on when she was raped by her uncle at 5.
Jinelyn, now 18, frequently frowned and clutched her knee-length plaid skirt as she recalled the day 13 years ago in July 2005. “I was asleep that time. He woke me up and said: ‘Let’s play a game. Just pretend that we’re playing house,’” she said, speaking in Ilonggo. She continued in a quiet voice: “I tried to say no. But he never stopped.”
Her uncle threatened to kill her and her family if she ever told anyone about the rape, Jinelyn said. For a year, she kept the secret to herself and was repeatedly raped whenever her mother was not around. Every night, she said, she would fall to sleep with fear and tears.
A year after Jinelyn was first raped, Jinelyn said, her 3-year-old sister was also raped by her uncle. Jinelyn remembered the deep feeling of guilt when she witnessed what had happened. But all she could do was turn her head away and cry.
“If only I told them earlier, things wouldn’t have gotten worse. He would have been arrested right away,” Jinelyn said, sighing. It wasn’t until her younger sister disclosed the secret to their mother that the rapes finally stopped.
In the Philippines, speaking up about rape would bring great shame to the family, said Sabine Claudio, executive director of Cameleon, where Jinelyn and her sister are now sheltered. The family-oriented culture has stopped victims from breaking the silence.
“They would not say anything, so the rapist [can] rape another one, and then another one. We have many cases of siblings that have been raped,” Claudio said.
Jinelyn’s case, after years of trial, is now settled, with her mother accepting money from the uncle without Jinelyn’s and her sister’s consent. Although not satisfied with the result, Jinelyn has started to reclaim her life at Cameleon.
“I am very happy because there are many of us. I felt that I’m not that different with others, that I can still be normal,” she said, finally flashing a smile.
Violence against women results from a social structure that sees women as second-class citizens. Religion also plays a key factor in forming a macho society, advocates in the Philippines say.
“We are a Catholic country. There’s a blueprint of what the role of the women should be,” said Jelen Paclarin, executive director of the Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau, a feminist nongovernmental organization in Quezon City.
In the Philippines, where patriarchy is deeply rooted, women are often seen as the property of men. President Duterte’s frequent crude comments, including jokes about rape, are emblematic of this.
“We make rape jokes. Even the president makes rape jokes, and people just laugh about it,” said Christelyn Sibugon, an advocate at the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights, which campaigns for sexual and reproductive health and rights. The culture of rape, she said, has become part of Filipinos’ everyday life. From behavior to the language, rarely do people question it.
Advocates believe that the solutions have to be tied into every layer of society — from the family to the community to the state — starting with sex education.
“We are still in a place where women are told not to be raped rather than boys being told not to rape,” Sibugon said.
In 2012, the government of the Philippines approved the Reproductive Health Law, which requires comprehensive sex education in public schools. Six years have passed, but the Department of Education has not yet developed standards for comprehensive sex education because of strong opposition from many parents and the church.
“Culturally, sex is a taboo,” Sibugon said. “We always say that talking with children about sex will make them have sex earlier or make them have more sex or actually put them in more risky behavior.”
Without the modules, schools could develop their own sex education curricula, raising questions of the consistency and quality. In some schools, teachers have yet to be trained for proper delivery of sex education. Some don’t even feel comfortable talking about it.
While more and more advocates have started sex education at the community level, others are dedicated to changing existing law and addressing the problems at the state level.
“Before, rape is seen as a crime against chastity. In 1997, rape is redefined as a crime against persons,” said Paclarin of the Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau, whose primary focus is to change the public’s perspective through changing the law.
As an advocate for women’s rights for over three decades, Rep. De Jesus now focuses on using legislative measures to protect women from inequality. But, she said, she faces even greater challenges in the Congress than at the ground level in the community.
“There are some men in the Congress who are still hesitant to accept that sexual violence is a national problem. They think it’s a problem between the couple,” De Jesus said. Most of her male colleagues in the Congress rarely make gender issues a top priority compared to economic and political matters, she said.
“It’s the state’s responsibility to put [in] mechanisms for those who were victimized,” De Jesus said. Without the state’s support, the lack of funding and resources for victims will continue to be a problem, leaving women in an unchanging, vulnerable situation.
On a muggy afternoon, as the sun shone on her long, curly brown hair and clear-cut features, Katherine Alano crossed through the chaotic traffic in Manila, weaving among the hurtling cars. She hopped in a pedicab, heading toward her second speech on a college campus about rape in a week.
“It’s taken me four years to get this far to actually be heard by anyone,” said Alano, the former TV host who started advocating for women’s rights since coming out as a rape victim. For years, she talked and posted about rape nonstop, even when no one trusted her story.
“I just kept making people understand this is not a joke,” she said. “This is not a fad. This is not a thing I said just for attention.” She does whatever it takes for people to understand the reality of rape.
“Because I’m a story of hope. I went through the darkness and I’m OK. I know it can be done,” she said.
But the key lies in more than rehabilitation of the victims, she said. To Alano, prevention is the ultimate goal.
“I don’t want future generations to be raped,” she said. The first step to achieve the goal is to implement sex education. “Only when people start to understand the reality of rape will victims feel safe enough to speak up. And when they start to speak up, that’s when we can start to demand that the laws be changed and implemented.”
Now, as the #MeToo movement flourishes around the world, Alano believes it’s just a matter of time before Filpinos start to break the silence of sexual violence. Although it hasn’t yet reached the Philippines, the movement has lit a fire in some victims.
“There are people who are starting this fight. I want this to become a thing all over the Philippines,” Alano said. “But the thing is how do you get people to say ‘me too’ when nobody’s saying ‘me’?”