THE first time I heard her speak, I knew she was telling the truth. The domestic worker from Leyte told me about the sexual harassment she experienced while working in the household of a Philippine ambassador. He was a seasoned diplomat who was highly regarded in his field. While stationed overseas, this diplomat took advantage of his position to sexually harass his domestic worker, pleading with her to touch him inappropriately.
It was not the first case that the Blas F. Ople Policy Center had handled that involved overseas Filipino workers and sexual predators in suits or “barong”. I know of a domestic worker in the embassy shelter who was invited out by a diplomatic officer. They had drinks in his flat and then he raped her. To quiet things down, the officer pulled strings to prioritize her repatriation. By the time I went looking for her at the post, she was gone with a promise for complete silence in exchange for monthly support to her family.
In the United States, sexual harassment is now a trending item as the Harvey Weinstein scandal unfolds. More than a dozen women have come out to accuse the movie mogul of unwanted sexual advances. The famous movie producer has fallen to the nadir of his career with the Oscars board expelling him following the barrage of sexual assault allegations. How many aspiring actors, actresses and models have been subjected to similar acts of harassment and sexual assault in our own movie industry? No one knows, but a friend on Facebook who is knowledgeable about these things said that it does happen but no one wants to talk about such things.
Here in the Philippines, sexual harassment is penalized in Republic Act 7877, or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995. The coverage of the law, however, is quite limited. The law classifies sexual harassment into two categories: 1) work-related or in an employment environment; and, 2) in a training or education environment. It does not cover online sexual harassment or when a diplomat seeks sexual favors of a distressed migrant domestic worker. Clearly, the law needs to be amended.
A Social Weather Station survey conducted in 2016 revealed that 3 out of 5 women have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime. The same survey also identified the top three forms of sexual harassment as wolf-whistling, lascivious language, and exhibitionism and public masturbation. In one particular instance, a labor attaché put his hand on the knee of a distressed worker while driving her to the embassy’s halfway house to seek refuge from a lascivious employer. The law in its present configuration is silent on such actions.
I hope that the Senate and the House of Representatives give due priority to the passage of laws expanding the coverage of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act. With the advent of technology, one can easily read comments accompanying photos of anonymous women that are meant to insult their gender or demean their reputation.
Choosing language meant to be obscene because its user thinks that makes him or her cool, is a transgression of someone else’s human rights. Those who share photos of beautiful women with indecent comments of their own have no right to get angry when someone they know becomes a victim of sexual harassment. When you applaud someone else’s crime, then you are no worse than the criminal.
The present law imposes a very mild penalty for a crime that could scar its victims for life. Its sanctions range from “imprisonment of not less than one month or more than six months, or a fine of not less than P10,000 or more than P20,000, or both, such fine and imprisonment being at the discretion of the court.” Since sexual harassers often find themselves in a position of power, whether by virtue of economic status, educational attainment, or physical size, among other such attributes, these fines are much less than the cost of the latest mobile phone. A victim may also opt to just keeping silent considering that in one month, the accused would likely get out of jail and hunt her down.
The law needs to be amended to cover not just a person exercising authority over the victim, but to include peers, colleagues, subordinates and even complete strangers.We should also realize that a victim of sexual harassment may be singled out because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, rather than being several ranks lower in any hierarchy in the organization.
In the Philippines, we have a tendency to keep quiet about crimes involving sexual harassment, rape, incest, pedophilia, and all other forms of gender-based violence. It’s time to break the silence. Let’s acknowledge that sexual harassment is a crime that is prevalent within our own borders. We need a stronger, broader law to encourage victims to speak up, file charges, and start putting these sexual predators behind bars.