AN EXPOSÉ ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN (VAW) RESPONSE :
HOW THE PANDEMIC BROKE THE RESPONSE CHAIN
By: Wynelaine P. Sy
Violence against Women (VAW) is a form of gender-based violence (GBV), and is a term usually used interchangeably with GBV. Its concept is not new to the Philippines due to the unequal power relations between male and female. This is rooted in the limited economic opportunities presented to women where either the jobs offered are of lower quality employment or there are no opportunities at all.
Although women are now taking a greater role in providing for their families, their jobs are typically limited to self-employment or other informal work arrangements which result to a lack of financial security. Another aspect of this power relations is the gender wage gap, where males receive higher compensation although women have greater contributions in the service.  In spite of the trend of increasing the number of women who are in the working industry, it is men who remain to be more dominant in the field. These factors forced women to be economically dependent to their partners which made them more vulnerable to VAW.
The Philippine Congress has enacted several laws to protect women who suffer gender violence. One of the most renowned laws protecting women is Republic Act No. 9262 or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children, which gives a broad scope of punishable offenses as it includes physical, sexual, psychological, and economic abuse. As we transition to a period of increased online transaction, several bills are pending in the senate, e.g. Senate Bill (S.B.) No. 111 or the E-VAW Law of 2019, S.B. No. 812 or the Gender-Based Electronic Violence Act of 2019, which seek to address the lack of laws specifically punishing electronic violence against women.
Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW), adopted by United Nation General Assembly defined the term “violence against women” (VAW) as:
Article 1. For the purposes of this Declaration, the term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in , physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
The relevance of this definition is that first, it measures the true prevalence of VAW by providing a standard definition to be incorporated into population-based research, and second, it highlights that the root cause of VAW is the inequality of women and men by specifically mentioning “gender-based”. Due to the prevalence of VAW in all countries, the World Conference on Human Rights (WCHR) acknowledged the importance of eradicating VAW. It urged the States to fight this following the provisions of the DEVAW.  The WCHR’s statement included that all forms of VAW must be eliminated, such as discrimination, sexual harassment, and gender bias that arose from traditions or cultural practices.
From the various forms of violence that women experience, it is intimate partner violence (IPV) that is most common.The said violence is not only limited to physical and sexual abuse but also includes mental and emotional. Globally, the prevalence of IPV reached 30% in 2010. 
In 2013, even without mobility restrictions, there were numerous cases of VAW. Southeast Asia has a 40.2% prevalence rate of women reporting IPV and/or non-partner sexual violence.  Without a doubt, this rate would increase during the quarantine. This was already proven for this COVID-19 pandemic, as stated in the study conducted by Peterman, et al:
In the current novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), as of mid-March 2020, there are already reports from Australia, Brazil, China and the United States suggesting an increase in VAW/C. In China’s Jianli County (central Hubei province), the police station reported receiving 162 reports of intimate partner violence (IPV) in February—which was three times the number reported in February 2019 (Wanqing, 2020). According to Wan Fei, the founder of an IPV non-profit, “90 percent of the[se] cases of violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic.” In the United States, the National Domestic Violence hotline issued a statement in early March 2020 on “Staying Safe” during COVID-19, including anecdotal evidence of how perpetrators were using the virus as a scare tactic to threaten or isolate victims, and urging those at risk to make a safety plan, practice self-care and reach out for help (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2020). In Australia, a survey of 400 frontline workers indicated that 40 percent reported an increase in “pleas for help” and 70 percent indicated an increase in complexity of cases (Lattouf, 2020).
This problem is also present in the Philippines. It is noteworthy that as of writing, the Philippines is still under quarantine and that a lot of women are confined in their homes with the perpetrator of violence.
Given that VAW has a very broad definition, different Philippine laws cover it, namely the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004 (R.A. 9262), the Anti-rape Law of 1997 (R.A. 8353), the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2009 (R.A 9995), the Safe Spaces Act (R.A. 11313), the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 (R.A. 7877), Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 (R.A. 9208), and Arts 266B, 336, and 334 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).
This article limits its discussion to violence caused by the intimate partner covered by R.A. 9262 and Rape covered by Art 266B of the RPC. The limitation was decided based on data received from the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) which provided that among all the laws stated above, violation of R.A. 9262 and Art 266B of the RPC have the largest number of cases reported.
II. VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN THE PHILIPPINES
It is alarming that while cases of domestic abuse are increasing worldwide, the cases reported in the Philippines have been continuously decreasing since the start of the Covid-19 lockdowns.  Based on the data from PCW, in January 2020, there were 1,383 reported VAWC cases but this dropped to 1,044 on March 2020 March, the start of lockdown.  The drop was consistent with the data gathered by PNP-Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) for the month of March to June 2020. According to PNP-WCPC the recorded cases after the implementation of quarantine has decreased by 44.7% compared to the number of cases from January 1 to March 16 2020. It is noteworthy that from January to March 2020, although there was no quarantine implemented, individuals have already taken precautions on going to public areas due to the global announcement of the existence of the COVID-19. Comparing the data gathered during the start of the quarantine with the date during the same months of the prior year, i.e., PNP data from 1 March – 31 May 2019 with that of 14 March – 15 June 2020, one will note a 56.97% decrease, which is significantly higher than the compared percentage in January – March 2020.  The table below shows that it is not only the violation of R.A. 9262 that decreased but almost all of the VAW-related violations.
|No. of Report|
|Jun. 1 – 30||Jul. 1 – 31||Aug. 1 – 31||Sep. 1 – 31||Total|
|R.A. 9262||2,853||1,930||937||946||834||712||8, 212|
|R.A. 8353, Art. 266B of RPC||435||288||209||195||187||145||1, 459|
|Art. 336 of RPC||365||235||123||127||121||105||1, 076|
|Art. 334 of RPC||36||19||11||12||7||14||99|
|Art. 324 and Art. 343 of RPC||3||0||2||0||0||0||5|
|Art. 337 and 337 of RPC||2||0||2||0||0||0||5|
|Art. 349 of RPC||1||0||1||0||0||0||2|
|Art. 256 of RPC||0||0||0||1||0||0||1|
Ordinarily, reports of VAW violations are submitted personally either by the victim-survivor or by the concerned community member on their respective barangay’s designated VAW desk. If the report was made by the victim herself, she will be interviewed to obtain relevant information regarding the incident of abuse. After assessing the information, and if the case is a violation of VAW, the barangay officer will inform the victim of her legal remedies such as filing a case against the abuser and obtaining a Barangay Protection Order (BPO). In case that the needs of the victim go beyond the scope of the services provided by the VAW desk then referral is made to the appropriate agencies and institutions. Such referral can be made for the purposes of temporary shelter services, protection services, legal assistance, psycho-social services, medico-legal services, and medical services.
However, due to the pandemic, it became physically impossible for women to go to their barangay’s designated VAW desk. On March 12, 2020, Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was imposed in the Philippines where strict social distancing was enforced.  Some institutions closed to prevent the transmission of the said virus. The means of reporting abuse was shifted with calling the hotline of PNP-WCPC, NBI-Violence Against Women and Children Desk (VAWCD), and PCW.
The downward trend can be attributed to the difficulties in reaching the authorities during the pandemic. According to one of Gabriela Women’s Party officer “As in situations even before the pandemic, many victims are unable to report their abuse for fear of reprisal, or because of the lack of access to channels of reporting and redress.” This is consistent with the statement of Joms Salavador, Gabriela Secretary General, when he mentioned that since personnel were redirected to COVID-19 response teams, some of barangay VAW desks were shutdown. 
Another obstacle suffered by victims is that, with referral systems closed, their pleas for help are met with little to no response. Chief Brig. Gen. Alessandro Abella of WCPC admitted that their office had difficulties handling the matter “such as the suspended filing of complaints for preliminary investigation, their limited and cautionary movements due to the pandemic, their initial lack of knowledge on online filing of temporary remedies before the courts, and even shortage of logistics.”
Furthermore, according to the survey conducted by Plan International to 25,000 young women, reports of sexual harassment online, leaking of lewd photos and videos, and online sexual exploitation have also increased. However, the problem is that, as Jane Pura of Plan International puts it, “There is lack of awareness on where and how to report cases. Girls who reported cases online and offline are not aware of what happened to these cases. They also said the authorities did not respond to their reports”.
Based on the statements made by the different agencies receiving the VAW cases, the problem lies in the lack of knowledge on where to report. It has been a general practice in the Philippines that if there are any violence cases that are happening inside their homes, the barangay VAW desk is their first resort. If there was a shift of the means in reporting VAW cases, such information was not properly disseminated. The information was made available only on the website of the different agencies, neither on newspapers nor television news. This can be a factor in the decrease of reported cases especially in provinces where internet is not available.
The existence of VAW desk and the help of Barangay Officials are crucial in the implementation of VAW related laws. The duties of the said officials in the IRR of R.A. 9262 are as stated:
Section 47. Duties and Functions of Barangay Officials.
The Barangay Officials shall strictly observe the following steps in handling VAWC cases at the Barangay level:
a) Upon being informed of an act of VAWC, the barangay official shall immediately verify the information. If necessary, said official shall seek the assistance of the police;
c) Interview the victim-survivors and the witnesses to determine the facts, and inform the victim-survivors of their rights and remedies.
h) Report the incident and refer the victim-survivor to the Local Social Welfare and Development Office of the LGU within four (4) hours from the time of reporting. Said official shall also report the incident to the Women and Children’s Protection Desk at the nearest Police Station within the same period;
i) In cases where the victim-survivor applying for a BPO is a minor, any barangay official shall assist the victim-survivor and shall refer her/him to NGOs, social workers for counseling, temporary shelter and other support services;
l) Assist the victim-survivors in filing the appropriate complaint with the PNP Women and Children’s Protection Desk or other law enforcement agencies;
For VAW desks, it follows the protocols provided in Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2010-2 which states the following:
3. Protocol in Handling VAW Cases at the Barangay Level
3.1. A VAWC (RA 9262) victim-survivor is accompanied by someone to the barangay or the victim herself goes to the barangay.
3.1.2. Assess the situation and get initial information to determine the risks on hand and if immediate medical attention is needed. If so, facilitate referral to the nearest medical facility;
3.1.4. Inform her of her rights and the remedies available and the processes involved particularly in relation to the BPO. Assist her to file application, if she decides to have a BPO;
3.1.6. If victim-survivor desires to be in a safe shelter, seek the assistance of the other barangay officials, barangay tanod or the police in getting her belongings and refer to a shelter/women’s center or to the C/MSWDO;
3.1.7. Assist the victim-survivor to file for a temporary protection order (TPO) or permanent protection order (PPO) with the nearest Family Court within 24 hours after issuance of the BPO, if the victim-survivor so desires or she applies directly for a TPO/PPO instead of a BPO; 3.1.8. Report the incident within four hours to the PNP and the C/MSWDO.
Based on the aforementioned provisions of the IRR of R.A. 9262 and Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2010-2, the primary duties of the barangay officials and VAW desk are to receive information from the victim, to make an initial report, and to refer the VAW case to the proper agencies. It should be noted that the dynamics between agencies is based on a “referral system”.
Under the referral system, the barangay officials serve as the “receiving/ referring agency”. They are mandated by law to file a report to the PNP within four hours after they have received any incident report from the victim or the concerned witness. In addition, it is also their task to fill up the VAW client form and any other referral forms needed when the victim-survivor has additional needs, such as shelter and medical assistance. Another task given to the barangay official is to arrest the perpetrator or ask the perpetrator to leave the house to prevent further violence. This system was made to provide immediate assistance to the victim and expedite the investigations to be made by the proper agencies.
The laws here in the Philippines to address VAW are intensive, that representatives per agency who implement the law were all given exhaustive guidelines and protocols to follow. However, even if the delegation of tasks is organized, the execution remains highly dependent on the referral system. The collapse of the referring agency disturbs the flow of the whole system.
During this pandemic, the filing of reports to the authorities was shifted to either hotline or online. The following government agencies provided hotline or online services:
- PNP-Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC)
- Public Attorney’s Office (PAO)
- Inter-Agency Council on Violence Against Women and their Children (IACVAWC)
- NBI-Violence Against Women and Children Desk (VAWCD)
- Philippine Commission on Women (PCW)
- Commission on Human Rights – Gender Equality and Women’s Right(CHR-GEWR), which launched “E-Report mo sa Gender Ombud” www.gbvcovid.report
It should be noted that among those who provided hotline or online services, barangay VAW desks are not included. The difficulties of WCPC in handling the reports, even if there was a decrease in the number of cases, can be attributed to the unavailability of VAW desks. Without the VAW desks, all the reports are automatically directed to WCPC which means that the latter should also do the tasks delegated to the former such as conducting the initial assessment and paper works. This means that WCPC or any other agencies had an additional task which resulted in confusion and overload of work on their part.
According to the quarterly report of the CHR-GEWR, the most prevalent complaint they have received in their “E-Report mo sa Gender Ombud” portal is the referral mechanism during the ECQ/MECQ period. The following are the specific instances that victim-survivor experienced when they have filed their reports:
- Two minors from separate cases of rape were advised to file their cases only after the lockdown;
- A victim who was refused to be given a BPO and advised to proceed with a dialogue. The barangay only issued a BPO because of the intervention by the CHR;
- Failure of the barangay to detain the abuser and only took pictures of the victim’s injuries;
- Difficulties in filing a case because of the need to procure different documents such as medico-legal examinations and sworn statements;
- Local shelters were also in lockdown and have stopped admitting new cases;
The two of the barriers experienced in reporting cases are the limited mobility and fear of catching the virus. Although the Supreme Court had already addressed this issue by implementing electronic filing of criminal complaints and information, the procurement of other documents in order to file a case remained the same. Documents such as medico-legal examinations, statements sworn before the police and the prosecutor’s office still require personal appearance. Victim-survivors will still face the obstacle of limited transportation availability. In effect, victims cannot proceed with their case.
For barangay VAW desks that remained opened, they seem to underestimate the importance of issuing a Barangay Protection Order (BPO). A BPO is the most accessible type of protection order that a victim-survivor can obtain since it does not require intervention by the court. Although a BPO is effective for only 15 days, it offers the same relief granted by other protection orders such as removing the perpetrator from the residence of the victim-survivor.  The refusal to issue a BPO and the persistence of the barangay officials to settle with a dialogue reflects that VAW cases are still taken lightly and that victim-survivor cannot access an immediate protection.
Despite the increase in VAW cases globally, our country is having an alarming downtrend in cases reported. Considering the inadequate dissemination of information on where to report the VAW case, and the closing of barangay VAW desks, it can be inferred that our current referral system is no longer efficient during the pandemic. This should highlight the need to reevaluate our response system, especially in sectoral concerns.
Although our country has comprehensive laws that promote and protect women, it still lacks the capacity to implement such rules during this unprecedented time. With the current reality of our country’s response system, the most ideal solution now is to create a protocol for the referral system in cases of disasters or lockdowns. Creating and implementing such protocol in these kinds of circumstances will assure victims of VAW that they will be heard and that their pleas for help will be acted upon. The community must also remain vigilant and allow other persons to report on behalf of victims whose chances of seeking help are compromised by their proximity with their abuser. The priority for our women’s welfare should never come second just because of a raging pandemic.
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 Supra note 13
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 Republic Act No. 9262. Section 8. Protection Orders
the protection orders that may be issued under this Act shall include any, some or all of the following reliefs:
(a) Prohibition of the respondent from threatening to commit or committing, personally or through another, any of the acts mentioned in Section 5 of this Act;
(b) Prohibition of the respondent from harassing, annoying, telephoning, contacting or otherwise communicating with the petitioner, directly or indirectly;
(c) Removal and exclusion of the respondent from the residence of the petitioner, regardless of ownership of the residence, either temporarily for the purpose of protecting the petitioner, or permanently where no property rights are violated, and if respondent must remove personal effects from the residence, the court shall direct a law enforcement agent to accompany the respondent has gathered his things and escort respondent from the residence;
(d) Directing the respondent to stay away from petitioner and designated family or household member at a distance specified by the court, and to stay away from the residence, school, place of employment, or any specified place frequented by the petitioner and any designated family or household member;
(e) Directing lawful possession and use by petitioner of an automobile and other essential personal effects, regardless of ownership, and directing the appropriate law enforcement officer to accompany the petitioner to the residence of the parties to ensure that the petitioner is safely restored to the possession of the automobile and other essential personal effects, or to supervise the petitioner’s or respondent’s removal of personal belongings;
(f) Granting a temporary or permanent custody of a child/children to the petitioner;
(g) Directing the respondent to provide support to the woman and/or her child if entitled to legal support. Notwithstanding other laws to the contrary, the court shall order an appropriate percentage of the income or salary of the respondent to be withheld regularly by the respondent’s employer for the same to be automatically remitted directly to the woman. Failure to remit and/or withhold or any delay in the remittance of support to the woman and/or her child without justifiable cause shall render the respondent or his employer liable for indirect contempt of court;
(h) Prohibition of the respondent from any use or possession of any firearm or deadly weapon and order him to surrender the same to the court for appropriate disposition by the court, including revocation of license and disqualification to apply for any license to use or possess a firearm. If the offender is a law enforcement agent, the court shall order the offender to surrender his firearm and shall direct the appropriate authority to investigate on the offender and take appropriate action on matter;
(i) Restitution for actual damages caused by the violence inflicted, including, but not limited to, property damage, medical expenses, childcare expenses and loss of income;
(j) Directing the DSWD or any appropriate agency to provide petitioner may need; and
(k) Provision of such other forms of relief as the court deems necessary to protect and provide for the safety of the petitioner and any designated family or household member, provided petitioner and any designated family or household member consents to such relief.
Any of the reliefs provided under this section shall be granted even in the absence of a decree of legal separation or annulment or declaration of absolute nullity of marriage.
The issuance of a BPO or the pendency of an application for BPO shall not preclude a petitioner from applying for, or the court from granting a TPO or PPO.