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Sexual Harassment and the Law, Part 3

Sexual harassment takes many forms, from catcalling to solicitation of sexual favors, molestation to attempted rape. Whatever harassment you experienced, you should know not only what constitutes sexual harassment, but also what legal action you can take against the offender?

Urbana.ph spoke to Maureen Gaddi Dela Cruz, human rights lawyer and gender equality advocate, about what women can do if they have been sexually harassed.

The first and most important thing: take reasonable steps to ensure your own safety. That includes putting distance between yourself and the offender, consulting a doctor regarding your physical well-being, even visiting a psychiatrist to help you cope with any emotional trauma.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

What will it cost you?

Along with the hassle and inconvenience of the legal process, and the trauma of victim-shaming and -blaming, you also have to worry about the financial cost of taking legal action. Here there are a few bright spots. According to Dela Cruz, “filing a complaint with the police is free.”

Of course, there’s always the risk of “a police officer taking advantage of you by asking for bribe money or charging undue fees,” for which s/he can be held criminally liable. Also criminally liable is “a police officer who solicits sexual favors from a complainant who comes to his office to file a report. This is a separate criminal offense designated as abuses against chastity.”

Do you have to have proof that the police asked for a bribe or sexual favors? Dela Cruz explains, “Testimonial evidence is admissible. Other kinds of evidence would strengthen the case, of course, but in any criminal case, even the victim’s testimony alone is enough to initiate the complaint. Whether the case would reach trial and prosper in court, leading to a conviction, is a different matter.”

As for filing a legal case, that’s also free. “Once a complaint is initiated through the police and an arrest is made, the public prosecutor takes over and conducts a preliminary investigation (or inquest, if the arrest was made without a warrant) to determine whether charges should be filed in court. So if financial resources are tight, you can actually still file a legal case even without the services of a private counsel.”

If it’s a civil case you’re filing, it gets a little complicated. “For civil cases, filing fees depend on the amount claimed. But take note that with criminal cases, a civil action for damages is deemed instituted together with the criminal case and would be tried by the court together with it, unless the offended party signifies that she will file the civil case separately.”

Among the biggest costs of taking legal action are the fees of your legal counsel. Fortunately, there are institutions offering free legal assistance. You can try the Public Attorney’s Office, though it is “normally overloaded with cases — and anyway, if you are the offended party, it would be the Public Prosecutor representing you.”

There are others too, such as the Women’s Legal Bureau and the UP Office of Legal Aid, both of which hold office in the University of the Philippines Diliman campus. Dela Cruz says there are also pro bono legal assistance programs being offered by other law schools. Organizations concerned with broader human rights issues affecting the basic sectors of society, like SALIGAN, Public Interest Law Center, etc., may also take on women’s or gender rights-related cases from time to time.

Some other important legal stuff

It’s always good to be familiar with the law, especially the specific elements of each type of criminal offense: sexual harassment, rape, etc. Dela Cruz recommends reading up not just on RA 7877 for sexual harassment, but also the Revised Penal Code and any applicable local ordinances.

There’s also Violence Against Women under RA 9262, but Dela Cruz says, “This presupposes, on the other hand, that there is/was a current or previous sexual or dating relationship between the victim and the offender.” An interesting angle though, “take note that it does not specify that the perpetrator should be male, so this can apply to same-sex relationships. Also, there are various remedies available under RA 9262 (e.g. Barangay Protection Orders) even before the case is filed. This law is also famous for establishing Battered Woman Syndrome as a valid legal defense.”

If you know of any sexual harassment cases involving minors, it’s important to remember that the legal age of consent is 12. “Any act of sexual intercourse with a child below 12 is rape, period–consent is not a defense.”

A caveat: “If the child is above the age of 12, but below 18, this may still fall under the criminal offense of seduction, although this one is a double-edged sword.” Apparently some parents misuse this charge to break up teenage relationships if they do not approve of their daughter’s choice of partner. The law also includes a provision that basically “allows a parent to kill their minor daughter if they catch her in the act of having sex — and the partner need not be below 18 in either of these cases.”

Always get legal advice, whether or not you’re filing a case.

Remember that only the offended party–the person who was harassed–can decide whether or not to file a case, be it legal and or administrative. Either way, Dela Cruz says, “It would help to consult a lawyer, ideally a practitioner who has experience handling these types of cases and/or whose professional practice is in this area. Remember that legal professionals have different areas of specialization–and different levels of awareness and gender sensitivity regarding what course/s of action you can take. The remedies really depend on the specifics of each particular case, so it would be best to first know your options so that you can make an informed and empowered decision.”

Dela Cruz advises, “If resources are available through an institution you are connected with (school, organization, company), check if you can get referrals to the services you need–legal, counseling, etc.–as well as an estimate of how much they would cost you, and whether you can avail of those without compromising your physical safety. Concerns about physical safety include the desire to maintain your anonymity, whether or not you are willing or ready to pursue a complaint. Check whether your employer, for instance, can help you obtain legal assistance without any need for, or even if you have not yet initiated, a formal administrative complaint.”

An important thing to remember is that legal action is just one option. “Legal aspects only really cover a small part of the issue. Sure, the legal remedies are available; the police and the public prosecutors are there to assist with those. But whether or not there is really any measure of justice available for victim-survivors of sexual offenses is a different matter entirely, and the factors that go into this go well beyond the legal dimensions.”

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Sexual Harassment and the Law, Part 2

Sexual harassment takes many forms, from catcalling to solicitation of sexual favors, molestation to attempted rape. Whatever harassment you experienced, you should know not only what constitutes sexual harassment, but also what legal action you can take against the offender?

Urbana.ph spoke to Maureen Gaddi Dela Cruz, human rights lawyer and gender equality advocate, about what women can do if they have been sexually harassed.

The first and most important thing: take reasonable steps to ensure your own safety. That includes putting distance between yourself and the offender, consulting a doctor regarding your physical well-being, even visiting a psychiatrist to help you cope with any emotional trauma.

Read part 1 here.

Legal cases: Criminal or civil

Dela Cruz explained that under RA 7877, you can also file a criminal case and/or a civil case for damages.

“If the offense does not legally constitute sexual harassment, it can — again, depending on the facts — amount to any of a number of other criminal offenses: rape, attempted rape, acts of lasciviousness, slander by deed, or unjust vexation. The charges would depend on the intent of the perpetrator, as determined from the facts set forth in your complaint.”

What do you do if you want to file a legal case?

  1. Go to a police station. Technically, it should be the one nearest the place where the incident occurred, but the police should be able to direct you in this regard. Most police precincts in Metro Manila have already implemented the directive to set up a Women’s Desk precisely to handle these types of concerns.
  2. Have your report of the incident entered in the police blotter.
  3. You will most likely be asked to sign a sworn statement detailing the incident. If possible, have your legal counsel with you to advise you during this process.

Unfortunately, Dela Cruz points out that “aside from the most grave offenses (rape, attempted rape, possibly acts of lasciviousness), the minor offenses that most sexual harassment incidents (e.g. lewd remarks, groping, catcalling, leering) end up amounting to in a legal sense merit very light penalties. Frankly speaking, the offended party may end up feeling that the hassle and inconvenience of the process has not been commensurate to the measure of ‘justice’ finally obtained through the formal legal process, if at all. Our criminal justice system definitely has a lot to improve on in this regard, particularly in terms of integrating the perspectives of victim-survivors in its technical appreciation of sexual offenses.”

Outside the law, sort of

It seems disheartening to try and take legal action, but Dela Cruz reminds women that they have other options: administrative and metalegal remedies.

For example, “If you are in a public venue such as a convention, take immediate steps to alert the organizers/other responsible parties and to document the entirety of the incident. At the very least, writing and keeping a detailed account of the incident is important, especially if administrative or legal remedies are later pursued. While taking into account that this may re-traumatize a survivor, when a complaint is filed you would in any event be asked to repeatedly narrate the incident verbally or in writing, possibly many times during the whole process. Thus, writing it down while details are fresh in memory could help. Keep in mind that a victim’s credibility is frequently attacked when her statements are inconsistent, even if it is perfectly conceivable that trauma and shock could have affected the accuracy of her recollection of the event.”

There’s also another big step you can take: sharing your story.

“In many cases, naming and shaming–and collective action–is the only way to effectively fight back. Of course, not all survivors are able to come forward. But the issue is really a social and cultural one, and the legal aspects can address only a very limited part of the whole problem. All the info dissemination, organizing, and concerted action now being undertaken by various parties are crucial, because this can really be addressed only at a broader level. A legal battle can bring attention to the issue, but human rights lawyers know that legal action needs to go hand-in-hand with metalegal measures if any real change is to be effected.”

Unfortunately, any woman who takes her story to the public also risks intense scrutiny. “It’s a double-edged sword, of course. A survivor who courageously decides to speak up and deal with the media coverage, public attention, etc., is just as likely to be shamed and vilified as validated and supported. But it’s only by generating more discourse that we can truly raise awareness and influence policy.”

In the next and final installment of this series, you can read about the cost of legal action. 

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Sexual Harassment and the Law, Part 1

AN INTERVIEW WITH MAUREEN GADDI DELA CRUZ, BY REGINA LAYUG ROSERO

Sexual harassment takes many forms, from catcalling to solicitation of sexual favors, molestation to attempted rape. Whatever harassment you experienced, you should know not only what constitutes sexual harassment, but also what legal action you can take against the offender.

Urbana.ph spoke to Maureen Gaddi Dela Cruz, human rights lawyer and gender equality advocate, about what women can do if they have been sexually harassed.

The first and most important thing: take reasonable steps to ensure your own safety. That includes putting distance between yourself and the offender, consulting a doctor regarding your physical well-being, even visiting a psychiatrist to help you cope with any emotional trauma.

Proof positive

After that, Dela Cruz says it’s important to gather evidence. In many cases, victims of abuse and harassment are met with doubt and demands for proof.

“Try to document the incident. Compile whatever evidence is available. Take screenshots, save messages (SMS, email, Viber, etc.). Talk to any witnesses and ask if they’d be willing to testify on your behalf if ever you decide to file a complaint with the proper authorities. Request that they preserve any evidence they may have obtained–videos, photos, etc.–and at the earliest possible opportunity, ask if they would be willing to let you use that if and when you file a case. The type of evidence really depends on what form the harassment took.”

The cooperation and consent of witnesses is very important. “If the incident leads to a legal case and a trial, the person who took the photo/video has to testify in court that they were the one who took it.”

Of course, it’s also important that the witnesses you talk to are on your side. “This assumes that the witness is sympathetic to you; it’s more difficult to obtain and use such evidence, of course, if they are on the side of the offender. If you have a lawyer assisting you, s/he would know what to do in such a scenario.”

What types of case/s can be filed?

Unfortunately, there’s a specific legal definition of sexual harassment, and many of the incidents where women are harassed don’t fit this definition. Dela Cruz explains, “This depends on the particulars of the incident. Not all incidents of what we commonly recognize or understand as ‘sexual harassment’ fall under the LEGAL definition of sexual harassment under Republic Act No. 7877, or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law.”

Another thing to remember about RA 7877 is that it “requires an element of moral ascendancy,” and the incident “should have occurred in a work/training/educ setting (i.e. the offender was a person in authority).”

Depending on the specifics of the incident, you can file:

  • An administrative case within the rules and regulations of the institution where the incident occurred, i.e. work, school, or training institution
  • A civil case for damages
  • A criminal case if the incident does not legally constitute sexual harassment, but amounts to any of a number of other criminal offenses: rape, attempted rape, acts of lasciviousness, slander by deed, or unjust vexation.
  • Libel or violations of the Cybercrime Law if you experienced online harassment, especially those considered grave threats under the Revised Penal Code, like rape or death threats

Administrative cases

Under RA 7877, “sexual harassment proper presupposes that the incident occurred in a work, training, or educational setting.” That means “you should first avail of the administrative remedies under the institution’s rules and regulations.”

Institutions such as places of work, schools and training centers are legally required to have mechanisms in place to address SH-related concerns. Failure to do so makes the institution liable, as does failure to take action.

Want to learn more? Tune in next week to know about legal cases and extralegal remedies. 

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Why Rape Jokes are Not Okay

Duterte Rape Joke

Casualties of a rape culture. Illustration by Niki Waters.

“Tiningnan ko yung mukha, ‘tangina parang artista sa America na maganda. Putangina, sayang ito. Ang nagpasok sa isip ko, ni-rape nila, pinagpilahan nila doon. Nagalit ako kasi ni-rape, oo isa rin ‘yun. Pero napakaganda, dapat ang mayor muna ang mauna. Sayang.”

— Presidential Candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, said to a crowd of rowdy supporters at a campaign rally.

In English:

“I saw her face and I thought, son of a bitch she’s like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What first came to mind was that, they raped her, that they all lined up to rape her. I was mad she was raped, that was one thought. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. Such a waste.”

We would like to emphasize that we are not endorsing any particular candidate.

Neither are we discrediting Mayor Duterte and what he has accomplished. We respect your freedom of choice and acknowledge what he has done for Davao. What we are condemning is the joke he made during his rally and how the comment, along with his unapologetic (read: misogynistic) attitude, perpetuates rape culture.

We also acknowledge Mayor Duterte’s recent apology, but we would like to continue this important conversation on rape and present a list as to why his thoughtless ‘joke’ was an issue in the first place.

To those who say “It was just a joke”:

  • Even if someone who makes a rape joke would never actually commit rape, their language enforces a culture in which rape is not taken seriously. Rape victims are already burdened with not being taken seriously — their stories doubted, their suffering downplayed. Joking about rape only adds to this existing burden.
  • If you are against rape, take it seriously. Don’t joke about it. Don’t contribute to a culture that normalizes it or trivializes it.
  • Above all, respect the suffering of rape survivors. Treat their experience with sensitivity, compassion, kindness, and empathy.
  • Any leader who is idolized by many should be especially mindful of the example they set. If they can joke about rape with impunity, and tolerate rape culture as normal, their followers may learn to do the same.

To those who say “His words were taken out of context”:

  • There is no context in which it would be acceptable to lament that you did not get to go first in raping someone.
  • Duterte may have said these words out of anger and he may have said it as an attack against the rapists, but it is still not how one should talk about rape.
  • Worse still, he allowed his audience to laugh about it.
  • Rape is a crime of sexual violence. Everyone should be mindful of what that means. Just the memory of it is painfully vivid to someone who has experienced it first hand.

To those who insist, “Judge him by his actions, not his words”:

  • Duterte’s good deeds do not excuse his rape joke.
  • We can acknowledge his good work while still condemning his contribution to rape culture.
  • Strong leadership does not excuse rape culture. There is no excuse for rape culture.

To those who say “Other candidates have done worse”:

  • Other people’s bad deeds do not excuse Duterte’s rape joke.
  • We can acknowledge that other candidates have done worse while still condemning Duterte’s contribution to rape culture.
  • Again, there is no excuse for rape culture.

To those who said, “He already apologized”:

  • Duterte apologized for his coarse language, but he did not apologize for the rape joke.
  • He still doesn’t seem to understand why what he said is wrong. He doesn’t understand how rape jokes contribute to rape culture.
  • Before his statement, he continued to excuse it as “ganyan talaga magsalita ang lalaki” (“that’s just how men talk”). It may be our reality that men joke about sexually violating women all the time, but it’s exactly this attitude that we want to change. We want a society where a woman’s suffering is respected just as much as a man’s. Every human’s suffering should be seen for what they are: painful.
  • He said he might speak that way again in the future.
  • This is still unclear because he disowned the apology issued by his political party for him.
  • If you make a joke about rape, you can apologize for it properly by acknowledging how hurtful and inappropriate your words were, by being clear that you understand how rape jokes contribute to rape culture, and by explaining how you will fight against rape culture.

To those who say “I support him anyway”:

  • Condemning the rape joke is a separate issue from weighing all the candidates and deciding whom to support.
  • Duterte’s supporters would do well to condemn his rape joke, and rape culture in general, even if they continue to support him. Everybody should condemn rape culture.
  • Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how important a presidential candidate’s attitudes and values toward women are.

What you can do to help put an end to rape culture:

  1. Acknowledge that rape is not to be taken lightly. Take a stand and call people out.
  2. Rape is a crime. Rape jokes disrespect and demean every rape victim, which, statistically, could easily be someone you know.
  3. Rape culture, which includes victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and the normalization of rape (through rape jokes), debases the seriousness of sexual violence.

This article was written by Feanne with editorial support by Cat Cortes.

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If the Philippines is among the most gender-equal countries in the world, why do we still need feminism?

By Aissa Ereñeta

Every so often a headline will declare that Philippines is among the top 10 most gender-equal countries in the world. And inevitably someone will link to the article on Facebook and tag me with some variation of O, anong masasabi mo?

I maintain that these rankings say more about other countries than they do about us. We’re not in a particularly good place, it’s just really bad in other parts of the world. Girls in the Philippines can go to school without being shot. Women who violate sexual mores are slut-shamed, but at least they aren’t stoned to death. Hooray for women’s rights!

On the surface, we look pretty progressive. We’ve had two women presidents and we have very prominent women in politics and business. And perhaps you can argue that there is gender equality in the upper strata of society. Women who are educated and affluent can push back against oppressive gender norms. They have more options and more opportunities. Women who are professionally successful and financially independent have a greater capacity to negotiate for equitable marriages, and they have the means to leave if it doesn’t work out. They don’t need the government to avail of family planning services; they can control their own fertility. The same is not true for the vast majority of women.

The Global Gender Index is an imperfect measurement. It doesn’t describe levels of development; it assesses how well countries divide resources and opportunities amongst male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources. Emmeline L. Verzosa, Executive Director of PCW, acknowledges that in the Philippines, “Challenges such as poverty, violence, reproductive health and job-skills mismatch, among others, still need to be hurdled.”

And the GGI says nothing about social norms, the effects of which are not always obvious and are more difficult to quantify.

Social norms are rules or expectations of behavior within a specific cultural or social group and offer social standards of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, governing what is (and is not) acceptable in our interactions with others. Social norms communicate ideas about social approval, or perceptions about what is normal or desirable in a given community.

We may be better off than other countries, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have serious problems. Eventually Urbana.ph would like to delve deeper into specific issues, but for now, a broad swath of examples:

FLEMMS 2013 reasons not attending school

Proportion of Out of School Children and Youth (OOSCY) by Reason for not Attending School/Sex, Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS) 2013, Philippine Statistics Authority

In the Philippines, girls generally score higher than boys in in all key education outcome indicators. Girls score higher in standardized tests. More boys drop out compared to girls. However, it’s interesting to compare the reasons why boys and girls drop out of school. Note the difference in results by sex, particularly for Marriage and Housekeeping. 22.9% girls compared to 1.%7 boys drop out of school due to marriage. 13.7% girls compared to 1.8% boys drop out because of housekeeping. Social norms are part of the reason why better education outcomes for girls has not translated into greater economic empowerment for women.

There are more women than men in the informal economy, where they receive low wages, work under poor conditions, and lack adequate social protection from the government.

“In our culture, the role of a woman to be the ilaw ng tahanan (light of the household) reflects how she can be sacrificial to fulfill her multiple burdens and settle for low and unstable earnings just to ensure the welfare of the family. Labor segmentation is also found in the informal economy, as women are mostly home workers or unpaid family workers while men are informal wage workers or employers.” — Philippine Commission on Women

Reconciliation of family and work remains an exclusively female concern. This increases the discrimination of women in the labor market.

“In the Philippines, women provide 84% of the total household time allocated to child care. Gendered social norms contribute to women having greater responsibility for, and time commitments to, domestic and unpaid care work, and this has been slow to change despite women’s increased participation in, and time allocated to, paid work. Relatively high fertility rates continue to raise the demand for women’s unpaid labor, especially given the low provision of child care services.” — Gender Equality in the Labor Market in the Philippines, Asian Development Bank, 2013

Reproductive health remains a highly contentious topic in the Philippines. After a 14-year struggle, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10354) was signed into law on December 21, 2012.  The RH Law guarantees universal access to contraception, fertility control, sexual education, and maternal care. However, while the law has not yet been fully enforced and implemented, many Filipinos still lack access to quality reproductive health services. This has serious consequences, especially for women.

  • For every 100,000 live births in 2011, 221 mothers died during pregnancy and childbirth or shortly after childbirth. (Family Health Survey 2011, National Statistics Office)
  • 6 out of 10 married women, 15 to 49 years old, were at risk of conceiving a child with an elevated risk of mortality in 2006. These women were considered at risk either because they were impregnated at an early age (less than 18 years) or too old (age 35 or older) or have more than 3 previous births at an unacceptably short birth interval (less than 24 months). (Family Planning Survey 2006, Philippine Statistics Authority)
  • Only 48.9 percent of women of child-bearing age were using a family planning method in 2011. For women who using modern methods, the 2011 estimate was 36.9 percent (around 37 for every 100 women) from the previous 34.0 percent in 2008. (Family Health Survey 2011, National Statistics Office)
  • Almost a third of women aged 15 to 44 choose to terminate their pregnancy, and because abortion is illegal in this country, most of these procedures are performed unsafely. (Guttmacher Institute, 2005) Women seeking post-abortion care, even for incomplete spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), are treated badly in public hospitals. In some cases they are even denied care. (IRIN, 21 April 2009)

Even though the Philippines has more women in government compared to other countries, we’re still a long way from equal representation. Women make up half of the population, but only 25% of the Senate (6 women senators out of 24) and 27% of the House of Representatives (79 women representatives out of 289). We have many women leaders who have fought for gender equality and gender justice, but we also have examples of women who are even more anti-women than some of their male counterparts.

Gender-based violence is prevalent. The 2013 National Demographic Survey found that:

  • 20% of women age 15-49 has experienced physical violence since age 15, and 6% experienced physical violence within the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • 6% of women age 15-49 reported having ever experienced sexual violence.
  • 25% of ever-married women age 15-49 reported ever having experience emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence from their husbands, and 7% reported having experienced physical or sexual violence in the past 12 months.
  • Among ever-married women who experienced physical an/or sexual spousal violence in the 12 months before the survey, 65% reported experiencing some type of injury.
  • Only 30% of women who have experience any type of physical or sexual sought assistance in response to the physical or sexual violence they experienced.
  • 4% of women age 15-49 reported experiencing violence during pregnancy.

Even more troubling is the finding that many Filipino women have internalized the idea that they deserve to be beaten by their husbands if they fail to meet expectations as wives. The UP Population Institute found that more married women than men agreed that wife beating is justifiable in certain situations.

  • Among married individuals, 36.8% of women and 29% of men said wife beating is justifiable.
  • Among unmarried individuals, 39.6% of women and 43.3% men of said wife beating is justifiable.
  • Younger and unmarried men had a more accepting view of wife beating.
  • The given situations for wife beating were: (1) if the wife hits the husband; (2)if she is a nagger;  (3) if she fails to take care of the children; (4) if she refuses to have sex with him; (5) if she talks back at him; and (6) if she burns the food.

These findings can be largely attributed to unequal power relations between men and women. Violence is used by men to control women and retain power.

Rape is one of the most prevalent forms of gender-based violence in the Philippines. In 2013, the Philippine National Police recorded 7,409 rape incidents, or 1 every 72 minutes. If a woman is liberated, flirtatious, or dresses in a revealing or suggestive manner, there is a belief that she invited sexual assault and is hence blamed for it. According to the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR), rape incidents are likely under-reported; anecdotal evidence suggests that there are numerous victims who do not go to the authorities. Talking about sexual abuse is taboo. On top of the shame and blame, victims are discouraged from pursuing cases due to a slow justice system, high lawyers’ fees, and travel costs to and from the court.

O, anong masasabi mo?

One example that to me really illustrates how the Philippines is weirdly progressive and backwards at the same time is Ma. Lourdes Sereno, who was appointed Chief Justice in 2013. She became the second youngest and the first female to head the judiciary. I celebrated this as a feminist victory; I imagined she’d be the Filipina equivalent of the Notorious RBG. But my hopes were quickly dashed when she said in an interview, “My husband has power over me. In the Sereno home, my husband is my Chief Justice.” Really?! You are one of the most powerful women in the country and you’re not even co-ruler of your own domicile? What hope is there for the rest of us?

The bottom line is, our social norms still privilege men. Women, regardless of how accomplished they are, are still expected to subordinate themselves to men and be wives and mothers first before anything else. Women who deviate from this script face social sanctions. #ThisIsWhyWeNeedFeminism.

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Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights

By Marla Darwin

Esquire 01

A version of this article was published in the November 2015 issue of Esquire Magazine.

I can still remember this year’s Twitter war between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. Not only did that mark the decline of my Tay Tay fandom, but also the beginning of my education on intersectionality and white feminism.

It didn’t happen over a thoughtful conversation over coffee or a compelling body of literature though. I’ve been stepping up my knowledge about feminism through memes, Buzzfeed articles, and think pieces on my Longform app.

Feminism and the internet are clearly having a moment. It’s spawned by a culture of indignation crossed with a culture of sharing personal stories in condensed formats.

Which is why it made sense to create a local online feminist community. With Filipino women finding their voice on the internet, each new meme or hot topic circulating social media is now punctuated by personal anecdotes. These women are winning back their agency and for a lot, it’s finally allowing them to let go of baggage they’ve been so sick of carrying. The topics cover a wide spectrum, from being catcalled to putting up with abusive partners. Feminism isn’t a monolithic thing and all experiences, from different kinds of people inform and shape what we know it to be in this day and age.

It’s this moment that gave rise to the idea of Urbana.ph. The original idea was to put up a website with essays and articles written by a pool of writers. For one reason or the other (read: day jobs), it became a struggle to get the website going and instead we decided to develop an Urbana community instead. There are two Urbanas – the community page open to the public and an internal one composed of the founders. They are by no means experts on feminism, just a bunch of folks hungry for learning and discourse.

It’s through talking we were able to see how much we stretched our boundaries and where we draw the line. For example, we wanted to do away with the “angry feminist” stereotype and it was something we were all in agreement with. We believe in equity feminism, which is the ideology of pushing for equal legal rights and fair treatment between men and women, as opposed to gender feminism where the aim is to eliminate gender roles altogether.

“Urbana takes its name from Urbana at Felisa, a mid-nineteenth century book on feminine conduct written by Fr. Modesto de Castro, a Tagalog priest. The book contains a series of letters between Urbana, a young woman studying in Manila, and her younger sister Felisa who remains in the province. The letters cover a wide range of life experiences, both secular and spiritual, and dispense advice on the ideal conduct and behavior expected of a middle-class and Christian family. This book is a product of a traditional, conservative society where the law was determined and enforced by men and where women were generally perceived as followers, not leaders.

As feminists, we are extremely critical of these ideas about feminine conduct and have founded a community that seeks discuss manners and morals for the modern Filipina.” – Aissa Ereneta, Urbana.ph Founder

The public community page is where we hope conversations could happen, or at the very least be the medium for people to keep abreast of stories that are shaping gender-based discrimination. The interactivity still needs to pick up its momentum and at the moment, the page is looking more like a content feed.

The internal group, though, is where the magic happens. Because the group is private and limited to 15 people, this is where it became comfortable to make the theoretical personal.

We have a bunch of married women who didn’t take their husbands’ surnames and we have threads that detail the inane bureaucratic hurdles they have to deal with when it comes to their paperwork. It also opened up the discussion of the kind of unsolicited advice they’d get from family and strangers. “Isn’t your husband offended?” “What about your children?” “What do you mean you don’t want any children?!” (Note: It’s in our generation where we’re seeing the dawn of the “feminist husband” – the guys married to these women)

Often it feels like issues regarding your sexuality and place in the world hit a fever pitch when you’re a teenager/twenty something navigating relationships, identity, and purpose. Then maybe it will plateau and settle down some. In my case, as I was approaching my 30s, I realized that nope, there will still be baggage to be carried and ditched in a sinkhole. Maintaining an awareness of your rights is for life.

When I found out I was pregnant this year, the subject of my being woman took center stage more than ever. I knew that I would be the parent who will be staying home and who will have to put her career on hold. I stepped up to the role without any problem and while I know I chose it wholeheartedly, often I wonder if it was a result of years of programming and conditioning.

Then there was the biological aspect. I didn’t want to lose agency over my body just like that. I didn’t realize how many things I took issue with during my first few OB-GYN appointments. I worried about unnecessary interventions done on me. I was scared about being bullied into procedures I didn’t want. I never felt that way about my body until that season in my life.

One issue was how my doctor was very pro-episiotomy and her justification was that she wanted to make sure my vagina stayed “beautiful” when she had to stitch me up. (Side note: I ditched this doctor because I was bothered with tearing being such an eventuality with her. I ended up not tearing and not worrying about my lady parts when I did a water birth) I was confounded and I took to the group asking, “Why are beautiful genitals a thing?”

From there we got into a discussion about women’s bodies subscribing to the “doll parts” ideal where the pubic and unsightly are to be artfully and painfully eradicated for the sake of male gaze.

One member talked about her high school Home Ec teacher, who in the middle of teaching the baby care module, instructed them to pinch a baby girl’s vulva while changing her diaper so that she’ll have a nice looking vagina for her future husband. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the same teacher also told them to dip a baby boy’s testicles in a bowl of ice water so that they wouldn’t grow big and black and scare his future wife.

Many of us are products of Catholic all-girl schools and a feature of coming into adulthood is reflecting on the ridiculous sex education (or lack thereof) we were subjected to. Organized religion is a good introduction to the patriarchy and sexism. I have a hard time imagining boys’ schools having a baby care module, let alone an entire Home Ec subject. I also don’t see them being made to attend seminars on dressing modestly or forums entitled “Will Your Daughter Be a Virgin Bride?” (I wish I were kidding about the latter. The flyer is still somewhere in a box in my parents’ house)

Often the feminist awakening happens in the form of recognizing nuisances women have to deal with that men don’t. Only it’s not really a nuisance when it involves your body, your relationships, and your self-worth. It’s the reason why these issues can hit to the core of any woman.

This explains why even in the age of oversharing, women still need their villages. The “village” is the old timey concept of a group of women coming together as a support group in moments of vulnerability. You see in how women used to give birth, how the women in her community rally together to help manage the pain and to usher in a new baby. You also see it in how women gravitating together to vent or to gossip.

It’s interesting that most of us in the internal Urbana group met through one of the earlier internet communities: Livejournal. The friendships we forged in Livejournal have outlasted some of our offline ones and we don’t even hang out much “IRL.” We felt safe to talk about awful ex-boyfriends, breaking up with friends, and meltdowns at the workplace. The journal entries were locked in several levels of filters (where you can control who can see it) and created this protected space.

Going back to Taylor Swift, the idea of intersectionality is more important than ever because feminist issues are so much more than just women. Taylor Swift got a lot of flack for reacting to Nicki Minaj’s tweet of the MTV Video Music Awards ignoring her “Anaconda” video (who made allusions to other nominees). Nicki was citing race and sexism, Taylor took it as a personal attack and cited it as a violation of the rules of feminism and sisterhood. The latter couldn’t be any more wrong and showcased the faults of solely using your personal context to inform your worldview.

We can easily make the same mistake and there’s no escaping the fact that most of the Urbana founders are cisgendered, straight, educated, and upper middle class. The challenge now is to see if the conversations in the internal group can be replicated in a more public arena. In a way, it’s a social experiment to see if there can exist a space that can preserve the village model and still accommodate others who are coming from contrasting circumstances, especially the marginalized ones.

But maybe this is why the Internet proves to be such a promising venue. It seems like the language of cat memes, clickbait, and pop diva drama may be the forces that will level everything down.