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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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