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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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