By Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover, PhD
I am writing this in a fit of barely-controlled rage over the shameless defense of an undeniably unlawful act. I greatly lament why, in the midst of heightening COVID infections, continued lack of access to mass testing and vaccination, widespread unemployment and worsening poverty, we have to take as a poor excuse, the argument that groping another person’s private body parts—or any attempt at it—is done without malice. Since the actual incident and the justifications for such abhorrent behavior came as National Women’s Month comes to a close, the irony is not lost on everyone. Maybe irony is not even the proper term to use since the current Philippine President has never really shown any attempt to take the country’s gender laws seriously from the get-go. One would expect that since he is President, he would at least be mindful of his actions even if he personally believes that sexual harassment and sexist remarks are non-issues. But no—what we have endured the past 5 years were loads of crooked justifications for misogynistic acts that contradict even the most basic logic. What I personally find amusing is the fact that such defensive arguments (NOT apologies, mind you) were mostly made by aides and not by the actual perpetrator of the deeds himself. Talk about lack of accountability that mocks the same government policies one has sworn to uphold.
The Philippines has had the Anti-sexual Harassment Law since 1995 and it says that “all forms of sexual harassment in the employment, education or training environment are hereby declared unlawful” (Section 2, RA 7877). Moreover, Section 3 of said law explicitly states that “sexual harassment is committed by an employer, employee, manager, supervisor, agent of the employer, teacher, instructor, professor, coach, trainor, or any other person who, having authority, influence or moral ascendancy over another in a work or training or education environment, demands, requests or otherwise requires any sexual favor from the other, regardless of whether the demand, request or requirement for submission is accepted by the object of said Act.” In a work-related or employment environment, “sexual harassment is committed when, among others, [harassing] acts would result in an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the employee” (Section 3.a.1, RA 7877). It does not take a lot of thinking to know that for househelpers or kasambahays or timbangs, the employer’s private residence is their workplace or employment. So, while people have commented on the swift reflexes of the helper shown in the video as the perpetrator’s arm reached out towards her crotch area, my appreciation of the scene tells me that such instinctive reaction may very well be borne out of habit. Meaning, such interaction between them is most likely repeated on a regular basis for the timbang to have dodged the gesture quite efficiently. If such was the case, the working environment would have become hostile. So how in the world could we simply dismiss it as part of one’s jesting nature and devoid of malice? How can anyone simply rationalize that if the helper found what happened as problematic, then she should file a report? At the very least, would she risk losing her job in these volatile times? One of the basic take-aways we need to remember from this is that silence is not indicative of consent, nor does it mean that the experience is one that the victim relishes. There are a lot of compelling and intersecting factors at play when victims of sexual harassment or any other form of gender-based violence opt to keep quiet and not file a case against the perpetrator.
Sexual harassment is always subjective in favor of the victim. It’s the victim’s sentiments or feeling of being harassed that takes precedence because it’s her comfort level and sense of security or safety that got violated. So, whether the perpetrator intended on a malicious act or not, is secondary to the fact that his action was harassing to the victim. While there are indeed instances when a person would accidentally brush against the body of another, it does not erase the fact that the person who felt or experienced the unwanted touching felt harassed. So how much more if the act is intentional and committed repeatedly? The key word here is “unwanted”. The fact that the helper in the video suddenly pulled away definitely shows that she did not want that hand to reach her.
As I struggle to manage my disappointment at what transpired and the seeming lack of reaction from institutions currently absorbed in the last hurrah of activities for Women’s Month (oh, such irony), I am left with more questions than answers: Why are we, as a people, generally tolerant of the harassing actions of older men even within our families and colleagues? Does age excuse us from unlawful and inexcusable behavior? Definitely not because that is precisely why our society came up with laws. But why are our sexual harassment laws (RA 7877 and RA 11313 aka the “Anti Bastos Law”) rendered inutile in the current administration? How come, as of this writing, there is no official statement from the Philippine Commission on Women and other institutions safeguarding gender rights? Where is the public outrage, the indignation? Have we become so de-sensitized after years of toxic masculinity emanating from this President? To all gender advocate friends and colleagues in government service and its extension arms, have our feminist ideals been compromised by bureaucracy? Have we become femocrats in the pejorative sense? Just my thoughts and challenge as we end this important month for gender advocacy.
(Dr. Mary Barby P. Badayos-Jover holds a dual-title PhD in Rural Sociology and Women’s Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. She teaches and undertakes research on gender and political dynamics at the University of the Philippines Visayas, is a member of the Philippine Commission on Women’s National GAD Resource Pool, and is one of the few gender experts in the country accredited to extend technical assistance on GAD mainstreaming.)