Creating women-friendly spaces

Ana P. Santos

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To file a case of gender-based violence, complainants had to narrate their stories over and over. But growing sensitivity to victims is gradually changing all this.

FRIENDLY SPACES. The approach to dealing with victims of violence is slowly changing. Photo by Ana Santos

MANILA, Philippines – The floor is covered with soft pastel colored mats with chunky alphabet letters and littered with stuffed toys.

The otherwise cheerful look is marred by the austere chair and desk in one corner. It looks awkward and misplaced until you learn that this is for the social worker who takes down notes because this is, in fact, more of an interview room than a playroom.

This is the Quezon City Protection Center for Victim Survivors of Gender-Based Violence and Abuse (QCPC).

Its goal is to be “a one-stop shop” for women and their children who suffer from various forms of abuse. The QCPC, which opened in December 2011, provides legal services, medical assistance, medico-legal examinations, counseling and psychiatric evaluation, and referral to a temporary shelter program. 

Here, the playroom is the first stop. This is where the social worker will first see a complainant and conduct an interview.

“My job is to talk to the complainant, get her story and provide counseling,” said Nida Angayon, a social worker. “Often, especially when the complainant is a minor or a woman with a child, the interview room acts as a private place where she can feel safe to talk.”

Angayon takes down basic information such as family background and set-up to see if other family members are being abused. “Sometimes it isn’t only the mother,” said Angayon.

Only the social worker and the doctor (to check on injuries) are present in the interview room, and only when the complainant is ready will a police officer come in.

“My job as the police officer is to get the details of how it happened and the other details related to the crime; this is to facilitate the filing of a police report,” said Marlen Eclipse, a police officer and investigator with the Quezon City Police Department Women and Children’s Protection Desk.

Its location in the Quezon City General Hospital also serves another purpose. If the case is one of rape or sexual abuse, the complainant can also get a medico-legal examination in the same place.

The trauma of re-telling her story

Often, to file a case of gender-based violence, a complainant will first have to go to the barangay hall. She will have to narrate her story to the barangay officials and then be referred to the police. Here, she will have to state her case – again.

And while most barangays and police stations now have a Women’s Desk or Violence Against Women (VAW) Desk that caters to the sensitivities of these issues, the system requires the woman to re-tell her story to the different concerned groups.

Pasa-pasa. The victim gets passed around and they have to recount their story over and over again, which adds to the trauma,” says lawyer Claire Padilla, whose role as one of the staffers of the QCPC is to provide legal advice on gathering of evidence and case-processing.

“After the police station, the victim would then have to go to Camp Crame or PGH (Philippine General Hospital) to get a medico-legal examination.”

The medical forensic examination required for a case of rape or sexual assault necessitates the use of a colposcope. “The colposcope englarges the view of the vagina to check for the presence of sperms and lacerations,” explained Padilla.

Not all hospitals have a colposcope and not all doctors are trained to perform the medical procedure in the collection of evidence.

Case conferences

The QCPC one-stop shop has a small office in the QC General Hospital and is comprised of all female staff. Currently, it is open 8 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.

The social worker is designated as the lead focal who keeps track of the case and the team conducts what they call “case conferences” to check on the status of a complaint; if it is moving – or not at all.

“A lot of women end up not pursuing their case. Apart from the fear of retaliation, the current process is tedious and cumbersome. We hope that we avoid duplications and somehow alleviate the suffering of the victim,” said Padilla.

Gender-based violence

According to the National Demographic Health Survey of 2008, one in 5 women aged 15-24 have experienced physical violence since age 15, and almost one in 10 women aged 15-49 have experienced sexual violence.

Most of the violence occurred among women who are married, with perpetrators being husbands or live-in partners.

Statistics have shown an increasing number of cases of violence against women (VAW).

In 2011 there were 12,948 reported VAW cases, up from 4,954 in 2006.

It is uncertain if the spike in cases is driven by an increased awareness of women’s rights under the law, RA 9262 Violence Against Women and Children, as the numbers reflect reported cases.

Men against violence vs women

There have also been efforts by men.

MOVE or Men Against Violence Against Women Everywhere is an organization of men from various sectors who see themselves as part of the solution to eradicate violence against women.

MOVE was formed in partnership with the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) to engage men in knowledge of the law.

Read about MOVE initiatives here and here

Many women’s rights activists have said that to eradicate VAW, it will take a major overhaul of the societal framework that tolerates violence and allows impunity.

The have been many advancements like the QCPC, the initiative to establish VAW and Gender Desks in each barangay. Even the Philippine National Police has come up with “Aleng Pulis,” the female component of the force working on cases concerning women and their children. (Some precincts reportedly have a pink room for VAW cases).

Slowly but surely, we are working together to establish not just an interview room or one stop shop, but a society that can be called a woman-friendly space. –

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Ana P. Santos

Ana P. Santos is an investigative journalist who specializes in reporting on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and migrant worker rights.