IBP volunteer-lawyers help fight abuse of women, children

Buena Bernal
IBP volunteer-lawyers help fight abuse of women, children
Over 85 lawyers are set to undergo training in the handling of cases of violence against women and children. They will provide free legal assistance to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
MANILA, Philippines – “Give me a moment,” the woman told me, as she walked to a nearby desk to answer a long-distance call. The caller on the other line was an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Japan seeking legal assistance from her office.
Lawyer Minerva “June” Ambrosio, head of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) National Center for Legal Aid (NCLA), is a woman constantly on the move. Her office provides free counsel and advice to the poor.
A longtime proponent of women’s and children’s rights, Ambrosio is also the president of advocacy group Child Justice League Inc.
For over a decade before late 2013, Ambrosio served as one of the go-to lawyers of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for cases of abused children and women.
On Thursday, May 29, around 85 lawyers will be equipped to join Ambrosio in assisting the department. The first batch of volunteer-lawyers from the IBP-NCLA will attend a two-day conference tackling Philippine laws on violence, abuse, neglect, discrimination and trafficking of women and children.
The DSWD and the IBP sign a pact for the former to tap the latter in cases of violence against women and children

The training is part of a November 2013 deal between DSWD and IBP, allowing the former to tap the latter for legal aid on these cases. The agreement also covers assistance to children in conflict with the law and prospective adoptive parents and foster children.

Domestic violence is a public crime

Ambrosio’s service with the DSWD – which started in 1992 when her law school organization, the University of the Philippines Women Lawyers’ Circle, assigned her as a legal aid officer in child abuse cases with the department – has surely grown.

Two more batches of lawyers from the IBP-NCLA are set to be trained in August and November to help prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence, among others.

As she sat back comfortably in her chair after providing advice over the phone to the OFW in Japan, Ambrosio continued her tirade – cut short by the call – against domestic violence.

“…it’s a public crime. You have every right to step in. If you’re just a neighbor, but you saw the act of abuse, you can come in and report to the DSWD. You have immunity. You won’t be charged,” she said.

“Before, when it comes to domestic violence, people relegate it to mere marital dispute. Now, that’s no longer the case,” she added.

Violence is a cycle 

Lawyer Mary Antoniette Calimag, an agent from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Division (VAWCD), said violence directed towards women-spouses is often cyclical.

A husband who has abused his wife for the first time often adapts to a pattern of violence in the home, which is why even first-time offenders must be prosecuted.  

Women may be stuck in abusive relationships if their partners are left unpunished, she said.

The NBI is the country’s premiere investigative agency, tasked with the case build-up needed to recommend for preliminary investigation and eventual prosecution suspected criminals in mostly high-profile cases. 

Investigating agents in the NBI VAWCD, like Calimag, handle cases of violence against women and children. (READ: NBI female agents: Women helping women)

Child abuse

Like cases of domestic violence, child abuse cases also require a level of emotional input on the part of assisting lawyers. Continuity of care, which includes making sure the victims are coping with trauma even after perpetrators have been charged, is often expected. 

Ambrosio said recent statistics on child abuse cases show an upward trend, but the alarming numbers also prove that more and more are reporting the abuses.

“I prefer to see it as not the rise in the incidence but the rise in the reporting and in the prosecution,” she said, adding that people have become “more courageous in coming forth.”

Reversal of guilt

A number of domestic violence victims withdraw their allegations against their partner, after filing an initial complaint. NBI agent Calimag said it is always the choice of the woman in the end that must be respected.

One of agent Calimag’s most memorable cases involved an allegedly abused pregnant woman, who came to the NBI office while having contractions. Visibly suffering from pain, the woman was told to go home in the meantime.

Unknown to the NBI, the woman was also the subject of a criminal complaint for qualified theft filed by his abusive live-in partner. The woman suddenly found herself the one faced with a case, as her filing before the NBI was temporarily halted by her contractions.    

The case solved itself on its own, Calimag jested. The husband eventually died in a separate fight. “Divine justice,” Calimag said of the incident. 

But the case shows only one example of domestic abuse victims who find themselves burdened even more by the psychological warfare launched by their partners.

Change in mindsets

Back in her office at the IBP-NCLA, Ambrosio is once again called back by the Japanese OFW over the phone. She obliges one more time.

She comes back to sit with me for the interview, where she shares the beginnings of her advocacy pursuing justice for abused women and children.

It was after the conviction of Former Zamboanga del Norte Rep Romeo Jalosjos, she said. Jalosjos was convicted in 1997 by a Makati court for raping an 11-year-old girl, represented by Ambrosio and two other women-lawyers.

Lawyers Ambrosio, Katrina Legarda, and Lourdes Cruz formed the pro bono team of private prosecutors that secured Jalosjos’ conviction. The 3 later on formed the non-governmental organization Child Justice League Inc, which has since become the legal arm of the DSWD.

Ambrosio’s 22 years of advocacy work convinced her that changing mindsets is indeed central to fighting abuse.

“Maybe, it’s how we mold and respect children, women. In some places, women and children are still seen as objects. That’s why there’s trafficking. They are commercialized, sold. If we don’t respect their personhood, moving on to effective pro-women and -children policy implementation will be hard,” she said. – Rappler.com


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