[OPINION | Dash of SAS] How do you stay at home when home is a dangerous place?

The directive to stay at home is meant to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and infecting others, but for those for whom home is not a safe place, this leaves them trapped. For many who live with their abuser, home is the most dangerous place to be.

Places that offered a temporary escape like the office, school, and the neighborhood coffee shop are closed. As many survivors of violence know, shame and fear of retaliation make going to the authorities a last resort. But even physically going to the barangay to file a complaint or file for a protection order is difficult. In some areas, movement is limited by the issuance of one quarantine pass per family – often the head of the family who may also be the abuser. (READ: Fears of domestic violence rise as millions confined over virus)

Violence comes in many forms. Physical violence may be the most obvious but there are other forms of violence that are just as real and damaging, like financial abuse or harassment – when the perpetrator withholds money from you or constantly asks you for money – and psychological abuse. In chat groups, women report feeling helpless about partners who defy quarantine and social distancing rules to go drinking with their friends. Their partners dismiss their fears about catching coronavirus and infecting their young children. 

Several studies have shown that domestic and family violence increases during times of disaster and national emergencies. I will write more about this later, but while I still have you with me, here are places you can go to for help. 

Aleng Pulis Hotline: 0919 777 7377

The Aleng Pulis Hotline continues to receive calls 24/7. I spoke to Aleng Pulis Diane who told me that calls will always be answered and they can help by referring the client to their nearest barangay or police station for assistance – or by listening. Their services are restricted by the quarantine and the need to keep everyone safe, but Aleng Pulis Diane said, “We are here to receive calls para makining, mapagaan ang loob ng kliyente, at para matulungan siya i-refer sa kanyang barangay.” (We’re here to listen, to ease our client’s burden, and refer her to the nearest barangay.)

To be clear, our current laws give our local government units the mandate of dealing with violence against women and children (VAWC) cases. They may be inundated with efforts related to the COVID-19 response, but the barangay and the local police should always have someone who has been trained to handle VAWC and gender-based violence on call. 

On a side note, as I was working on this column, I got a call from a community health worker in Pasay. One of the residents was physically abused by her uncle. She is no longer a minor and she is not the partner of the abuser, so this will be a case of physical injury. She tried to file a complaint with the barangay captain. He said he talked to the police but he was told that they are currenlty not handling such cases. She was advised to wait until after the community quarantine was lifted. 

Unacceptable. It’s not as if you can tell an abuser to wait until the lockdown is lifted before assaulting you. 

I called Aleng Pulis Diane and she confirmed that regular police services must remain operational. I then linked her with the community worker. Aleng Pulis Diane is helping us by coordinating directly with the nearest Pasay Police Station. 

Likhaan Center for Women’s Health 

The Likhaan Center for Women’s Health continues to operate with a skeleton force of community health workers. According to executive director Dr. Junice Melgar, the Likhaan Clinics in Vitas-Tondo, San Andres, Navotas-Malabon, Apelo Cruz-Pasay, and Giporlos Eastern Samar continue to provide urgently needed reproductive health services, including care for VAWC victims.

VAWC services include psychosocial support, treatment of physical injuries, prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STI) and HIV, and unintended pregnancy. 

In the Vitas and San Andres clinics, co-managed with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) Likhaan provides Post Exposure Prophylaxis or PEP – antiretroviral medicines meant to be taken after potential exposure to HIV to prevent becoming infected. 

Likhaan clinic staff are also ready to assist in referring the complainant to other needed services. 

“We can also help with referral for barangay protection and additional medical, legal, and socio-economic support as necessary and with the women’s consent,” said Melgar. 

As the local government response has been focused on limiting movement, quarantine protocols may change from time to time. Check the Likhaan Facebook page for changes in clinic hours and services. 

Philippine General Hospital Women’s Desk 

The PGH Women’s Desk handles the medical needs of victims of gender-based violence. However, since the PGH is now a designated COVID-19 hospital, they now offer their counseling services through phone, email, and their Facebook page

“There is definitely a continued need for gender-based violence services. The pressures of getting by from day to day plus being confined to small spaces for prolonged periods of time are a perfect storm for the escalation of violence,” said Rizza Pamintuan, who manages the PGH Women’s Desk. 

“We have adapted our services to our current circumstances and are working within certain limitations, but we commit to listening. We hope this can help make women feel less alone,” said Pamintuan. 

Lunas Collective

Recognizing the need and the lack of services, other citizens have also come forward offering to help. 

Lunas Collective is a group of volunteers providing support services for survivors of gender-based violence or those who may have concerns about birth control. You can reach out to Lunas Collective through their Facebook page for support.

Rio Otara, a registered social worker with experience in handling gender-based violence cases, is ready to offer free online counseling. You can message her through Facebook here. 

Strengthening anti-VAWC responses 

On her Facebook page, women’s rights advocate and VAWC expert Sylvia Claudio reminded local and national government to look after the needs of domestic and family violence victims. 

“During pandemics, you don’t only die from COVID-19, you may also die from the authorities’ neglect to take care of the basic needs of people. More funding for anti-VAWC programs, please.”

Existing anti-VAWC laws are not complemented with mass education campaigns or services. The Philippine Commission on Women, the premiere government agency with the mandate to uphold women’s rights, has a list of VAW hotlines, but none of these phone numbers have been updated to reflect the minimum 8-digit numbers mandated by the National Telecommunications Commission. 

Their page also lists women’s shelters where women can go to for help. However, some of these institutions have been closed for many years. 

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In the Philippines, one in four women has experienced spousal abuse. 

Disasters, war, and crisis situations – including pandemics – heighten the triggers of violence. Emergencies instantly strip us of food and income security, the very things that we need to survive. They bring anxiety and uncertainty. The additional stressors of being cooped up in tight space – a small shanty or compact condominium unit – increase the risk of violence.

Many studies confirm this link. 

Specific to COVID-19, in China, domestic violence reportedly doubled when the cities were put under lockdown in late January. “According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence were related to COVID-19,” Wan Fei, founder of an anti-domestic violence non-profit in central Hubei, said in an interview with China-based magazine Sixth Tone.

Anti-VAWC provisons have been incorporated into our disaster response frameworks.

“We have learned much from our many natural disasters. There's a spike of gender-based violence cases during humantarian crises. That is why it is important that the gender-based violence response incorporated in our government frameworks for calamity response be actively implemented in the time of COVID-19 and all other future crises,” said  women’s rights advocate and lawyer Claire Padilla

Padilla was part of a team that trained government offices nationwide on how to incorporate gender-based violence responses into their workflow and how to handle such cases with sensitivity. 

As government and citizen efforts are focused on the COVID response, adaptive interventions to assist those in abusive relationships like those listed have emerged. But some of these are temporary and will only be in place during the quarantine period. The government must step in and consider long-term interventions to address domestic violence in the different scenarios under a pandemic emergency. (Read COVID-18: A Gender Lens by the United Nations Population Fund to see how pandemics affect women.)

 

Do you know of other VAW prevention initiatives or domestic violence hotlines in your locality? Tell us about them. – Rappler.com

Ana P. Santos writes about sexual health rights, sexuality and gender for Rappler. She is the 2014 Miel Fellow under the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a 2018 Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity in Southeast Asia.Follow her on Twitter at @iamAnaSantos and on Facebook at @SexandSensibilities.com