For the 16 Days of Activism campaign, CAFOD’s Clodagh Byrne interviewed ECOWEB, our partner in the Philippines, about the effects sexual and gender-based violence have on the whole community.
A maranao woman gathering food from a disputed land during a guarded relocation survey in Lumbac, Mindanao.
CB: Can you explain the types of violence you come across in the communities you work with? How does this impact on women and girls?
Between 2008 and 2011, 63 cases of abuse against women were documented by a local women’s organisation, Paglingkawas, in the municipality of Kauswagan. The violence takes the form of economic, sexual, physical and psychological abuse, to name a few. One woman was so brutally abused by her husband that she died.
Many cases have been referred to the authorities. But sometimes no legal case is filed because of fear of the abuser. In the municipality of Kolambugan, our field staff documented several incidents of physical abuse. They included abuse by husband to wife, brother to younger sister, and men to other women in the community. The men are usually drunk when they commit these acts. A recent case in which an older brother was abusing his younger sister resulted in him being imprisoned, but in another incident, where a man seriously wounded a woman with a chopping knife, no legal case was filed because of fear.
Among the Maranaos, an Islamic tribe on the island of Mindanao, the effect of violence on women and children is more indirect, but just as real. Women are being widowed because their husbands are killed in clan feuds and armed conflict. They have to take on the responsibility of single-handedly supporting the children left behind.
CB: Do you see any link between militarism and violence against women in the communities you work with? Have you any experience in your communities of how militarism has increased violence against women?
Where they are stationed in a community, we do find cases of military men (who are mostly married) establishing relationships with the local women. It’s possible that many of these relationships are consensual, but some community members feel they are exploitative because of the power the military have.
Women in conflict-affected areas are often vulnerable to these men in uniform. A number of women who have had personal relationships with soldiers assigned in their areas have complained that they have been abused by them – psychologically, verbally, economically and physically. Some women become pregnant, only to find their children are then neglected by the fathers. Some cases have led to women being abandoned or forced to terminate pregnancies, and children who are born from these relationships are often abandoned.
But it’s a difficult situation, because in the Maranao community, the presence of military is also seen as a deterrent against people taking up arms against the community, especially where there are clan feuds.
CB: Are small arms common in your communities? If so, why, and what’s the impact of this?
ECOWEB: Yes, especially in communities affected or threatened by armed conflict. Because when people, especially men, feel insecure, they tend to keep unlicensed small arms. And there are cases where these small arms have been used to perpetrate domestic violence. This is made worse by alcoholism in some communities, and is more likely in conflict areas where men are joining the paramilitary groups.
The proliferation of small arms has led to an increase in banditry. Women and children tend to get caught in the crossfire and can be harmed if they get in the way of bandits. In one of the communities we work with, women and children were held hostage by a bandit group rustling cattle. A recent incident in Tacub, Kauswagan also resulted in a young boy, who had access to a firearm, killing a bandit he witnessed killing his father.
CB: Have you seen any political violence or intimidation of women, before, during or post elections?
Prior to and during elections, it is a common practice of politicians to intimidate or bribe people, especially those they’re not sure will vote for them. People in the community often vote because of fear and money.
There are also a number of men in power who are abusive. This we see in some of our partner communities. Because they have guns, they can intimidate and even do physical harm to their wives and other women in the community. Rampant alcoholism has made the situation worse.
CB: Are there any solutions to this violence?
There are means to address the violence. We make sure gender and peace-building concerns are an integral part of all ECOWEB programs. Gender-based violence is one of the issues discussed in our community-building activities, especially among women.
ECOWEB works with local communities to promote peace and give women a voice.
ECOWEB also supports initiatives of other organisations addressing these issues at local and national level. For example, we partner the Paglingkawas women’s organisation, who introduced a self-help initiative, encouraging women to help other women in their communities who have experienced violence and abuse. They’re focusing on empowering women, which includes helping them to find work.
In the wider Philippine context, there are already laws in place that protect women and children’s rights. With more education, more women can be made aware of their rights. But because of a lack of access to community-based assistance, and more importantly because of fear and dependency on men to support their children, women still suffer abuse. We need more support facilities for abused women and children.
International pressure will surely have a great impact in tackling violence against women, children and men as well. A stronger international lobby would hold the government to its responsibility to follow international agreements. But without international support, local and community initiatives become difficult to sustain. And in our experience, these initiatives are hugely important.