To the honourable chair and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to appear before you this afternoon.
Madam chair, it is with some reluctance but also great urgency that I have come from the other side of the globe to speak of the human rights situation in the Philippines. I speak in particular about the disturbing climate of unreserved and blatant targeting and victimization of women that today prevails under the Duterte regime.
I say “reluctance” because, to be frank, human rights has not really been the focus of my work. My major efforts, especially in the last decade or so, have focused on the field of conflict resolution and peace-building. While I have dealt with the issues of women's economic rights, political empowerment, child care support and violence against women, the attacks faced by Filipina women today are different. They are vulgar, carried out publicly, without restraint and outside of any personal relationship with the targets.
The vilification of women human rights advocates appears to be without any moral or social mooring or justification. Most tellingly, it is done without any provocation other than what is well known and documented: That women have been among the first, most vocal and most consistent in speaking up against the abuses of the regime.
In short, this period is unique in our history. We had thought then that Marcos' statement directed against Cory Aquino, that women belong in the bedroom, was already the height of misogyny. The intervening years and the many gains the women's movement has attained, including broader political and social participation in government and in the private sector and the passage of a wide range of laws, including the Magna Carta of women, have contributed to our confidence, even complacence, that attacks against women of the sort, gravity, frequency, flagrancy and willfulness now being perpetrated by Duterte and his minions were a thing of the past in Philippine society. They were never acceptable, and we believed they never would be.
Yet here we are, just two and a half years into his presidency and Duterte has already succeeded in victimizing every single woman who has heard him order soldiers to shoot women rebels in the vagina to make them worthless, reminisce about sexually violating their family helper while she slept, opine that rape and sexual assault are only to be expected if a woman is attractive, and trivialize the trauma of sexual violence when he called his own daughter a drama queen for speaking up about being raped.
Early in his presidential campaign he joked that the “mayor should have been first” in raping a murdered Australian nun. He has called women who oppose him “sluts” and “immoral women” to undermine the truth that they dare speak to his power.
Thus I also come before you today with a sense of urgency. Perhaps the most dangerous thing we can do is to think that first, this behaviour by the president only affects women, and second, that Duterte is simply unhinged when he makes these statements or condones behaviour and mindsets detrimental to women. There is, in fact, method to his madness.
Duterte has weaponized the degradation of women to delegitimize their calls for the government to discharge its constitutional duty and international obligation to respect and promote human rights and to defend Philippine sovereignty and democracy.
His are calculated attacks that aim to silence dissent by making an example of the women he has publicly vilified, slut-shamed and punished in order to promote a culture of impunity. This has resulted in the narrowing of political, social and economic discourse in the country.
Along with the systematic erosion of the independence of institutions that are meant to serve as checks on the abuse and concentration of powers, he has delivered one message: If you don't want to be attacked, don't speak out against Duterte. Better yet, toe the line and support Duterte's narrative that there are no extrajudicial killings, everything is going well in Mindanao and Philippine sovereignty is robust and kicking. Everything he says to the contrary is just a joke, and every fact that points in a different direction is fake news.
He is turning the Filipina into his image of what a woman should be—easily cowed, easily silenced, unquestioning and complicit. He may attempt to cast his attacks as gender-specific but the damage he wreaks transcends gender lines.
We can see it in whom he personally targets: strong and independent women, women like Senator Leila De Lima who, as then chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, initiated an inquiry into the spate of extrajudicial killings apparently connected with his declared war on drugs. One day, Senator De Lima was a well-respected public servant serving her first term of office as an elected official, a lawyer by training, a defender of human rights and the rule of law by choice. The next day, all of a sudden she is the so-called “mother of all drug lords”, who today, marks her 770th day in detention, based on trumped-up illegal drug trading charges that have no evidence to back them up, save for the self-serving and perjured testimonies of actual, self-confessed drug lords.
Women like Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was unconstitutionally ousted from her post after she had dared call out the fakeness of Duterte's drug list, which included judges long dead or retired.
Women like Senator Risa Hontiveros, who has been charged with everything from kidnapping to wire-tapping, especially after she took steps to secure eyewitnesses to the killing of 17-year-old EJK victim, Kian Delos Santos, which to this date remains the only case, out of thousands of deaths, that has resulted in a conviction.
Women like UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who was tagged by the government as a member of a terrorist group, thus endangering her and undermining her work.
Women like Maria Ressa, who now faces 11 live cases in court and was arrested and released on bail for the seventh time last Friday after she, as CEO of the online Rappler, came under attack by the Duterte administration for publishing incisive news and commentaries on national issues, including reportage of the so-called war on drugs.
These have sent a very clear, chilling message. If this can be done to powerful and prominent women who already have a platform, resources and political and legal acumen, not just to defend others but also themselves, then can it be done to others with greater ease?
And it is being done to others, to the even more vulnerable women and children. I will now speak about the two most pressing human rights crises we now face in the Philippines: the extrajudicial killings connected to the so-called war on drugs, and the continuing crisis in Marawi city in Mindanao.
Countless women and children have been widowed and orphaned by the bloody war on drugs. The actual death toll is disputed, but the Supreme Court has established that 20,232 had already been killed by 2017; by now, the number could easily reach between 25,000 and 30,000.
While most of those killed are men, a closer examination of the facts will reveal the severe impact on the women: wives, mothers, sisters, daughters of the murdered men who are now left to pick up the pieces of their families' broken lives. Finding a livelihood, keeping children in school, addressing health issues, which now include recovery and healing from trauma, these are their immediate concerns—assuming they have managed to give their dead a decent burial.
Furthermore, a study conducted by my women's organization, PILIPINA, underscores the violation of women's rights and dignity in the way the anti-drug operations are carried out, including violent intrusion into the homes of the poor, which are supposed to be women's safe and sacred space, no matter how lowly; the denial of their rights to care for their dead or wounded; theft of their few belongings; threats of their being taken to substitute for their targeted male relatives when they are not found on the premises; and vulnerability to sexual harassment, prostitution and human trafficking. The women who have been left behind have become, in the words of the study, “a new underclass among the urban poor; often ostracized and isolated by their neighbours, terrorized by barangay officials and the murderers of their family members, vulnerable to sexual exploitation.”
To date, two petitions have been filed for the issuance of a writ of amparo, a temporary protection order prohibiting police authorities from getting near the residences and workplaces of the families of EJK victims. The second one, filed in October 2017, was on behalf of the families of 35 residents of San Andres Bukid, a poor urban community in Manila, who were killed within a 13-month period. The San Andres Bukid petitioners were led by Sister Maria Juanita Daño of the Religious of the Good Shepherd, who has been living among the poor of San Andres for many years. Sister Juanita or Sister Nenet has formed an all-women group that meets weekly to reflect on the challenge of the Gospel in their lives. Men were initially invited to join the group, but they didn't stay because they were not comfortable with the sharing process.
When the killings started, the residents thought that first death was meant only to serve as a warning to the drug users and pushers in the neighbourhood, but the killings did not stop, and the rising number of fatalities included those not involved in drugs, including several youth.
Members of Sister Nenet's core group were the first to act. In Sister Nenet's words, they were mothers. It was not okay with them that their neighbours were getting killed. They started with candle-lighting and holding prayer services for the dead—subtle actions, as Sister Nenet points out. They became even more disturbed when they heard people say that those who were killed were worthless and deserved to die. With no action forthcoming from their parish priest, Sister Nenet went to the bishop, who called for a meeting with NGO lawyers.
The most eager among the lawyers was a young woman, attorney Tin Antonio of Centerlaw. While gathering data and testimonies for the case, Attorney Antonio joined the women in cooking, washing clothes and singing with the choir at funerals.
Many of the petitioners were hesitant to join the legal action at first. They received threats from the police. The village officials got angry with them. Even their families asked if filing the case would bring the dead back to life, but they persisted. Sister told the petitioners that “even if we lose, at least you can say you fought for your loved ones”. The media report the deaths, but they have no names—only numbers. By identifying and naming them, you give them back their dignity.
Two days ago, the Supreme Court ordered the government to release all documents related to Duterte's war against drugs. The police assigned to the neighbourhood have been changed. Killings have waned, but they still happen under a different form—no longer by the police but by riding in tandem teams. Every BEC member, every core group member, now has a tarpaulin on the front door. On the tarp are written the 10 basic rights of citizens. Everyone is encouraged to memorize the list so they know what to do in case they are picked up or threatened. Sister Nenet herself narrowly escaped being identified, because she was not wearing a veil when the village ombudsman came looking for a nun.
I now will raise the second pressing human rights issue, related to the displacement caused by the five-month Marawi siege. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 77,170 families were displaced by the armed operation that began in May 2017. The city centre was completely demolished, ancestral homes looted, properties destroyed and hundreds of lives lost, including those of 45 civilians. Families were—and remain—sundered. Now, almost two years after Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi, residents have not been allowed to return to the most affected area in the centre of the city. Adding to their heartbreak, they continue to be excluded from any participation in the planning of the rehabilitation of their city.
That war and displacement place a higher burden on women than on men is well documented worldwide, but even the start of the siege was ominous. When Duterte declared martial law covering the whole of Mindanao as a response to the siege, he sought to motivate the soldiers to fight by telling them that if they were to rape up to three women, it would be on him. Today, Marawi women find themselves dealing with a new reality of scarcity, marginalization and physical and psychological insecurity, including unverified reports of sexual abuse.
The tragedy is that the human rights defenders of Marawi are themselves displaced and are among those who have lost everything. Civil society's woman leader, Samira Gutoc, was the lone Moro voice who persisted in speaking out against the declaration of martial law when the issue was debated on the floor of Congress. Her mother and three-year-old son were caught in their home at the city centre when the battle broke out. Her ancestral home and all in it were lost. Like most of her people, she identifies herself as an IDP.
Marawi civil society leaders today are organizing and strategizing to get their voices heard by government even as they are still dealing with the loss of their dead and the missing; inhuman conditions in evacuation sites; the tearing up of the tightly woven social fabric of their lives; the threatened extinction of their culture and their identity; and, the complete lack of reliable information on what will happen next. They are standing up on their own because, if not, who else will, since the government seems intent on sweeping the rubble of Marawi under the rug, as if an entire bustling city and its needs and its people have turned invisible overnight.
Now, the greatest danger—and I'll end here—in all of these cases, from the vilification of powerful and empowering women, to the victimization of other women human rights defenders, especially those in the context of drug-related EJKs and the Marawi siege, is that no one seems to be listening while the government is exerting efforts to obscure reality.
May I just end with an appeal to the international community. For survivors of EJK victims, primarily women, we have tried to work, but these remain small and, to be candid, largely disjointed efforts. There is a feeling that to do too much is to catch attention, and to catch attention at this time may be counterproductive and even dangerous, which is why many people are resorting to more subtle forms of protest, if you may call them that, such as simply refusing to laugh at his jokes during his speeches.
This is why we consider this as more than just a domestic concern. This calls for international solidarity. This, in fact, is the most appropriate time to mobilize the global community, for it is when local advocates are themselves being attacked and endangered that the international community of women human rights defenders is most needed to step up. Let our people know that someone is watching. Help us to grow the hope and courage of your vigilance and solidarity so that we may break the climate of fear and impunity.
Thus, we call on the international community not to depend on what the Philippine government says. Demand answers to your questions in the strongest possible terms. Leave the Duterte administration no doubt that a time for reckoning will come for those who refuse to respect human rights, especially those who prey on their own people for the sake of power.
Thank you, Madam Chair, and all members of the subcommittee, and good afternoon.