Patti Gallardo has a theory. “Women are like seashells. Even if a seashell is battered by the sea, from a distance it still looks pristine and calm. Till you go closer and hold it to your ear and then you can hear the ocean whisper. Similarly, on the outside an abused woman can look very silent and beautiful but deep inside her she hides unspeakable torment that wants an outlet. Such a woman can be too scared to speak up for herself and may need someone to hear her silent suffering. And when she does speak, she needs to be heard – from the heart,” she says.
Gallardo has lived by the sea and so naturally draws on this unusual but powerful symbolism. She also understands the traumas and trials of a battered woman for she herself is a survivor of domestic violence. It took her 21 years to break her silence. She says she was emboldened to do so by the passage of the Anti Violence against Women and Children (Anti-VAWC) Act, 2004, in the Philippines, which grants the government the right to intervene in cases of household violence or abuse against women and children.
Formally known as Republic Act (RA) No. 9262, it recognises the need to protect the family and its members particularly women and children, from violence and threats to their personal safety and security. Issues like physical, sexual and psychological violence, economic abuse, battery and stalking are addressed under this law and an Inter-agency Council on Violence Against Women and their Children ensures its effective implementation. The 12 agencies that make up the Council also have the additional responsibility of formulating programmes and projects to eliminate VAW and monitor all related initiatives in the country.
Nearly eight years have passed since the enactment of the Anti-VAWC Law and the situation is not very positive. More and more women in the Philippines are being abused and subjected to acts of violence, with one-in-five women aged 15 to 49 found to have experienced physical violence, while one-in-ten have experienced sexual violence, according to the National Statistics Office’s National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS). One of the biggest reasons for this, according Lila Ramos Shahani, Assistant Secretary of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, is that “the implementation gap in this country continues to remain particularly glaring”.
Gallardo knows of numerous violated women hiding in the shadow of silence, afraid that they might hurt more if they spoke out. This is a predicament for those coming from provinces where women are expected to remain under their partners’ control and defiance is not tolerated.
It is to reach out to such women that this brave survivor set up Stop the Abuse and ViolencE against Our Women, or SAVE Our Women, in 2007, making the seashell the logo of her non-government organisation.
For female victims of Domestic and Intimate relationship violence (DIV), SAVE is not only a platform where they can freely share their difficult experiences, but its committed activists – there are over 30 now – also inform them of their rights and teach them to read the signs of abuse and discrimination. “Women are usually ignorant of their rights and we are trying to change that. Moreover, they also have to be taught to figure out situations where their rights can be violated. For instance, if they begin to hear some degrading remarks in police station when they go there for assistance, or if prosecutors discourage them from filing their cases, we give them the encouragement to go on, because they, too, have legitimate rights,” Gallardo elaborates
Moreover, SAVE guides women to find their inner peace and move on in life. “It need not be necessary that one would feel better only on getting justice in court,” says Gallardo, “I personally did not find any happiness in that.” It is SAVE’s work that helps her to reconcile with her own turmoil. “I don’t want other women to suffer what I suffered,” she adds.
Apart from post-violence counselling, SAVE is working hard at changing social attitudes as well. Violence against women is an overt manifestation of gender inequality and the prevalence of a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture. To prove her point, Gallardo recalls the case of Maria (name changed), a 23-year-old mother, who wanted to go back to her parental home in a bid to protect herself and her child from her husband, who had threatened to kill her. However, Maria found that her own parents were forcing her to remain with her husband for fear of their family’s reputation being ruined.
For the sake the hundreds like Maria, SAVE is trying to encourage people to shed their indifferent attitude and actively disapprove any form of violence against women by organsing various awareness activities. But their hopes are now pinned on being able to get through to a few good men and get them to articulate this issue and influence people.
Says SAVE President Karina de la Pena, “Machismo is so deeply ingrained in our society that the process to check this will take too long if the message only comes from the women. So we reversed the approach.”
Adds Gallardo, “I know that there are many men who abhor the thought of men hurting women but there are not many who intervene if they see another man beating his partner. By engaging with men, I think we will be able to persuade them to speak out against violence against wives, girlfriends and even children.”
To this end, SAVE has already organised three editions of a Men’s Summit on Domestic and Intimate Violence, as part of their White Ribbon campaign activities. But initially it wasn’t easy to motivate then to join in. Recalls Gallardo, “While going around inviting men to participate in the first summit, we encountered many who, jokingly or seriously, claimed that they were not abusers, so why should they be part of such an event. Clearly they were missing the point of coming together, which was to openly show real concern for women.”
But the transformation is happening slowly. Of the 35 passionate and influential members of SAVE, 10 are men. Trustee Jim Ward, who chairs the Committee on Men’s Activities and is a father of two daughters, says, “This issue is a big part of my life now. I believe that like a bird cannot fly with just one wing, a relationship between man and woman cannot be one-sided. It has to be cooperative, not with one partner as the subordinate.”
The number of violence cases may still be very high, but Gallardo believes that awareness is slowly increasing. What is needed is intensified advocacy and supportive programmes, from both the government and the civil society, to firmly establish VAW as a grievous crime in society and help affected women get back on their feet.