In the name of counterinsurgency, women continue to be raped, harassed and killed by Philippine armed forces
"That night, the military brought me to a dark room. They undressed me and forced me to dance naked while they leered... At midnight, I suddenly awoke when somebody kissed me on the cheek and held my hands. When I opened my eyes, I saw a uniformed man. I saw his namecloth, his surname was Capuyan. I tried to get away from him but he punched me in the stomach and legs and took hold of my hands. I lost consciousness..."
It was March, 1985 and the nightmare was just beginning for Erlene Dangoy, aged 15 at the time she wrote this open letter to expose the abuses she experienced at the hands of Philippine government forces. Erlene, together with two male youths, was arrested by the military and accused of murdering Erlinda Batulan in an act of rebellion. Neighbors believed Batulan was killed by the New People's Army (NPA) for being a military informer. For lack of sufficient evidence, the two young men were released. Erlene was detained although no charges were filed against her. It was "for her own protection," explained the officer to a priest who wrote a letter asking for her release.
On the advice of fellow inmate, Erlene wrote letters from her prison cell to women lawyers and the Task Force on Detainees of the Philippine. She maintained her innocence and denied being a member of the NPA. A lawyer visited her and urged her to file charges against the soldier who repeatedly raped her. The commanding officer responded to her allegations by asking her to withdraw the charges "because the rapist was willing to marry me," she wrote.
Eight years and two presidents have passed since then. It is not known what became of Erlene after she was released through the lobbying of TFD, GABRIELA (Philippine women's organization) and other cause-oriented groups, or of the rape charges filed against the soldier identified only as Capuyan. Her case, it seemed, was buried in the excitement of the government transition that followed the "People's Power Revolution" in February, 1986. Today, the conditions that allow such kinds of violence against women to thrive still exist. In the name of counterinsurgency, women continue to be raped, tortured, harassed, and killed.
In 1986, the rise to power of Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, widow of Ferdinand Marcos's most charismatic political rival Benigno, was greeted with both jubilation and ambivalence by Filipino women everywhere. She was a woman in power in a country where patriarchy reigns. She was also a woman from a land-owning family backed by a spoiled and politicized military, and a cohort of mostly male elite and business-oriented politicians. Not too far behind, Uncle Sam cast his mammoth white shadow on her like an overprotective father.
The former dictator left Aquino with, among other things, a $28 billion foreign debt, a corrupt political structure, a factious military force that had grown in size, power and political will under President Marcos, and a 24 year-old armed insurgency that was born out of the people's discontent and frustration over past governments' oppressive policies.
To show her government's adherence to democratic ideals, Aquino immediately released political detainees, restored the writ of habeas corpus and created a Committee on Human Rights to investigate reported abuses by the military.
In December, 1986, the Aquino government sat down with members of the National Democratic Front (NDF) to discuss the possibility of ending the protracted civil war. The NDF is a broad coalition of organizations working for social reforms through unarmed and armed means. The NDF includes sectoral organizations, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and its armed wing, the New People's Army, which claims a force of 23,000 regulars.
The peace talks failed following accusations from both sides of three ceasefire violations. In its wake, 18 unarmed peasant demonstrators were killed when the military opened fire during a peaceful rally at Mendiola Bridge near Malacanang Palace on January 26, 1987. On February 11, 1987, Aquino unsheathed the government's "sword of war" and vowed on March 22 to crush the insurgency by 1992. The legality of "warrantless arrest" was upheld by the Supreme Court in October, 1991, causing mass arrest and detention of men and women suspected of being Communist. Military operations in areas believed "rebel-infested" were intensified.
On Feb. 3, 1991, five years after a woman president was swept into power, a young indigenous woman named Delia Mangay-ayam was raped by four armed men in military fatigues in the Cordillera. Three days later, after she filed charges against one of the men whom she had recognized, they came back, raped her again and pumped 15 bullets into her body.
A recent investigation conducted by the Department of Justice confirmed reports that barrio women in Marag Valley, a currently militarized area in the North, have been forced to become mistresses to the soldiers who have camped there.
The lush valley was described as the last frontier of the North, until illegal and legal loggers arrived in the early '80s with their "guns, goons and gold" to exploit the forest. The indigenous people residing in the area stood their ground, some of the men joined the NPA to fight arms with arms, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines stepped in to render the area "uninhabitable" by dropping powerful bombs. The women who were left to care for the children became vulnerable targets of military violence, both sexual and otherwise. They became "part of the loot." GABRIELA reported that as of last year, 52 women are languishing in jails for "political offenses." It also found that, continuing the legacy of the former dictatorial regime, "sexual torture comes-a standard operating procedure during (military) interrogations" (Philippine Human Rights Update, April, 1991). Cherry Mendoza, a young woman charged with subversion in Balanga, Bataan, was arrested without warrant and detained from December, 1990 to March, 1991-a relatively short period, one might observe, but one that was not lacking in brutality and total disregard for human rights.
Cherry related that while being questioned and forced to admit her membership in the NPA, "her fingers were stapled, her head and chest hit with a gun and her private parts freely handled by her captors" (PHR Update, April, 1991).
They fed her tainted food that left her unconscious for hours and when she awoke she found new bruises on her body. "Sir made a score on her," she recalled her jailers cruelly joking, insinuating that their officer had raped her.
And the list, according to documentations from the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, is getting longer.
The two women's crisis centers in the Philippines, while providing assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, also have their hands full with women victims of military rape and torture. Raquel Tiglao, the Centre's executive director who visited Toronto recently, related that most of the women were internal refugees driven from their homes in the countryside by intense militarization.
Militarization also accounts for violence against women in more indirect ways. Poverty, the most prevailing violence in debt -strapped countries, is not a high priority to a government intent on quelling protest against its perverted economic policies. In planning for the national budget, defence comes second only to education while effective health and social services are relegated to the bottom of the list. Women suffer most when there are cutbacks in health care as they are forced by harsh economic conditions to work twice as much, in the home and outside, to look after their family's needs before their own and are thus more vulnerable to disease and infection.
Although the Philippines is a signatory to relevant United Nation Conventions, among them the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which called for the recognition of women's rights, women's groups have yet to see real commitment from the government in terms of implementation. They are one in denouncing the government's "Total War" approach to insurgency and urge that the contending parties embark on peaceful negotiations that will include women's justice issues in the agenda. Soldiers who raped and sexually assaulted women in the name of war must be held accountable for their actions, they insist.
Lani Montreal is a freelance jounalist from the Philippines, where she used to write for the Sunday Inquirer magazine.