By: Elizabeth Angsioco
Published in Manila Standard Today
Dated October 30, 2010
This piece is a tribute to Karen Vertido and the thousands of rape survivors who continue to struggle against the effects of the crime on them and their families. Karen and other rape survivors are strong women and I salute them.
I recall that our years of advocacy for a progressive anti-rape law was anything but easy. We were up against a mindset full of myths on rape which has existed for many generations. Even many of our legislators believed in these myths. We had to fight notions like: rape is solely penile penetration into a vagina; rape is a crime against chastity; and, married women cannot be raped by their husbands.
After about 10 years of relentless advocacy, women rejoiced when Republic Act 8353—the Anti-Rape Law of 1997—was signed. For us, it was progressive because finally, rape’s definition was expanded to include acts other than penile penetration that have the same harrowing effects on women. Such included inserting the penis into another’s mouth or anal orifice; and inserting any object into the genital or anal orifice of another.
R.A. 8353 also reclassified rape from being a crime against chastity to a crime against persons. The former implied that an “unchaste” woman (commonly understood as one who is no longer a virgin, has a “loose” reputation, or in prostitution) could not be raped. This was extremely important because we knew that the crime is a complete violation of the woman as a person. We also knew that rape happens not only to “chaste” women. It can happen to any of us. Even wives can be raped by their husbands. Lastly, the new law made marital rape a crime. Meaning, marriage is not a license for a man to have sex with his wife without her consent.
In 1997, we considered the new law a big success for women that we even celebrated it with a party. We thought that through it, the myths surrounding rape would be eliminated. Today, 13 years later, Karen Vertido’s case shows that more work needs to be done.
Karen, the executive director of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, accused the chamber’s then-president of rape in 1996. The accused, being the organization’s highest officer, wielded power over others, including Karen. He was in his 60s, and a wealthy and well-connected businessman in the city. The case which started in April 1996 dragged on for nine years and was only decided in April 2005. Judge Virginia Hofileña-Europa acquitted the accused.
The judge’s decision was heavily based on gender-based myths and stereotypes on rape. Karen’s and other expert witnesses’ testimonies were disregarded by the judge. To me, the very slow movement of the case and the acquittal resulted in Karen’s being victimized twice over, this time, by the justice system.
Judge Hofileña-Europa said that her decision was guided by three principles, two of which are: 1) It is easy to make an accusation of rape; it is difficult to prove but more difficult for the accused to disprove; and 2) because the crime of rape usually involves only two persons, the testimony of the complainant must be scrutinized with extreme caution. Based on these alone, I can say that there was bias in favor of the accused and that the good judge knew little of the nature of the crime of rape.
We need to understand that an oft-forgotten factor in rape is POWER. Rape is much more than sexual assault, it is also a manifestation of power whether it be in terms of position, economic standing, age, or gender or a combination of these. Why are women raped? It is because women are generally considered as the weaker sex. Thus, women are raped because men are superior. In feminist parlance, we say that rape is a gender-based violence. In Karen’s case, she was up against formidable opponents—the accused and the system.
To say that it is easy to accuse someone of rape is at best a misreading of what victims go through. Doing so entails admission that one is violated and no longer the “whole,” “honorable,” or “chaste” woman that society wants all women to be. On top of the emotional turbulence from rape, you open yourself to a sullied reputation, victim-blaming, humiliation, gossip, losing your job, even further intimidation and threats from the opposite camp. You risk shaming your family and those you hold dear.
Moreover, because the justice system is slow and corrupt, and litigation is costly, if you accuse someone of rape, you have to be ready with money for a case that will go on for many years. In short, you have to be open to the possibility of your life being further ruined.
Therefore, is it easy to accuse someone of rape? The answer is NO. On the contrary, it is understandable why rape cases are severely under-reported. It is said that only about 10 percent are reported and even fewer are litigated. Many women, especially those without economic means, choose to instead suffer in silence.
The other principle used by judge Hofileña-Europa indicated that the complainant’s testimony must be scrutinized with extreme caution because the crime of rape usually involve only two persons. This put Karen in a disadvantaged position. It is also not cognizant of the “power” factor in rape cases. This principle discriminated against Karen because it would appear that the testimony of the accused did not merit the same type of scrutiny. Did this mean that the court believed the accused more? That his word was better than Karen’s? Didn’t the judge see that as a powerful man, the accused could have influenced others and/or manipulated things? At the very least, if the court was aware of the “power” factor in the case, the judge should have scrutinized both sides with equal care.
Judge Hofileña-Europa’s verdict of acquittal devastated Karen and her supporters but Karen continued the fight and in the end, was vindicated. (Continuation next week)