#MeToo and why the Philippines hasn't broken its silence

Last month, the She Talks Asia summit gave me the opportunity to moderate a panel on healing from rape and sexual harassment. Three brave souls came forward to share their experience: Broadcast journalist Ces Drilon talked about being sexually harassed by her boss and how the fear of losing her job stopped her from coming forward; Musician Toni Brillantes gave a moving story on how she was raped by her Uncle and how her confession was met with doubt and denial by her family; Life Coach Pia Acevedo shared how her son’s 7th birthday triggered memories of the sexual abuse she experienced from a relative when she was seven.

There were tears shed, and hope expressed. The most powerful result I think is how several women, including one close friend, approached me after to share their stories. Listening to the panelists roused other survivors from the audience to open up about their own difficult experience.

The big question this left me with is why the #MeToo movement failed to take off in the Philippine context? Yes, there were a few young women who piggybacked on the hashtag and tried to rally others into joining, but most of the country chose to stay eerily silent. What stopped us from achieving our own reckoning?

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Ces envelops Toni in a big hug, applauding her for her openness and bravery.

Sexual violence is still highly trivialized and minimized by a lot of people in the Philippines. Condescending vulgar behavior toward women like locker room talk and catcalling are chalked up to men being men. and there is still a tendency to respond to rape and sexual assault cases by putting the blame on the victim instead of the perpetrator. The conversation still largely revolves around what the victim did wrong: she shouldn’t have gone drinking, she was asking for it by wearing a short skirt, she shouldn't have gone on a date with someone she didn’t know that well, she shouldn’t have sat in the front seat of the Uber car, she should have said no, louder etc., while providing excuses for the perpetrator: he has uncontrollable urges, they come from an all-boys school so they’re not used to having girls around, he’s a good person but he had a momentary lapse of judgment, etc.

Maybe the Philippines hasn't broken its silence because survivors lack faith in how we, as a community and a nation, handle allegations relating to rape and sexual assault. Survivors are afraid to speak up for fear of being publicly shamed or are doubtful whether it would lead to any kind of intervention or corrective action. It's easy to understand why many would deem it futile when even the highest officer of our land publicly cracks rape jokes.

The most infuriating stories I’ve heard related to this was when I volunteered at a shelter for trafficked women and children. The social worker shared how the survivors could no longer go back to their communities because they were often condemned for being ‘too ambitious’. 

Let us be clear: it is not the responsibility of the survivor, whether a man or woman, to prevent himself/herself from getting raped. Deciding not to rape someone even if you have a strong sexual urge is not a heroic act, it is basic human decency. If we want to end the prevalence of sexual violence, we need to ask ourselves what are the mindsets and attitudes that perpetuate the culture of victim-shaming in the country, and how do we change that. 

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We had a #MeToo panel in the hope of jumpstarting our country's own reckoning against sexual violence.

The #MeToo movement is important because it showed us that sexual violence was happening at an ugly, alarming scale. That a seemingly powerful woman in Hollywood is just as vulnerable to abuse as a young teenage girl in Nigeria. The constant outpouring of confessions made it impossible to ignore. It compelled people to come together in offering not just words of empathy, but more importantly, concrete initiatives toward healing and justice.

In the Philippines, I find the silence about the issue just as deafening. We need to see it as an urgent call for us to be more vigilant in holding the media, our government, schools, corporations, and other organizations accountable on the proper way of handling reports of sexual violence. 

For instance, media outlets need to be careful how stories on rape and sexual violence are reported. If the story focuses too much on the survivor’s physical appearance, outfit, state of mind, then it subversively communicates to the audience that the survivor somewhat warranted victimization. 

We all need to closely examine how we, and the institutions we belong to, are unknowingly upholding the rape culture: do I help perpetuate hyper-masculinity? do I contribute to the objectification of women’s bodies? When encountering stories of someone who has been abused, do I unintentionally shift the blame to the victim by focusing on the wrong details? Do I actively call people out and institutions when they engage in victim shaming, specially if they are in a position that could shape other people’s behavior and influence mindsets? Changing the culture starts by being self-aware, and translating that knowledge into accountability.

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It took a decade before Ces was able to publicly open up about the sexual assualt she experienced at work.

“I just hope that my coming forward about an experience that was so long ago will empower others to speak up. Because not speaking up can prolong the abuse.”

While there are some who criticize the #MeToo confessions as unnecessary ‘airing of one’s dirty laundry in public’, we need to acknowledge the fact that for most of these survivors, they chose to open up through social media because they feel that their complaints would have been received by deaf ears otherwise. The onus is now on schools and workplaces to have proper systems in place to ensure these claims are properly investigated and acted upon. 

Days after the summit, I received an email interview request asking me to share my own #MeToo story. As ironic as it sounds, I replied kindly that though it happened a long time ago, I still wasn’t ready- that moderating the panel was a small step toward healing, but that journey remains a work in progress. 

I salute all the women for their strength and bravery to come forward. May your voices help the rest of us to also find our own.