A woman was raped and murdered recently in my city. She was a student working as a domestic caretaker to put herself through college and whose family was counting on her to finish her studies. In the wake of this tragic news, people are calling for justice through the death penalty, but apparently, House Bill No. 4727 — the death penalty bill as we currently know it — considers rape a crime lesser than drug-related offenses.
Regardless of one’s stance on capital punishment, this outlook on rape is mind-boggling. For its deep and lasting impact, sexual assault is a heinous crime that deserves the most severe penalties the law allows. Yet in this major reconsidering of our justice system, this crime is brushed aside and the perpetrators are exempted.
Lawmakers say the exclusion of rape from the bill is only so that they can arrive at a consensus more quickly. But how difficult can it be to reach a consensus on rape? How is it that this crime seems to be of less priority to lawmakers today, even outside the discussion on death penalty?
Instead of undermining this crime, we need to give more attention to certain aspects of sexual assault that are still widely overlooked.
One is improving the venues for reporting rape incidents. Researchers and institutions have long understood that rape is underreported in the Philippines. Many victims are reluctant to report the incident because they are threatened and shamed, and worse, they get no support from the people they are supposed to trust, such as parents and authorities.
It is not uncommon to hear of rape victims being faced with judgmental questions and remarks, even from authorities: “Shouldn’t you have been home at that hour?” “Why were you dressed that way?” Reporting such a traumatic experience as rape takes a lot of courage, and disparaging remarks like these can be enough to make even a brave survivor buckle.
And when we talk of rape survivors, we are not just referring to women. Men, too, can be sexually assaulted, but sadly, this is a blind spot in our cultural and legal system. There is not much discussion on sexual assault on men, especially in the Philippines where myths abound: Males are too physically strong to be forced, males always want sex, males eventually enjoy sexual coercion.
These erroneous notions can prevent male rape victims from reporting the crime. Psychologists say that because of such myths, male victims are less likely to identify themselves as having been raped; they end up confused and even ashamed. Clearly, more awareness and better avenues for male rape survivors are needed to enable them to break their silence.
At the same time, the law enforcement and justice system should be better prepared to handle false rape reports. The number of false rape allegations is considered a “dark number” — we know that these exist, but the number is difficult to determine. We know only of cases where supposed victims later recanted their accusations, finally admitting that those accusations were made as an act of retaliation, blackmail, power play, or mere exaggeration.
False rape accusations should not be handled with leniency. A problematic consequence of tolerating false reporting — aside from the primary result of letting innocent persons suffer — is that it further silences the real victims. For every rape allegation that is found to be untruthful, an authentic claim loses credibility. This negatively changes the public’s perception of rape reporting, suppressing legitimate victims with more fears and hesitation.
I’m certain there are plenty of other issues surrounding the reporting and treatment of sexual assault in the country. At the core of all these is the devastating truth that rape has become a grave yet severely underaddressed problem. A recent review of police records found that on average, one person is raped every hour in the Philippines.
This bone-chilling statistic should be enough for lawmakers to spring into action, but instead, they chose to show that they can easily put this crime aside. This highlights just how misguided the bill is and perpetuates the culture of impunity that has long haunted the vulnerable citizens whom lawmakers have vowed — and are failing — to protect.
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