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At Large

#MeToo in a government office

The #MeToo movement emerged in 2017 from the morass of a series of allegations of sexual abuse against powerful men in the United States. The men included politicians and business figures, but much of the spotlight fell on men in show business, particularly movie producer Harvey Weinstein, with well-known (and even beloved) actors swept along with the tide.

It was actress Alyssa Milano who popularized the phrase on the social media platform Twitter, encouraging victims to tweet about their views and, more importantly, their experiences at the hands of predatory men (or women).

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But truth to tell, #MeToo was a long time coming. In the Philippines, the scourge of sexual harassment and sexual assault has long been hanging in the air. Prominent predators included a sitting congressman, sons of prominent families, business figures, actors, sports stars, even TV comedians. Along with the “usual suspects,” of course, the proverbial stranger skulking in an alley, the serial date rapist, the casual wolf-whistler. Why, even the President finds himself (by his own admission) in this list!

So, should we still be shocked, then, when a woman braves the consequences and dares accuse a superior in her workplace of sexual harassment?

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We do have a law against sexual harassment, and, to be fair, government offices, through the Civil Service Commission and private businesses, have on their own volition created the ironically named “committees on decorum” to lend a formal mechanism to the messy proceedings. As with rape, the situation boils down to a
“he said, she said” situation, with words bandied about regarding the accused’s and the accuser’s sexual history, “morality” and possible motives.

Recently, women working with a government agency concerned with economic planning—I’ll stop beating around the bush and say it’s Neda (National Economic and Development Authority)—talked to me seeking help in behalf of a young female colleague of theirs who was sexually harassed by a senior official some months ago.

The incident took place inside the official’s car, which the victim said she boarded with two other coworkers after he offered to give them a ride home. She was the last remaining passenger apart from the official, and it was while they were on their way to her home that he started fondling her. The official is her direct boss, so apart from having to fend off his drunken pawing (he had a lot to drink), she had to contend with worries about the consequences of any action she could possibly take.

But act she did, telling her coworkers about what transpired in the car, consulting more experienced colleagues, and most important, filing a formal complaint with the human resources (or its equivalent) office of Neda. To its credit, the office did initiate an investigation and called in the parties involved. But only after it seems the victim dared pay a call on Neda Director-General Ernesto Pernia and bring up her complaint to him.

The wiser course of action, perhaps, would have been to wait for the procedures to play themselves out. But as things stand, the cards are decidedly stacked against this new economics graduate whose dream it’s said was to work for
Neda, and in favor of the senior official.

“He is very influential and has a lot of connections, both in government and in the private sector and even with international donors,” the women told me. This official is a Neda “veteran” and has worked under practically all Neda directors-general. His area of authority currently covers the “big ticket” projects of the Duterte
administration, so anyone seeking to curry favor for a billion-peso project must cozy up to him.

It seems he is also a “veteran” sexual predator, prowling the halls of Neda for his “type” of victim—young, seemingly pliant and low on the totem pole. Some of his victims are still with Neda and now occupy fairly senior positions. One of them, after admitting she, too, had been a victim, said she chose to put the experience behind her. But, she confessed, “until today, when I recall what took place, I feel shaken and rattled. I have never gotten over it.”
#MeToo, indeed!

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