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An Act against women

Do you know that if you were to venture out of your home in your house clothes, stand on a street corner and appear as if you have “no visible means of income,” you can be arrested for vagrancy?

And if you are a woman and police suspect you of being a prostitute, but have no proof that you are, they can haul you into jail on a charge of vagrancy? And if you are so unlucky as to meet a corrupt or sleazy police officer, you can be forced to fork over a certain amount and/or provide free sexual services in exchange for your release?

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“Vagrancy” is an archaic charge used by police to bring in people from the street who they feel are public annoyances or threats. As an activist, I have heard many times about comrades hauled into police stations on the charge of “standing [around] without permission.” That is how vague and sweeping a crime like “vagrancy” is.

No wonder the police resisted moves to get “vagrancy” stricken off the law books. Though it’s aimed at getting poor people off the streets, it’s been mainly used against women, who complain that the law turns them into “gatasan” or “milking cows” for police in search of a quick and easy buck, or an easy lay.

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The good news is that both chambers of Congress recently passed an “Act Decriminalizing Vagrancy Amending for this Purpose Article 202 of Act No. 3815 … otherwise known as the Revised Penal Code.” That means that, if this consolidated bill is signed into law, police may no longer use “vagrancy” to haul poor people into jail. As the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) says in a letter to the Office of the President: “We believe that no person, regardless of age or sex, should be punished for being poor; they should not be fined or imprisoned for having no means of subsistence or for being homeless.”

But here’s the bad news. The PCW, among others, is asking P-Noy to veto the bill, for the simple reason that the bill, while decriminalizing vagrancy, continues to consider prostitution a crime, and thus perpetuates violence against women.

PCW chair Remedios Rikken writes that while prostitution is penalized in the law, the law doesn’t define what prostitution is. It merely describes who prostitutes are: “women (no mention of men—RJD) who, for money or profit, habitually indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct.”

“This reflects the bias against women who are deemed vectors of evil and disease. This bias has led to the uneven treatment of law enforcers of the individuals involved in prostitution,” writes Rikken, noting that the role of (and penalties against) pimps and customers is ignored completely.

“More importantly,” she adds, by keeping prostitution a crime, the proposed measure fails to recognize that prostitution is a form of violence against women, because most women engaged in the trade “are forced to engage in prostitution on account of poverty, lack of opportunity, drug addiction or a history of severe childhood abuse or neglect.”

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In a position paper, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP) and 16 (and counting) allied groups aired their “strongest opposition” to the mere amendment of the Revised Penal Code.

In the past nine years, CATW-AP, along with Philippine women’s groups and government agencies such as PCW and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, “have been lobbying for the repeal of the entire Article 202 … not only because it is antipoor but because it is antiwomen.”

The women are particularly incensed at how their nine years of lobbying and working with legislators were seemingly ignored by Congress, despite their consistent and persistent efforts to repeal the law against vagrancy in its entirety. “Our members and staff never failed to call the committees to which our pertinent bills have been referred. We are shamed by this lack of consultation with us, despite our repeated lobbying with the secretaries and principals of said committees. We cannot tell you enough how we persistently talked to them, rallied in front of both the Senate and [the House of Representatives], held press conferences, etc. Thus, for the legislators to send this bill to the Office of the President, despite all our actions given our meager resources, despite unreturned calls, is sheer callousness.”

(The Act is authored by Sen. Francis Escudero and Rep. Victorino Socrates and was consolidated last January.)

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CATW-AP executive director Jean Enriquez recalls that in a letter sent to legislators in October 2010, they cited data gathered by the survivors’ group Bagong Kamalayan Collective Inc. that showed “there have been 1,031 recorded arrests for 2006 and 2007,” gathered from various precincts in Metro Manila, including Caloocan City, Quezon City and Makati City.

So many arrests resulting in very few convictions only show the futility of the exercise, as well as a waste of police efficiency and time (Lord knows why they persist in doing it). And as Enriquez points out: “History has shown us that arresting those bought in prostitution does not resolve sexual exploitation. International legal trends, including the Nordic example, have shown that only through supporting the victims of sexual exploitation and by shifting the accountability to the buyers and profiteers, will there be substantive changes in the lives of those in prostitution. Our own anti-trafficking law recognizes internal trafficking and defines prostitution as a form of exploitation.”

So to our dear President Noynoy: Please veto the consolidated enrolled bill amending Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code, on grounds of being biased against women, and for lack of public consultation. (The Act lapses into law in April if not acted upon.) We women will thank you.

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TAGS: crimes, featured column, opinion, Police, prostitution, vagrancy, women
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