VAW in ‘Yolanda’ areas, ‘sextortion’ elsewhere
By some coincidence, just days after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” hit our shores, an international conference was convened in London in which 13 governments agreed “to assume that women and girls are in greater danger of violence after natural disasters than men and boys, and that organizations should act quickly to prevent and treat it rather than waiting for confirmation that it has occurred.”
Indeed, in the dark days immediately after Yolanda’s wake, women were doubly at risk not just because of the ravages of the typhoon but also because of being sexually ravaged. And the threat remains.
In a report published in the New York Times this week, Sarah Wheaton says that according to United Nations agencies and other groups, “a new effort to protect women from rape and help them deliver babies in the aftermath of [Yolanda] remains troubled and inadequate.”
Some 65,000 women are deemed at risk of sexual assault and an estimated 1,000 women are giving birth every day in the Yolanda-hit areas. But, says Wheaton, the effort is “loosely coordinated among more than a dozen developed countries.”
“We’re on a big learning curve,” said Justine Greening, Britain’s international development secretary who convened the London conference. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that going forward we put the real focus on women and girls and keeping them safe in a way that hasn’t happened in the past enough.”
The trouble, reports Wheaton, is that money to fund the effort in Yolanda-hit areas is flowing slowly. “The United Nations Population Fund has asked its donor nations and agencies to contribute $30 million to give Filipino women hundreds of thousands of kits with hygiene supplies, hire staff at 80 temporary maternal wards and counsel victims of rape. So far, it has commitments for only about $3 million,” or about 10 percent of the requested amount.
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“I was a bit disappointed about the lukewarm response from donors,” said Ugochi Daniels, a humanitarian aid coordinator for the UN and the former UNFPA head in the Philippines.
Still, noted Daniels, the amount they managed to raise marked a record. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten more than $300,000,” she said.
But, noted the article, “the hygiene supplies do not include condoms, typically part of such kits, for fear of angering local communities. Nor are relief workers supplied with emergency contraception like the morning-after pill, which is illegal in the Philippines.”
What accounts for this skittishness about providing the women and girls who survived Yolanda with protection from sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancy? For sure, part of the explanation can be attributed to the generally low status of women in the Philippines, where male authorities, including Church figures, dictate how women are to live their lives, even, or especially, after a disaster. But the sluggish response is also indicative of the low priority that women and girls enjoy among the international aid community, and among policymakers in general, since protection and services for women generally receive lower priority in the scheme of things than, say, reconstruction and relocation after a disaster.
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Perhaps the lack of action—or enough interest—in protecting women and girl survivors of disasters also has deeper roots.
In many parts of the world, sex is used as a form of “currency” in exchange for favors or help. In a special report on “The Rights of Women” published in the International New York Times, Lisa Anderson of the Thomson Reuters Foundation writes: “When those in positions of authority get caught taking cash or gifts to exercise their power for the benefit of those who pay the bribe, prosecutors oft have hard evidence and clear
anticorruption laws to charge them.
“When the currency of the bribe is sex, not money, the path of the law is murkier, evidence more elusive, prosecution harder, and victims less eager to come forth.”
The International Association of Women Judges wants to change the situation. “Through heightened awareness, the judges hope to see these practices get the same sort of serious attention and penalties that sexual harassment and domestic violence, once mostly ignored or unquestioned, now command.”
The group has a name for the practice: “sextortion.”
The IAWJ defines “sextortion” as “an abuse of power involving a demand for sexual favors. The demand can be explicit or implicit and usually employs fear rather than physical forms of coercion. It could be any form of unwanted sexual activity, including exposing body parts or posing for sexual photographs or videos.” The term sextortion, writes Anderson, has also been applied to cybercrimes involving the posting (or threat of posting) sexually explicit material on the Internet to blackmail former intimate partners.
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Using or demanding sex to trade for favors or just to get officials to do their jobs is nothing new and, as one judge remarked: “people tend to dismiss it as, well, that’s just life.”
But just as sexual harassment has been criminalized in the field of employment and academics, the women judges are confident that sextortion can be formalized into a separate and distinct crime.
Victims of sextortion, though, need to break out of the cocoon of shame and silence that has kept the practice under wraps, while the law, through the women judges, should respond with alacrity and willingness to look beyond technicalities and social myths.
Says Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, president of the IAWJ (and an associate justice of the Philippine Supreme Court): “Sextortion is an affront to human dignity and damages one’s self-worth. It causes mental anguish and psychological injury that may last a lifetime.”
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