Domestic abuse : Are we turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room?

Today, we’re going to talk about an issue that is among my important advocacies – domestic abuse. Globally, 1 in every 3, or 35% of women have experienced either physical or sexual violence from their partners (married or not), according to data by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Although domestic abuse happens to all genders, studies claim that women are more susceptible to abuse.

Especially mothers, since being caretakers of children, their role and obligations tend to limit their options to readily wiggle out of an abusive situation.

There was recent news about a local celebrity who was accused by the common-law partner of physical, sexual, and economic abuse. The issue has been brought to the attention of the public when the aggrieved partner sought the help of a broadcaster to settle the domestic transgression.

However, towards the end of the narratives, tables were turned against the complaining party and the alleged offender gaining public sympathy.

The recorded video of the banter between the celebrity and the accuser was posted online, where the latter was seen arguing with the celebrity partner about how the sexual and financial abuses were carried out. Not surprisingly, the accuser got victim-blamed and received backlash from netizens: “Mukhang pera (gold-digger)”, “adik (drug addict)”, blackmailer, slut, etc., were some of the invectives that were hurled at her on social media. Some even commented that a (female) spouse is obliged to yield to sexual requests of the partner, and to ensure domestic harmony. Others also justified the accused’s action of masturbating and fondling the private parts of the partner in front of their children as a “natural response” when the sexual advances were refused. To cut the story short, nothing came out of the case except that the accuser ended up as the antagonist in the public eye.

The last information that I read is that the complainant died by suicide, although, due to the lack of media reports, I could not verify this bit.

When push comes to a shove
Filipinos are quite sensitive on topics that touch on their ethnicity and culture. However, I do not see the same passion and fervor when it comes to addressing domestic violence issues. According to the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) report by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), which surveyed 31,000 households and 25,000 women, one in four ever-married women in the 15-49 age ranges have experienced spousal violence (or abuse perpetrated by a partner).

Read the report: One In Four Women Have Ever Experienced Spousal Violence (Preliminary results from 2017)

With the lack of in-depth definition of abuses-physical, emotional, sexual, the numbers also lack in grit. How do the surveyed women define each abuse type? There has got to be some basic characterisation of each abuse type for the women to broadly understand their experience.

A verbal sarcasm can escalate to verbal intimidation and humiliation in public; a slap can turn to a punch; a smack in the head can progress to the use of harmful objects. Abusers constantly test their victims’ limits, and it is not unusual that they play victims themselves. As observers, we must not be fooled by how these abusers can glibly manipulate the situation to make them appear blameless.

Economic abuse: power play with money
Unfortunately, economic abuse has not been mentioned in the variables of abuse types. A Philippine law, the RA 9262 or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004, defined economic abuse as: “acts that make or attempt to make a woman financially dependent which includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Withdrawal of financial support or preventing the victim from engaging in any legitimate profession, occupation, business or activity, except in cases wherein the other spouse/partner objects on valid, serious and moral grounds as defined in Article 73 of the Family Code;
  • Deprivation or threat of deprivation of financial resources and the right to the use and enjoyment of the conjugal, community or property owned in common;
  • Destroying household property;
  • Controlling the victims’ own money or properties or solely controlling the conjugal money or properties.

Read more: Republic Act 9262: Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004

A new bill, House Bill 4888 is being pushed to amend RA 9262 to include husbands and LGBT partners who are also abused within the domestic setting. Interestingly, what was highlighted during the time that the bill was proposed in October was that when the partner/wife “confiscates” the ATM (automated teller machine) card of the husband, that already constitutes economic abuse.

But economic abuse is not an elitist issue. It is not an issue only among moneyed people with a regular paycheck, or who can withdraw money from an ATM. Among the marginal sectors where people have irregular to no income, economic abuse might be harder to pin down. Why? Because poverty can serve as a smokescreen for economic abuse, a seemingly acceptable excuse for not being able to provide monetary support, and thus masking that intent to keep the partner under the thumb using money as a device of deprivation.

It’s true that year by year, poverty incidence in the Philippines has been increasing. For 2018, PSA data indicated that 16.6% to 17.7 million Filipinos were living below the poverty threshold, estimated at Php10, 727 (US$206 at Php52:US$1)a month per household of five persons. But the lack of finances is not an excuse for the partner to deprive their spouse of money or provisions as a means to get back at them, elicit dependency or extort control.

Here is a typical scenario of economic abuse: In my dealing with a family I am assisting, the maternal head who has, for years been suffering from economic abuse, has to look for money day by day to buy food and basic necessities for herself and her children. The husband, who ekes out a living from picking junk or trading used bottles, would beat her up whenever she asks for money to buy food. So in order not to suffer from beatings and to feed her children, she takes it upon herself to look for provisions by borrowing money from neighbors and relatives, getting food items on credit in community stores, or doing odd jobs. Staple meals, according to her would be canned sardines or fried egg or on lean days, hot instant coffee poured over steamed rice.

Wading around grey areas
The law is flawed. Both the State through the government agencies and non-government organisations (NGOs) offer protection and assistance to domestic abuse victims; still, a lot of women remain vulnerable to abuses. I remember many years ago, I sought advice from NGOs regarding a mother I was also trying to help out. The NGO said that the victim had to be convinced to course her complaint; otherwise, they could not intervene.

The Barangay was also adamant about intervening without a formal complaint from the victim. The Police, despite having a dedicated Women’s Desk, also followed the same route when addressing the problem, and despite reports that such abuse was happening in their area of jurisdiction, they require at least “personal knowledge” by the “disinterested” person lodging a complaint on behalf of the victim.

If the victim is disempowered, I do not think they could easily file a complaint. Especially, like in the case of the mother I was assisting, her self-esteem became her worst enemy. In a society where women are expected to sacrifice for the children and to maintain harmony in the household, it is not surprising that the mother would have second thoughts in “disrupting” the household by filing a complaint. Besides that, in her neighborhood, abuses carried out on the females are prevalent although in varying degrees. This mother’s immediate neighbors, unfortunately, are mostly the abusive husband’s relatives and friends, and would either side with the abuser or act indifferent.

We are our sisters’ keepers
A few days ago, I got an SOS message from a neighbor of this young mother. The neighbor was implying that the mother, once again, figured in an altercation with the husband and was mobbed by his cahoots – mother, brother and other relatives.

What I did was to write to the chief of the regional social welfare bureau to seek help. I detailed the recent incidences of abuse based on the information I gathered. Acting on my complaint, the bureau head was able to mobilize help from the barangay, who summoned the mother and the abuser to their session hall to discuss about the incidences. “Discuss”, an action that often undermines the gravity of the situation.

I would like to be honest here that in the past, I had spoken to the barangay officers twice about the incidences, and hoping that they would protect the mother and her children, or at least issue an order against the husband and equally abusive relatives. But they, at the very least, handled the situation with kid’s gloves.

When I reported the latest incident to the regional social welfare office, the barangay chief, according to my informant, was not pleased that I mentioned their lenient approach to the situation. Had they been proactive, the abuse would not have dragged on for years! Also, I heard that my complaint upset the municipal chief of the social welfare unit that they demanded that I see them in their office. In short, their concern was focused on coming clean than addressing my complaint. This kind of response may not be unusual for some, but would you be cowed? I hope not.

Domestic violence happens in plain sight, anytime, where there is the absence of empathy and vague perception of what abuse is. We are also not clear of what our basic rights are and how to exercise these rights or defend them from being violated. Or maybe many of us lack confidence in the support systems in place for abused victims.

I would like to reiterate that even though we know our rights and self-worth, there will always be people with abusive tendencies or behaviours that will sneak into our lives to harm us during our unguarded moments. Our instincts will always tell us when something is not right and when it is time to leave a situation that will not serve us or will destroy us. It would help to talk with a friend or a family member if you feel that you are being abused, either physically, sexually, verbally, or financially. Someone has to know about what you are going through. Ask for help, do not be silent. Especially, if you have children, do this for your children. Do not be afraid to fight off the abuses by reporting them to the authorities. If you are a mother and you are worried that exposing the abuser might affect your livelihood, your family relations, or financial support, remember that mothers are divinely endowed with strength, spirit, and abilities to care for their children, and that includes the capability to make a living in the absence of a paternal spouse/provider.

It is disheartening that the number of domestic abuse incidences is growing because societies are either condoning or are callous toward them. In the Philippines, domestic violence remains an uncured malady despite cases being widely reported in the news and social media. Many women are suffering in silence because a great number of us are gagging them by our cultural biases about the role of women in households, within family dynamics, and in the communities. Being that makes us enablers of these abuses and unwitting accomplices of the abusers. Let us educate ourselves about this issue, and while at it, let us compel the authorities to enforce the laws that safeguard our women from domestic violence; let us be vigilant ourselves against abuses in our community and hold the perpetrators accountable! Makialam tayo!


Prayer to St. Rita, Patroness of Survivors of Domestic Abuse
St. Rita, you understood the sorrows of the human heart. By the grace of God, you overcame domestic violence and lived in faith and hope. Through your intercession, may families overcome conflicts and tensions and build peace in their homes. Inspire us to reach out to those who suffer physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Pray for us, that we may discover ways to help restore the spiritual wellbeing of our families, our friends and our community. With you, we believe that all things are possible for God. (Source: Catholics for Family Peace)

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