Philippine law enforcers face new challenges in responding to violence against women

Violence against women and ICT



Violence against women in the Philippines is considered a public crime. Because it happens both in the private and public sphere of women’s lives, it is recognised to be a crime against humanity and not merely a crime against a person.



Though the number of reported cases to the Philippine National Police (PNP) differs from the number of cases served by Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), figures in both agencies have increased by more than 30% from 2008 to 2009. Law enforcement agencies and service providers are receiving complaints of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, prostitution and trafficking on a daily basis despite existing efforts and various strategies employed to raise public awareness and educate communities about its realities and how it can be addressed. Moreover, as we move into the information age, new spaces are created for people to explore, thus creating new avenues for violence.



Women are becoming more and more visible online. The internet provides them space for self expression, education, communication and networking. Meanwhile mobile phones become an extension of their personal lives, providing speedy communication and convenient storage of personal and important messages or information.



All these spaces made available to women in the digital world are also becoming spaces for violence against women to occur. Cases, both reported and unreported, are slowly emerging and law enforcement is facing new challenges in appreciating and responding to such new forms of VAW in the Philippines. This article outlines some of these emergent forms of VAW in the digital sphere, in the hope of raising awareness and engendering appropriate responses from all stakeholders.



Emerging Forms of E(electronic)VAW



The Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) in the Philippines conducted a series of round table and focus group discussions with key stakeholders, such as governmental representatives of Cyber Crime Unit, the Senate and Congress Committee on Women, or the Dept of Social Welfare, academics and most active women’s groups. The roundtable entitled “E(electronic) VAW: Gender, Technology & Public Policy,” is part of a global project called “Take Back the Tech! To End Violence Against Women”. This twelve-country initiative is sponsored by the Association for Progressive Communication’s Women’s Networking Support Programme . The following were the different forms of EVAW identified during these discussions:



Unauthorized recording, reproduction and distribution of videos and images


Cases of unauthorised recording, reproduction and distribution of videos and images are increasingly disturbing. Sex videos and compromising images of couples proliferate online and offline for various purposes. Many popular personalities are victims but even private individuals are not spared from such malicious and unacceptable practice that often target and affect women from different walks of life.



New tools and gadgets allow clandestine, fast, hassle-free, and inexpensive sharing of these recorded acts (authorised or not) for different reasons such as harassment, to humiliate and scandalise particular women (or men), or for commercial purposes (i.e., the lucrative trade in sex videos). Because of these, women’s privacy is often violated and exploited by perpetrators and viewers alike.



Cyber/Mobile Harassment



Here’s a typical story in the news: a relationship goes bad, and the couple breaks up. The woman’s ex-boyfriend uploads their intimate photos or videos on Facebook to take revenge and humiliate the woman for leaving him. Similarly, many women are threatened that intimate and compromising images of them will be uploaded, shared over the office network, or circulated through mobile phones. In the same way, lesbians, gays bisexuals and transgenders often face homophobic attacks from individuals ridiculing and shaming them in various spaces online.



Lewd and threatening messages and pornographic images on the other hand can be sent instantly to a woman to continuously harass her. In the Philippines, students are beginning to report such incidents to the Office of Anti-Sexual Harassment of the University of the Philippines. The unwelcome and unsolicited nature of such messages constitutes cyber sexual harassment.



Email or SMS messages containing threats, warnings, and offensive language to humiliate or intimidate a woman make up new forms of emotional abuse and result in psychological trauma. This also affects the woman’s composure and resolve to continue with the case and seek justice.



Atty. Claire Luczon, Director of WomenLEAD, an organization providing legal services to women in the Philippines, shared that even lawyers and other service providers are not spared from receiving such messages from perpetrators.



Technologies have become powerful tools to convey damaging and destructive messages to women by their intimate partners and even strangers who seek to exert power and control over the victim – and even those who provide assistance and support.



Cyber Stalking



If in the past, stalking would require physically following a woman to see what she does and where she goes, new technologies have made stalking much easier and more prevalent. Location tracking is now a basic feature in most mobile phones and telecommunication companies go as far as providing location tracking as a service. Access to this kind of information — the actual location of any given individual at any given time —has therefore become a highly contested issue between users and service providers. Where and how does one draw the line between freedom and privacy?



This reality puts women in a difficult situation. For instance, a woman who is hiding from her partner after having escaped an abusive relationship may easily be found with the use of this technology. Confidential information, such as reporting an incident of abuse, from a victim seeking immediate help may be compromised because perpetrators can easily access mobile phone (SMS and voice) and internet logs (e.g. email). Moreover, the information found in these logs may likewise be used to blackmail victims and provide grounds to file counter charges.



Cyber Prostitution and Trafficking



Though there are differing views and positions about prostitution and sex work, developments in ICTs have paved the way for bigger, wider, cross border and syndicated operation of prostitution and trafficking in the Philippines. Several news reports have exposed so-called “cybersex-dens” where organised cybersex trade is run by syndicated criminal elements. But, while this is true, there are also stories of individuals (mostly women and transgender) who work ‘freelance’ and do it in the comfort of their own homes.



Accessible and cheap internet shops, affordable wireless connectivity, and the ubiquity of webcams and internet enabled mobile devices become very basic tools of this trade which has sprung up in many different communities.



The Philippine Coalition Against Child Trafficking relays alarming reports of a growing number of children frequenting internet shops “well-dressed” and suddenly able to afford expensive treats and gadgets.



In Cebu City in Central Philippines, stories abound of children brought to shops by elder siblings or even parents to pose/model while they engage in chat sessions, usually of a sexual nature, for money.



In Davao City in Southern Philippines young professionals who have day jobs admit to doing “night shifts” in a nearby internet cafe.



Many who engage in this “sexwork” even use mobile phones and payments are made through mobile remittance/cash transfer or even pasa loadii.



The Philippines has long been grappling with the problem of prostitution and trafficking, but, with new technologies, operations have become more widespread and much faster.



Online Pornography



Pornography is the most prevalent form of sexual exploitation in the Philippines. Images, films and even live acts are made available through various media. Women, mostly minors are the usual “come ons” for readers, viewers or internet site visitors.



With new ICTs, the increasing numbers on pornographic materials featuring women and children in sexually explicit and degrading manner is troubling. With these new technologies, pornographic images can be mass produced and distributed easily across borders.



ICT-mediated VAW



Apart from VAW perpetrated by internet and mobile phone technology, there are VAW cases that use ICTs to facilitate commission of real life crimes. According to the police, solving such cases becomes more difficult because suspects usually use aliases. Examples of these crimes include, but are not limited to:



  • Rape and Sexual Assault by Text or Chatmates: As more and more Filipinos use SMS to communicate and connect with each other, it has also fast become a channel for self and, alarmingly, sexual expression. In some cases, this sexual expression and exploration leads to violence and abuse. The Philippine National Police confirm reports of rape cases committed by chat or text mates.

    In Cebu and Davao, authorities have suspended airing of a radio program promoting on air SMS exchange to match individuals looking for partners. It was believed to have facilitated sexual assault cases in Davao and the death of a woman in Cebu who tried to resist rape by the so called textmate she met through the radio program. With available technology, such programmes become convenient avenues for criminals to meet and identify unsuspecting victims.



  • Online Gaming: Another area of concern that needs to be explored is the evolving culture of

    online gaming among youth. Several online games feature very disturbing concepts about women. In strip poker, a player wins if he is able to completely undress the woman. There are games for instance, Grand Theft Auto, that allow a player to earn additional points for raping or killing a prostitute.

    Many other games feature highly sexualised images of women, such as enlarged breasts and hips, thin waistlines, long curled lashes and pouting lips that convey stereotyped representation of women.



    This may not have direct bearing to real women, but what becomes of the player constantly exposed to this idea and kind of violence is something that may warrant deeper social and psychological studies.



Gaps and challenges



Admittedly, developments in ICTs pose several gaps and challenges that require thorough examination by different stakeholders involved in addressing VAW.



There are awareness gaps among women ICT users and advocates about emerging forms that should be included and incorporated in various advocacy efforts and public information about VAW. Law enforcement agencies, lawyers and judges encounter challenges in applying available laws to these new situations and have limitations in recognising different electronic evidence to prove violation or commission of the crime. The need to review laws on VAW vis-a-vis these new forms of violence against women is evident to ensure that it is responsive to the new characteristics of crimes introduced by ICTs.



Challenges posed by these new technologies are also tricky to address. The relative anonymity of users online allows criminals and perpetrators to walk away freely since the identification of perpetrators is crucial to conviction. But, surveillance and data retrieval from service providers to establish identity of the criminal becomes a contentious point due to gray areas surrounding individuals’ privacy rights enshrined in the Philippine Constitution.



Opportunities



Although developments in the ICTs introduce dangers and risks to women’s online security, privacy and safety, there are also ways in which they can protect and empower women as well as promote safe spaces online and offline. Various governments and women’s NGOs have implemented online reporting of cases, providing counselling and referral services to different agencies. The use of SMS hotlines for help is employed by police to immediately respond to cases.



Social networking sites are used and websites are developed to provide public information and raise awareness about VAW as well as to promote women’s rights. The internet and mobile phones connect women victims, survivors and service providers in the Philippines and around the world to offer mutual support and assistance. Online training and capacity building sessions are also made available to ensure women’s critical and strategic use of technology.



[The original version of this article has been published at ISIS Women in Action Magazine 2010: Converging Communications: Empowering Women, Transforming Communities.]”