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The pain of breaking the silence

Tackling abuse starts with facing the fear of speaking out

  • Sophia Lizares Bodegon, Manila
  • Philippines
  • June 24, 2013
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Like the breaking of hearts and bodies, breaking silence is painful. Those who have walked alongside survivors of sexual abuse in Philippine churches say it often takes years until a woman presents a complaint, makes a full disclosure and even longer for her to get over it.

Liza Lamis, a Filipina theologian and advocate against sexual abuse in the Church, says that when women report abuse it is they – and not their abusers – who usually face interrogation.

In a doctoral dissertation on her work with several women abused by clergy and lay leaders from Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the Philippines, Lamis writes that “secrecy or confidentiality in so many cases is turned into a cunning device to inflict further abuse…Silence succeeds in keeping the victims in place and in perpetuating victimization. Silence itself is violent.”

Conversely, to have one’s story heard is to be acknowledged as a human being, Lamis points out, and “to be accorded the justice that everyone as a human being deserves.”

Although storytelling can bring healing to painful memories, it could however be just as traumatizing for the woman and painful for those who accompany her.

Describing the night after interviewing a woman who had suffered abuse, Lamis writes how she walked with her supervisor, Jane, to the woman’s room. The woman was “heaving… in sweat and tears in her bed, almost unable to breathe in her bed, and on the verge of wailing.

“I cry every time I read this,” said Lamis in an interview.

Her supervisor talked to the woman like a child and caressed her arms gently, telling her it was all right to let out her feelings.

“All I could manage to do was get Chinese rub and alcohol in case they were needed, and I just stayed there. After around 30 minutes, her breathing relaxed. Jane tucked her in to go to sleep, and I whispered to her, ‘Everything will be all right. We are here … around you.’”

Lamis recalls that after the sessions she entered two weeks of trauma. She stopped reading her books and writing papers and passed up two speaking invitations.

“I just let the days go by without any word about the session or about the women to anyone,” she said. “It was only when a friend asked me how things were going that she was able to share what happened, mostly about my fears and the shock of what I heard.”

Only after she had told these stories was she back to “my talking and listening self, and was able to pick up the project again.”

Once told, she said, one woman’s story affects everyone.

“Women’s stories in this project became the Church community’s story. In fact, they are the Church community’s stories. It is only that they are suppressed and unheard. Or dismissed and the women ostracized,” she said.

Preventing abuse should therefore be the first essential step to eroding what has been rightly labeled systemic institutional violence.

Lizette Tapia-Raquel, lecturer at the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in the Philippines, says that the seminary helps to strengthen women through such courses as Babaylan and Feminist Theology. Babaylan is a term from the central Visayan region of the Philippine meaning a person – usually a woman – gifted to heal the spirit and body.

“We celebrate the more egalitarian dynamics in early Philippine history,” she says.

Tapia-Raquel teaches a sexuality course exclusively for women which focuses on bodies and relationships. She is also planning to introduce a forum on male sexuality.

Tapia-Raquel heads the UTS Center for Women, Youth and Children with links to the Board of Women’s Work of the United Methodist Church which offers referrals for legal counsel and shelter.

“We provide a model of ‘sistering’ and ‘mothering,’ taking sides and defending women who are so readily persecuted and blamed even when they are harassed,” she said.

Sexism in the Church and the violence which arises as a result remains just the tip of the iceberg on a societal scale. Last week, the World Health Organization estimated that more than a third of all women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, usually from at the hands of their male partner.

"These findings send a powerful message that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions," Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, was quoted by news reports as saying. "We also see that the world's health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence."

The response begins, surely, with speaking out. 

Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and currently works in lay and continuing education

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