Politician's joke shows why abuse victims cower in silence

Philippine presidential candidate dismisses daughter's rape confession
Politician's joke shows why abuse victims cower in silence

Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, a front-runner in the May 9 elections, has come under fire over his comments about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary in 1989. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

It takes a lot of courage for women to come out as victims of rape or other forms of abuse in the Philippines. The front-runner in this year's presidential elections has just shown why so many cower in silence.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who likes to boast of killing criminals, earned flak for joking about an Australian missionary who was raped and killed during a prison hostage situation in 1989.

Duterte may have wanted to cement his credentials as a tough-on-crime executive; he started firing when he saw Jacqueline Hamill fall. But he mangled his message by talking about the raped missionary's beauty.

"I saw her face and I thought: 'Son of a bitch. What a pity.' ... they raped her, they all lined up. Of course, I was mad she was raped but she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first," Duterte told thousands of supporters who reacted with amusement.

Duterte's "joke" divided even those who give him credit for pro-women local government policies and aiding indigenous people hounded off their ancestral lands.

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"I see the way your heart beats loudly against injustices," acknowledged feminist theater actress Monique Wilson. "But these days I am having sleepless nights thinking of the male machismo entitlement in which you wield words on a privileged whim because of your elevated status as a man of position and power."

Duterte's words promoted a long, painful reflection by Wilson on an abusive father who "shattered" her mother's soul. Duterte reminded Wilson of her father, a populist politician who loved the poor and stayed free of corruption, but who hurled mean words at home "to feel more powerful, to feel manly, to feel in control."

Wilson broke decades of silence in the poignant letter so different from the angry screeds that filled social media. Amid pain, she offered Duterte and his followers hope for change.

Then Duterte's daughter, Sara, who could replace him as mayor, also revealed she is a rape survivor.

"Finally said it. Good morning," she posted on her Instagram account.

Sara said she did not know how to defend her father but insisted his words did not reflect on his leadership.

A day after, Duterte dismissed her confession.

"She can't be raped; she carries a gun," he told reporters. Later, before a huge crowd, he repeated the denial and then added, "She's a drama queen." 

Sara never told her parents about her rape. Even today, she finds it "embarrassing" to discuss details. Her father showed no interest, saying it was Sara's "personal matter." 

"She can't be raped; she carries a gun," says Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte in response to the revelation that his daughter had been raped. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


The candidate's remarks show what Philippine rape survivors face — an atmosphere of disbelief and contempt or, worse, a torrent of blame. It's no wonder only three of 10 survivors of sexual abuse seek help. 

Statistics show that almost 40 percent suffer in silence; 27 percent share the experience but back out from seeking aid. In a country lauded for gaps in gender equality, abuse remains a topic few want to admit.

Children — minors — make up 77 percent of our rape survivors.  Many of the rapists of children are people they love, kin or friends or authority figures. They depend on the rapists for shelter, for food, for emotional comfort, for survival in school and in the community.

When they do come out, they are scorned for either attracting unwanted attention or, worse, for failing to defend their "honor."

The message is essentially, "you're to blame" and to come out would open the family further to more shame. 

Groups that deal with rape survivors say they can be pressured to subsume the search for justice to the family's economic needs, or to defend reprisals by kin out to avenge honor. 

"Many are told coming out would tarnish their personal reputation," said Emmie de Jesus of the women's party, Gabriela. 

De Jesus' group demanded an apology from Duterte for his rape joke. They got a barrage of scathing remarks from the mayor, though he did apologize for using "gutter language."

In his contemptuous, public dismissal of a daughter's rape confession, Duterte proved words do display worldview. When confronted by a real case of a rape survivor, Duterte failed the test.

Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.

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