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Archive for April, 2012

Intimate Strangers (2006 version)

We first met in 1992, during our freshman year in the University of the Philippines College of Law. She was a bespectacled, serious-looking lady from Dumaguete, while I was a true-blue Manila girl who had lived in Quezon City for most of her life. She was unflatteringly dark complexioned and timid as any typical probinsiyana, but was surprisingly articulate and fluent in English. Apparently, Cebuano was her first language, and her attempts at speaking Tagalog were often laughed at by people. They said her Filipino was “weird” because she would say “aklat” instead of “libro”; and she would use “sapagkat” instead of “kasi.” But early on, one could tell she was really smart and with her degree in Political Science (cum laude, mind you), she was destined to become lawyer someday. I, on the other hand, had already served my dues as a Makati working girl before I decided to enter law school as an afterthought. With my degree in Agribusiness Management, I had worked for a multinational for a whole year, and I was cocky and unprepared for the rigors of schoolwork all over again.

On our Orientation Day, we already had an assignment and I stubbornly half-complied, believing I would not get called upon to recite out of 200 new freshmen. But as luck would have it, the terror professor, notorious for embarrassing students, called on me in an auditorium filled to the brim. I was pale and nervous, at the brink of fainting; but I decided to just wing it, for I did read the assignment, after all, albeit haphazardly. Out of all twenty issues cited in the subject case, I chose the main one, and fortunately, the correct one, to the utter disbelief of those who attempted to answer the same question. My friendly new classmate turned to me from her seat and congratulated me, for I did well, she said, thinking on my feet like that. Years later, with our inevitable disillusionment with the study of law, I would remember what faith she had in my capabilities then. 

Life in law school was hard and we welcomed support from whatever source, just to gain some advantage over our highly competitive classmates. That first semester, she joined the prestigious UP College of Law Portia Sorority, the only law school-based sorority in UP, and I followed suit the next semester. By our second year, law books and photocopied materials were fast draining our finances, and we both decided to become working or evening students. Working full time during the day did not leave much time for studying and life as a law student was getting more difficult by the minute. Like many others, we were doomed to extend our stay in the college for longer than we would prefer.  

After my father succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994, I was forced to take a leave of absence from UP Law. I was socially out of circulation for many months, but she would come visit me at home since her office was very near our place. We also kept in touch even when she went home to Dumaguete during school breaks – on Christmas and in the summer. We were classmates, sorority sisters, and very good friends. But nothing could have prepared us for what was in store for us in 1995. 

We had always enjoyed each other’s company because of our common interest in books and reading. Being voracious readers, we would read almost anything besides our law books. We both liked watching movies and we shared a strong affinity for animals, especially dogs. And while we both write, she claimed that she’s much better in non-fiction narratives, so I should just stick to my poetry.

Admittedly, she was mostly into Shakespeare, J.R.R Tolkien, and Ray Bradbury, and I was into Stephen King, Erich Segal, and Richard Bach. While she was into opera and classical music, I was into popular rock n’ roll. But soon, it did not matter; for we found ourselves learning to like each other’s preferences, because we felt enriched by the other’s tastes and experiences.

Strangely, in each other, we found the “walking encyclopedia” we were both searching for. If one isn’t familiar with a topic, all she has to do is ask the other who, more or less, has some information about the subject. We can talk endlessly about everything and anything under the sun. When one speaks, there is always that spark of recognition in what the other is saying. We do not finish each other’s sentence as a matter of practice, but we can always tell what the other is thinking.

We were once asked: “So, when did you stop being friends?” We replied that we never stopped being friends; we still are each other’s best friend. I cannot say exactly when, but somehow, somewhere, things did change for us and the connection became deeper than we could have ever imagined.

She once told me that she had only asked God to give her someone who is kind, patient, understanding and loving. She had always assumed God would take care of the gender requirement, so maybe it was her fault for not being more specific. Meanwhile, my idea of a true soulmate was someone who would have the same values as I had: God-fearing, family-oriented, generous, and caring. I did not realize then that sometimes the one thing you’re looking for is right in front of you, but you just don’t see it at first.

We were unnervingly logical about the whole thing. We discussed it rationally and decided to resist whatever was developing between us because it was the sane thing to do. Imagine the friendship we could lose if things turned sour; we were sorority sisters, after all, and it might scandalize the residency and the alumnae alike. We thought that decision was by far the most difficult thing we could make. But after struggling with it for weeks, trying everything possible to avert a problematic situation, the decision to acknowledge our relationship for what it truly was, eventually became our saving grace.    

We recognized from the very beginning the pain and the sacrifice that our love would entail. At the risk of being discriminated against and being fodder for the rumor mill, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to deny our relationship and negate each other’s value in our lives. That one act of courage cost us some people whom we thought were our friends.

Some sorority sisters shied away from us; others accosted us and intimidated us with questions, complete with religious morality lectures. Others, merely speculated and whispered behind our turned backs. At the annual sorority ball, we became the highlight of the evening talk. Soon, the alumnae sisters were hounding us, and I was so afraid they would make a move to expel us from the sorority. Eventually, the worst thing that could happen, came to pass: after being a top-contender for the highest position in our sorority, I did not get voted for Lady President (LP) during the elections.

At one time, during Holy Week, she got sick when she was all alone at her dormitory. I brought her home with me and took care of her. My Mom and sisters had always liked her and they suggested that she just board with my family, so someone could always look out for her. For a while, they accepted her and tolerated our relationship. But things turned bad when my youngest sister got married and there were just too many complications. There was trouble about always having to explain my “friend’s” status in the family. We often got compared, but our relationship did not get the same recognition and respect as my married sister’s. Preference was always given to my brother-in-law, to the point that we were asked to give up our sleeping quarters for their sake. Eventually, a choice had to be made and my family threw us out of the house.

We had nothing then but the clothes on our backs and each other. Using her savings, we rented a little rat-hole in Project 8, and scrimped and saved to be able to get the bare essentials of a home. We learned to scour Divisoria, Quiapo, and even the Pier for the cheapest home furnishings. I, who had been accustomed to having maids take care of things for me, now had to learn to do household chores. I picked kitchen duty for I at least knew how to cook. Together, we learned to go to the wet market and pick out inexpensive food stuffs. We were embarrasingly poor, but we had never been happier in our entire lives. 

Once, she caught me sitting in our empty living room with my ear pressed against the wall. I explained to her that I was listening to the early evening news through the neighbor’s television next door. She cried at that, for she knew what a TV-addict I was, and a TV was just not included in our priorities at the time. Meanwhile, I was always moved to pity when I see her hand washing all our laundry, when she had already developed an allergy to the cheap detergent we used. We couldn’t even afford a flat iron  then, so we used excessive amounts of fabric softener before hanging out our clothes to dry; that way wrinkles are avoided.

When our finances improved, we devised a way of purchasing houseware without being too conscious of it. We agreed that our gifts to each other would always be items on our priority list. So for a Valentine’s gift, I gave her a washing machine. When she got a bonus, she finally got me a small television set. Later, I got her a new stove with my own bonus. And knowing how much I missed my tropical fishes back home, she got me a small aquarium for my birthday.

Although she was working full time then, I still had to get a stable, higher-paying job to help out. In those days, since I was still studying, we still had to scrimp to be able to afford tuition and school materials. She would buy me my law books and reviewers, even give me extra pocket money when necessary. So when I graduated in 1999, I decided that the honor should be hers to come up on the stage with me as I took my Bachelor of Laws diploma. While the others brought with them their respective parents, or wives and husbands, she went up with me as my name was called. While our law professors looked on in confusion, my batchmates hooted their approval, and we just gave them naughty little smiles.

Presently, our life together is comfortable and familiar. We render mutual love, respect and support; so who is to say that the love we share is any less intense than that experienced by heterosexual couples? We have closely approximated a “married life” as far as practicable, but in the eyes of the law, we are not “spouses”; we are mere strangers to each other.

We would like to get married, but the law says we can never marry; that right is reserved by the Family Code for a male and a female alone. Although we have moved in together and have bought houseware, furniture, and other things meant to be owned in common, these things we are enjoying jointly are not considered “conjugal” property. At best, under a presumption that it was taken from common funds,  we possess them under the terms of co-ownership.

And since we are not “spouses,” we cannot be intestate heirs of each other; for only as a widow or widower can one be considered as a legal heir. So, to inherit from each other, we must each execute a Last  Will and Testament. In the same vein, under social security laws, we cannot be each other’s Primary Beneficiary because we are not each other’s “legal spouse.” Consequently, we cannot claim tax exemptions on each other for being “married” individuals.

Since we are not even considered “Next-of-Kin,” we cannot make medical decisions for each other, and neither are we authorized to make funeral arrangements for each other. The credit card companies and the insurance industry likewise refuse to acknowledge our couplehood because we do not fall within the contemplation of “immediate family member.”

And although relations with my family have significantly improved, sometimes we still experience this non-recognition of our partnership. When all the other brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law have been asked to become ninongs and ninangs of newborn nephews and nieces, my partner has never been asked  to serve as  a godmother. During weddings in our respective clans, when the traditional photo with the groom’s or bride’s family is to be taken, neither of us is invited to be included in the picture since we’re not officially classified as “in-laws.” Nonetheless, the people closest to us had tried to accommodate us somehow. My cousin endorsed her as her official wedding coordinator, when it was a position coveted by our other snooty cousins. On the other hand, my partner’s older brother asked me to be a reader for the mass during his own wedding.  

Despite all these hardships, my partner and I have decided to spend the rest of our lives together and we have taken steps to affirm our committed relationship. In December 2000, we had our commitment ceremony by way of a Holy Union to show our families and friends that we mean for our couplehood to last for a long, long time.

On the eve of our Holy Union, she reminded me of an incident when we were still in UP Law. We were in the library with our classmates discussing the possibilities of ending up with one of our own batchmates later on in life. The guys were divided in their opinion of headstrong and intelligent women. She then asked one of them if he would consider marrying her. Typical male, he found it hard to commit to an answer and I blurted out: “I would….,” immediately chasing it with a qualifier, “if I were a guy, that is.” Eight years later, she still remembered that rather weird experience. 

In June 2002, we renewed our vows to each other. We had known each other then for  about ten (10) years, and we had been together as a couple for a total of seven (7) years. Last  December 15, 2005, we celebrated our tenth year together. I have no regrets and I hope, neither has she. For truly, happiness is being married to your very best friend.

What Access to Justice Means for PWDs and Women

There are a lot of discussions on the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) recently.It is evident that the issue of disability has many intersectionalities with other vulnerabilities. Cross-cutting issues involve disability, minority, gender and sexuality, class or financial status, and educational background, and how this affects their civil and political rights, particularly Acces to Justice.

A couple of months ago, I came upon a case which was raised to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) under the mechanism of the Optional Protocol. The author/petitioner was not only an ordinary victim of gender-based violence. Besides being a female, she is a deaf-mute and was a minor when she was raped.

At the heart of this case was an in-depth discussion on the status of implementation of our Anti-Rape law. The problems highlighted in the communication to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights exemplified the gaps and flaws in Republic Act No. 8353, and makes the current initiatives in Congress to amend the Anti-Rape Law of 1997 even more relevant.

While the case was primarily “mishandled” by the court, there were other aspects in the enforcement of the law where its express provisions were not only NOT followed, but were actually “violated”. Republic Act No. 8505 explicitly requires a FEMALE police officer to conduct the initial interview, but it was a male police officer who interviewed the victim.

At the outset, during the initial investigation of the case, there was already great difficulty communicating with the authorities because the victim was a deaf-mute and sign language interpreters are not readily available at police stations. Only her own sister translated for the victim. This seeming insensitivity to the victim’s disability, continued until the actual prosecution of the case in court. There is no “official”, government sign language interpreter provided, and courts have to engage the services of translators from NGOs. This clearly shows the State’s inability to fully address the issues and concerns of PWDs when it comes to their right to access to justice. Hence, this is likewise not in compliance with our obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Much of the issues herein are matters of policy review and legislative reform. The court glaringly failed to appreciate the evidence presented and instead, relied on gender-based myths and stereotypes. By insisting that the “victim must have done all conceivable means to evade or resist the perpetrator’s advances”, the court effectively demanded that she respond according to what the court deemed to be “reasonable standard of human conduct” and discounted the wide range of behavioral responses that can be exhibited by victims. By characterizing a “Filipina rape victim” as a woman who “summons every ounce of her strength and courage to thwart any attempt to besmirch her honor and blemish her purity”, the victim’s testimony was deemed incredible because she did not conform to such a stereotype. She was even effectively blamed for not employing insufficient or inadequate means to avoid the rape. Such perspective lends to the old categorization of rape as a “crime against chastity”, instead of a “crime against person”, where the operative word is the person, and not her reputation or credibility. Note that rape is no longer considered a “private” crime, but a “public” crime which the State must pursue.

It is apparent that the victim experienced layers of vulnerability which exposed her to greater risk of being subjected to abuse and violence. Most evident of all is the failure of the court to consider her disability of being deaf-mute. Using the above-mentioned framework, she was required to show proof that she struggled or made some noise because “her mouth was not covered nor stuffed by any object.” The court insisted that “she could have reached for plates of the table” where she was laid, when she already said she had cleared the table earlier and there was nothing she could use to hit her attacker with.

This is the very essence of the current amendment pending before Congress – to change the language of the law that puts a premium on proof of violence, coercion and intimidation instead of the simple lack of consent, on evidence of torn clothing, threats of actual bodily hard or injury, or the victim’s showing that she screamed or shouted for help. Such technicalities thereby restrict the appreciation of the case by prosecutors and judges. In spite of all the provisions in the anti-rape law favoring the testimony of a victim, judges’ decisions are still limited by the way they appreciate the evidence using this logical framework. Nowhere is the gender-sensitivity and awareness trainings reflected in their rationalizations because they fall back on negative stereotypes and gender myths.

The recommendations made in the communication are worthy of consideration by the Philippine Government. It is by no means a “source of shame” for the Philippines, should the proper officials and authorities choose to do something about it by instituting legal and policy reforms that will address these problems in implementation.

It is with this clarity that our DFA must think when it makes representations in international fora, like the United Nations bodies. It is with this gender-sensitivity and rights-based approach that other government agencies must act when it formulates policies, when it proposes legislative measures, and when it lays down court decisions.

Much Ado about “Real Women”