MARAWI CITY, Philippines – “Many women and girls here were suffering from violence. And the armed conflict made the situation of gender-based violence even worse,” said Umme Limbona, a 26-year-old social worker from the battle-scarred city of Marawi, Philippines.
“There are a lot of unreported abuses, especially after the Marawi conflict,” she told UNFPA.
17 months ago, a local non-state armed group inspired by ISIS seized Marawi city.
“I was on duty at Amai Pakpak Medical Center when the conflict erupted,” Ms. Limbona recollected.
“The terrorists entered the hospital, and we were trapped for the rest of the night. I was very scared, but I was able to escape by jumping out of a window from the third-floor supply room onto the terrace of a neighboring building,” she said.
The conflict eventually came to a halt in October 2017. Nonetheless, over 73,000 people still remain displaced to date, living in evacuation centres, temporary shelters and host communities.
Although violence against women and girls is pervasive in times of peace, armed conflict and other emergencies increase vulnerabilities to gender-based violence – including sexual violence, exploitation, and trafficking – threatening the lives and well-being of women and girls, and the Marawi siege was not an exception. An assessment conducted in 2017 revealed that 45 percent of conflict-affected sites reported that girls were the most affected by sexual violence.
Culture of Silence and Impunity
“There is a lot of stigma around sexual violence and abuse,” said Dr. Nadhira Abdulcarim, 38, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Marawi.
“Many do not report it because it is a taboo and your and your family's reputations suffer,” she explains the ‘culture of silence’.
The stigma is not the only thing that victims of violence suffer. Gender-based violence can lead to death, and even when they avoid fatality the survivors can face sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, as well as injuries, mental and psychosocial effects such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, which can also lead to suicide and death. Such consequences may also prevent survivors of violence from continuing their schooling or work.
“What a family of the survivor often does is that they marry the woman to her perpetrator. The perpetrator’s family provides a dowry and the marriage is perceived to erase this bad thing that happened to the woman,” Dr. Abdulcarim told UNFPA. Few report these cases of criminal offence to the police, and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators and the fear generated by their actions further perpetuate the vicious cycle of silence.
“Violence against women and girls is a severe violation of human rights and significant concern to public health. Additionally the severe socio-economic costs of gender-based violence on the entire country’s development have been well documented by evidence globally,” said Iori Kato, UNFPA Representative in the Philippines.
“If we allow gender-based violence to continue to take its harmful toll not only on the survivors but also on whole families and communities, we endanger prospects for lasting peace and recovery,” he added.
Working together to protect women and girls
In partnership with UNFPA, the Philippines’ Department of Health and Amai Pakpak Medical Center recently established a Women and Children Protection Unit (WCPU) in Marawi City. This is the first-ever WCPU in the entire province of Lanao del Sur.
The facility enhances access of gender-based violence survivors to coordinated life-saving interventions such as medical care led by Dr. Abdulcarim, mental health and psychosocial support from Ms. Limbona, as well as police assistance coordinated by Police Officer Ms. Chrestine Espinorio.
This all women multi-disciplinary team provides support to those women and children who are the survivors of violence that ensures smooth coordination among different services based on confidentiality and a survivor-centered approach.
“We want to stop the culture of silence. We are helping those survivors who never thought anyone could help them,” said Ms. Limbona.
UNFPA supported the team’s training for managing cases of violence and abuse against women and children and provided equipment for the facility.
“I want to be there for women when their rights are being trampled. As part of the WCPU, I would like the Police to contribute to restoring our fellow women’s and girls’ dignity and hope and to breaking the culture of impunity,” said Police Officer Espinorio.
UNFPA’s support to the WCPU was funded by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and provided in collaboration with the Child Protection Network (CPN) Foundation, Lanao del Sur, and the Marawi City Police.
On 25 November 2018, the Philippines will observe the 18-Day Campaign to End Violence against Women. The annual campaign raises public awareness that violence against women and girls is an issue of national concern.
“We all have a responsibility to know about gender-based violence, and responsibility to act on eliminating such violence. We had enough violence, and need no more,” said Dr. Abdulcarim.
- Mario Villamor