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PHOTO STORY: COVID-19 can be fatal, so can gender-based violence

Text and photos by Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 09 2020 11:27 PM | Updated as of Jun 10 2020 07:29 AM

* Note: Names of the victim-survivor and her family were changed for protection

Everyone thought Amy* was already dead when her neighbors rushed her to a nearby hospital in Manila on the evening of March 15. 

It was the first day of the lockdown in the national capital region due to the coronavirus disease or COVID-19 but she was already fighting for her life.

Amy, a resident of Smokey Mountain village in Tondo district, would have been the neighborhood’s first casualty during the pandemic, except she was not infected by the COVID-19.

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Amy contemplates outside her house in Smokey Mountain in Manila on May 23, 2020. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

While cooking dinner for her family, Amy felt a cold blade sinking into her flesh near her breast.

"You're a slut!" her partner Dan* yelled at her as he pushed the dagger deeper.

"Whore!" he shouted, pulling the blade and thrusting it into her back.

“Help! Someone help me,” Amy howled in pain as she called her neighbors. She blacked out after losing so much blood. 

That was the last time she saw Dan.

Gender Gap in Pre-Coronavirus Times

While gender-based violence (GBV) can happen to anyone, those living in poverty are often the most vulnerable. Before the pandemic, the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR) reports 16.06 million Filipino women were ‘economically insecure’. 

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Amy watches her children play from her tent. Her eldest is 7 years old, while her youngest is only 2 years old. She would pray at night to ask God to let her live a longer life because her children still need her. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Many victims of GBV in low-income communities often endure violence at home as filing charges against the perpetrators could mean losing the ‘breadwinners’ of their families. Yet violence could lead to permanent disabilities, unwanted pregnancies, trauma, and death.

There is no shortage of laws that protect women in the country but the implementation remains problematic. 

A 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey reveals that one in four married women, aged 15-49, experienced violence. The study also found that only one-third of victim-survivors sought help. 

The lack of knowledge on laws, lack of access to protection and referral mechanisms, and lack of access to services for persons with disabilities (PWDs) were among the continuing gaps in accessing justice in gender-based violence based on a report released by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in 2019.

Apart from lacking interpreters for the deaf and mute in barangays and police station, the insensitivity of the duty bearers’ towards the victim-survivors discourages them from speaking up. “What’s the point of reporting?” Amy asked. “I went to the barangay twice. On both occasions, they told me that my husband and I should resolve our issues at home.”

Since Amy gave birth to her eldest son seven years ago, Dan’s toxic behavior began to surface. Despite not having evidence other than seeing his wife wearing makeup, he accused her of seeing someone else. Behind closed doors, he dragged his wife like a rag doll and beat her up. 

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22-year-old Amy sits inside her tent in Smokey Mountain, where she and her three sons are sheltering during the lockdown. The young mother was hospitalized when she sustained injuries after being stabbed by her former partner on March 15, the first day of lockdown in Metro Manila. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

This went on almost every week but with three sons to raise, Amy had no time to grieve. She worked in a canteen in the fish port from early evening until before dawn where she earned P150 a day (US$ 3). With only a few hours of sleep, she woke up at 7 AM to do all the household chores until the afternoon. 

On the other hand, Dan spent more time drinking than actually providing for his family. His wife had no choice but to pick up his slack.

Atty. Twyla Rubin of the CHR Center for Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights explains that it takes a great deal of courage for women to speak against abuse as they are also risking themselves of being talked about. 

“If the process of filing a case is difficult, it gives the victim-survivors a reason not to pursue the case,” Atty. Rubin says. “The pandemic creates more barriers for those who want to report incidents of GBV and those who are helping. People are now focused on surviving the pandemic.”

Addressing The New Normal’s New Barriers

Cases of violence against women and children (VAW-C) in the Philippines have dropped during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), according to the PNP Women and Children Protection Center (PNP-WCPC). The data generated on April 15 show that there were 1,357 cases of violence against women and 1,402 cases of violence against children from February 14 to March 14.

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Plt. Col. Joy Tomboc, currently designated as acting chief of the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children (VAW-C) Division, is seen at her office in Camp Crame on April 28, 2020. The PNP urges the public to report VAW-C cases through Aleng Pulis, a helpline available 24/7 which directs the victim-survivor to the nearest police stations. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

From March 15 to April 15, records show only 755 cases of violence against women and 549 cases of violence against children. The figures are expected to change once the lockdown eases.

This raises concern from several human rights and feminist groups as it reflects the lack of ‘gender dimension’ in the government’s current COVID-19 response. 

The imposition of the ECQ, which restricted movements of residents to curb the coronavirus outbreak, presented additional hurdles for many women and children in accessing services meant to protect them.

The Philippine Commission on Women issued a memorandum encouraging government offices to craft guidelines in responding to VAW-C since communities are under community quarantine amid the pandemic. 

Taking advantage of the online platforms, the Philippine National Police launched “Aleng Pulis,” a 24-hour helpline that connects the victim-survivors to the nearest police station to report VAW-C cases.

The CHR has also developed a website called ‘e-Report sa Gender Ombud’ to help monitor and respond to GBV during the ECQ. The initiative tracks violations that emerged during the ECQ, such as the denial of services, violence against women human rights defenders, violence relating to the implementation of quarantine rules and violence against members of the LGBTQIA+.

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Likhaan community worker Lilibeth Armayan distributes packs of relief goods in Malabon, Metro Manila. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Despite the ECQ travel restrictions, NGOs and feminist groups worked to fill in the gaps through different initiatives. Likhaan Center for Women’s Health has kept its clinics open throughout the lockdown to provide sexual and reproductive health services, as well as support for women and children who experienced violence.

While the government continues to release the number of COVID-19 cases daily, the accurate number of cases of gender-based violence is anybody’s guess. 

“This global health crisis is a disruption that could weaken the mechanisms we already have in place, but on the flip side, it can also be an opportunity for us to address the gaps in the system," added Atty. Rubin.

Starting a New Life

If her neighbors did not hear her calls for help on the night of March 15, Amy was certain that it would have been the end of her life. It was perhaps the only time when authorities took her seriously, and Dan was finally sent to jail.

After she was discharged from the hospital, Amy lined up at the barangay for the government’s cash assistance. Using the money, she bought materials to build a small makeshift home in Smokey Mountain where she, her three sons, and eight dogs sheltered in during the ECQ. 

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Slippers are kept outside of Amy’s house. Most of the family’s belongings are scattered outside their tent. The small tent that she built in Smokey Mountain with the help of her neighbors is only about 4-feet wide and a little over five feet in length, just enough for her and her three small boys to sleep in. The mother of three decided to move out of her abusive ex-partner’s house after he was jailed for stabbing her. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

“My wounds would sting sometimes but I can endure that,” Amy said. “I’m more worried about my sons. In my prayers, I would ask God to let me live longer because my children need me.”

At times, Amy’s sons would cry and look for their father. 

“Your father almost killed me,” Amy would tell her sons.

“It’s okay, Mama,” her sons would reply to her. “You will be our father.”

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Despite the company of her friends and family, Amy admits that she sometimes feels lonely after ending her relationship with her ex-partner who is now detained after stabbing her. Although she is safer now, she worries about her children’s future. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

A survivor of domestic abuse, she said she went to the barangay to complain about her husband twice in the past but she never received help. According to the 2017 National Health and Demographic Survey, 1 in 4 women experienced spousal abuse but only one-third of the victim-survivors sought help. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

During the first few years of her relationship with her ex, Amy says that her partner used to be kind. After seeing his friend talking to his wife, Amy’s husband felt jealous and started abusing her. He would beat her and insult her in front of the neighbors. On March 15, he stabbed Amy after seeing he saw his friend giving her lemons. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy, a mother of three who was recently stabbed by her husband, cooks rice outside of her makeshift house in Smokey Mountain, Tondo. Since her partner is in jail, she is raising their three sons by herself. Even though being a single mother is difficult, she says she feels better now because she does not have to deal with her abusive ex. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy’s house is made of scraps of wood, plywood, and tarpaulins. She also stores a few pillows, blankets, cookware, and a bag of food supplies such as rice and canned goods inside her tent. After her husband was sent to jail for stabbing her, Amy and her three sons moved out of the house they once shared with the perpetrator and built a new one. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy bathes her three sons outside her small makeshift house in Smokey Mountain, Tondo, a former dumpsite that is now home to hundreds of poor Filipino families. On the first day of the lockdown in Manila on March 15, Amy’s husband almost killed his wife after stabbing her. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy dresses her son after giving him a bath. The mother of three sons shares her tent with her dogs and puppies in Smokey Mountain, a former landfill in Tondo, Manila. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy watches her children play from her tent. Her eldest is 7 years old, while her youngest is only 2 years old. She would pray at night to ask God to let her live a longer life because her children still need her. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

The eldest son rests his hand on Amy’s. Seven years ago, when she gave birth to her first child, Amy’s husband started accusing her of seeing another man. The couple fought almost everyday. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

There is no electricity at Amy’s new makeshift home. She usually asks her neighbors to charge her lamp so she could use it at night. After she was discharged from the hospital, she lined up to receive cash assistance intended for those whose income was affected by the lockdown. She used the money to buy materials to build a new home with the help of her neighbors. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy adjusts the plastic cover on her tent that she built with the help of her neighbors after she was discharged from the hospital. On March 15, Amy’s partner Dan stabbed her while she was preparing dinner for her family. Today, she lives with her three sons and dogs while her husband is in jail. She hopes to go back to working in the fish port once the lockdown eases. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Amy carries water containers as she walks to her home. She says she performed most of the household chores even when she was still living with her former husband. In a way, she is used to doing everything by herself but her wounds are still painful. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

Birds fly above Smokey Mountain, a former dumpsite in Tondo, Manila. Amy said she used to cover up her husband’s abusive behavior because she was afraid of what others would say even though her neighbors could hear them arguing. She did not realize that this only did more harm than good. Though she feels safer now that her husband is in jail, she admits that she worries about her children’s future. Bernice Beltran, ABS-CBN News

 

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society's Emergency Fund for Journalists.​