Joy Cruz (not her real name) will never forget the abuse she suffered for 10 years at the hands of her husband. "I tried to fight back once. He just banged my head against the wall and choked me until I couldn't breathe any more," she said.
Though she never filed a formal complaint against him, she finally decided to file for an annulment, the equivalent of a divorce in the Philippines, one of two countries in the world where divorce is illegal.
According to a report by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Women and Children Protection Centre, in 2007, the number of cases of violence against women had risen by 17 percent from 2006.
In the first semester of 2008, the PNP recorded 3,228 cases of violence against women.
Abuse by a spouse or partner is now the greatest violation committed against women with 1,398 reported cases, accounting for more than 40 percent of all types of violence against women recorded in the first two quarters of 2008.
But this could well be the tip of the iceberg, according to experts. Most cases, said the PNP, went unreported.
Part of the problem is the legal framework. In 2004, the Violence Against Women and Children Act (VAWC) was introduced. In addition to physical abuse, it covered verbal, psychological and economic abuse.
It also identified perpetrators as anyone with whom a woman had an intimate relationship, not just a spouse.
More importantly, it made physical abuse a criminal act punishable by law, and empowered abused women to break their silence.
According to the PNP, reported abuse cases have increased from 218 in 2004 when the law was passed to 2,387 in 2007; a fact largely attributed to increased awareness of the law.
A woman uses an traditional wooden wheel to spin thread at the Al Jamelah weaving cooperative in Cotabato, Philippines.
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
In many barangays, acts of domestic violence are dismissed as marital disputes
A key provision of the law is making available a Barangay Protection Order (BPO), similar to a restraining order, to safeguard the woman from further harm.
Authorising the "barangays", the smallest local government unit, to issue and carry out BPOs provides a community-based source of help that is easily accessible.
However, in reality, this is precisely what makes implementation and monitoring difficult.
“There are an estimated 41,000 barangays in the Philippines making it a logistic challenge for government to train personnel on the law’s rules and regulations and monitor its implementation,," says Irish Aguilar, women's programme coordinator for Saligan, an NGO specialising in alternative and developmental legal aid.
In many barangays, acts of domestic violence are dismissed as marital disputes.
Under the VAWC, barangays are not allowed to mediate between a husband and wife, but because of a lack of awareness of VAWC provisions, they often encourage reconciliation.
"There have been reports of asides made by barangay officers blaming the woman for being beaten because she failed to cook dinner, condoning the act of violence," added Aguilar.
This in turn seriously undermines the law.
Though cases have been filed, not many make it to court. Many women do not wish to see the father of their children imprisoned, for fear of stigma or because they cannot afford to lose the family's bread winner.
Joy, for example, never pressed charges against her husband before finally opting for an annulment.
But even that is not easy - an annulment can drag on for years and drain financial resources.
"Divorce is not an alternative and not the solution to ending domestic violence. It will require a total social rehabilitation to change the way people condone abuse," said Mary Alice Rosero, policy development and advocacy division chief of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women.
Four years since the implementation of the act, there have been no convictions.
Still a long way to go
"It took 13 years for [the act] to be passed," said Anna Leah Sarabia, founder of Kababaihan Laban Sa Karahasan (Women Against Violence) and the executive director of the Women's Media Circle, an NGO that produces media and communications materials on gender sensitivity and equality.
Sarabia and her team train barangay officials on VAWC rules and regulations to supplement the efforts of the local government.
"We were never under the illusion that one law would change women's lives. But we had hoped that the government mandate to protect women from being abused would be upheld and properly implemented," she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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