It comes with the territory: That was how President Rodrigo Duterte described the heinous crime of rape against overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in a speech last week. It’s a given for those “working as slaves [overseas],” he said. “Rape comes with the territory.”
This was barely a couple of weeks after the president had once again sparked international headlines with his confession that he had, in his youth, molested a family housemaid.
The presidential palace, doing what it does best these days, later dismissed the story as, well, a non-story, “a laughable anecdote” done in the president’s “inimitable allegorical style”, in the words of presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.
“His story wasn’t obscene,” added Panelo. Duterte’s “shocking and amusing out-of-the-box utterances”, he pointed out, are what endears him to the public.
It’s doubtful, though, whether the women OFWs who heard the president’s latest remarks would find them amusing or endearing. Women comprise more than half, or 1.26 million, of the country’s 2.3 million OFWs, according to 2017 government statistics.
Most of these women work as domestics, hotel employees or office cleaners in the Middle East – positions that make them particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence. Migrante International, an advocacy group for OFWs, says it has documented 1,549 cases of maltreatment and 308 cases of rape and sexual abuse among OFWs as of 2016 – in Kuwait alone.
Duterte’s description of OFWs as people “working as slaves [overseas]…” is not the only thing that rankles; it’s also his characterisation of rape as “part of the culture” – by which he presumably meant the culture of the countries that host OFWs. But if a foreign rapist uses that line of defence to justify his assault on a Filipino worker, would that not be considered a spurious, even outrageous, justification?
The only just, rational and proper response to rape, one would think – especially of one’s hapless fellow citizens – would be damnation of the act and its perpetrator to high heavens, and the relentless pursuit of justice for the victim. Declaring that it “comes with the territory” seems to telegraph the opposite; that Filipino women – on top of the poverty from which they’re trying to flee and the separation from loved ones they have to endure to better their families’ lot – should resign themselves to such an unspeakable end when they head to foreign shores.
“By equating rape, which is a sexual offence, to a cultural norm, Duterte justifies and condones the sexual abuse against our fellow Filipinas abroad, and erodes our standing in the international community in seeking accountability and justice over the numerous rape cases committed by foreign employers against OFWs,” said the women’s group Gabriela.
Migrante, in a statement directed at the president, also lamented: “Instead of ensuring justice for all the rape victims and providing full protection to all our women OFWs, you gave us a remark that virtually justifies the commission of heinous crimes against them.”
The palace will no doubt spin Duterte’s words as yet another instance of artful, unorthodox articulation. A better use of the administration’s time, however, not to mention the public’s patience, is for the palace to double-check that government agencies are doing their manifest best to protect OFWs.
For a start, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration can review its pre-departure orientation for OFWs to check if it is comprehensive enough to cover and explain the cultural norms in, say, a Middle East household.
How can female OFWs protect themselves in a patriarchal setting where women are considered second-class beings subject to the whims of men, and, in this case, also engaged in servitude? Are Philippine labour attaches and labour consuls actively monitoring compliance with bilateral agreements that, among others, prohibit employers from seizing their house-helpers’ passports?
Abuse, maltreatment and violence become part of the territory only if they’re allowed to be – and, unfortunately, reckless presidential words, intended or not, can lend a hand in normalising them.
One out of 10 Filipino households now has a member working overseas; our OFWs can in no circumstances be surrendered to such a fate.