Violence against women and girls has been on the rise in the Philippines, with one in five women between 15 and 49 years found to have faced physical violence and one in 10 women having experienced sexual violence, as per the findings of the National Statistics Office’s National Demographic and Health Survey, 2008. Cases of violence against women and children, in particular, have been rapidly multiplying, despite the passage of the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004, which grants the government the right to intervene in case of household violence or abuse against women and children.
Of course, behind the alarming figures are real women and young girls whose lived realities give an insight into what happens when violence enters the secure walls of a home and the abuser is a trusted family member. This is the story of a mother-daughter duo that suffered through a decade of violence and sexual abuse before one of them had the courage to break the silence.
Myrna was a wide-eyed, petite girl of 18 when she applied for a job as a housemaid with a relative in Manila in 1997. The fourth of five children of a farmer, she had barely managed to study till second grade in a remote village in Calbayog in Samar province.
In Manila, Myrna was courted by 28-year-old Ricky, a construction worker. Her relatives warned her of his violent nature and alcoholism, and to break up the budding relationship sent her off to another home in Metro Manila. But Myrna was back in no time because Ricky started harassing and threatening the family. Her relatives were terrified, but to Myrna it was a romantic gesture.
Soon after, Myrna and Ricky got married and in May 1998 their daughter Marni was born. Eleven months later, son Mario followed. It was then that they decided to quit the city and go back to Calbayog to raise their family.
The crippling violence began in 2001. One day, Ricky brutally beat up three-year-old Marni and locked her up in their one-room house without food or water and left for work in a nearby farm, taking Myrna and the son with him.
Myrna chose to keep quiet even as her daughter was being tortured. "I know he loves me. He beat up my child, but he never lays a hand on me," is how she justified her silence. The mother may have chosen to overlook the incident but the neighbours couldn’t. So, one of them informed the City Social Welfare Department (CSWD) office. The little girl was rescued and a medical examination was conducted. What came out was horrific: the child had sustained haematomas, lacerations and cigarette burns all over her body.
When the authorities wanted to file a case against Ricky, Myrna pleaded with them. "It was only the first time and it was all a ‘mistake," she pleaded. She, however, allowed her daughter to remain in the custody of the CSWD. Charges of child abuse were filed against Ricky and a warrant of arrest issued two months later. But for some unknown reasons, it remained unserved - for nine years.
Those intervening years were, according to Myrna, a mix of short-lived bliss and periods of stupefying pain, mostly for her other children, who experienced beatings at the hands of their father.
Although a skilled carpenter, Ricky could not stay long with a job because of his drinking habit and violent temper. Still, he never laid a hand on her ... well, except on one occasion - during the baptism of their third child, Malou. That day Ricky had been drinking and gambling. When he asked her for more money and she refused, he punched her in the face, right in front of their visitors, and the children.
For the first time in their marriage, Myrna left Ricky and stayed at her employer’s house. After two days he came for her, promising never to do it again. But that promise was broken.
In February 2003, Myrna gave birth to their fourth daughter, Mengie, and about this time, the CSWD turned over the custody of her eldest daughter, Marni, to Myrna’s mother. Later, Marni rejoined her family. But the beatings started again, now accompanied by new forms of abuse.
In September 2004, Myrna left her kids in the care of her sister and brother-in-law for a day. She had got work as a dish washer. But that day turned Marni’s world upside down. The six-year-old was sexually molested by her uncle.
Myrna says she was in "total daze" after learning what happened, and "was just misguided by some people" to file charges against her brother-in-law, who later went into hiding. She even felt pity for her sister for losing the family’s breadwinner. But what about Marni? "She is just a child and will soon forget that experience," thought her mother.
But Myrna was proved wrong once again. The child’s abuser simply changed face, a more heinous face. Marni was 10 when her own father first sexually molested her. When Myrna caught him in the act, anger raged through her mind and for the first time she violently confronted Ricky. But just as quickly as her anger had surged so also it dissipated, when Ricky said he would never do it again.
By then, years of torture had transformed Marni into a terrified, traumatised girl. She ran away from home several times and when, in December 2008, a security guard found her sleeping on a pavement, he promptly turned her over to the CSWD. This time referred her to the Bantay Abuso Network (BAN), an inter-agency network established by the Western Samar Development Foundation (WESADEF), which implements highly-institutionalised services for women and children, who are victims of domestic violence.
There, at the WESADEF-BAN Balay Ayupanan Shelter, Marni finally opened up about the torture and abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father and uncle. With Marni safe at the shelter, the authorities discreetly built a case against Ricky. But Myrna and her other children were living in danger.
Cynthia, WESADEF’s social worker, recalls how, time and again, a pregnant Myrna used to flee her home with her five children to escape the wrath of their "padre de familya", sometimes seeking shelter at the homes of relatives, sometimes at the police headquarters but mostly at WESADEF office, where Myrna was now undergoing counselling.
The year 2010 was a turning point for Myrna and her children. Marni, who went through intense counselling and psychiatric evaluation, was finally able to voice her deep-seated hatred for her father, and contempt for her mother who, she said, was not able to protect her.
Today, Ricky is facing charges of rape and abuse, finally lodged against him by his wife. Myrna, meanwhile, divides her time between attending the Beginner’s Family Therapy with her children at WESADEF, court hearings, doing laundry and other chores for the neighbours, attending to her children, and tending their small farm.