Women, Violence, and the Reinvolvement of the U.S. Military in the Philippines

Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"

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To most of the world, the issue of U.S. military tenure in the Philippines receded when the Philippine congress refused to renew its military base agreement with the U.S. in 1991. Yet, only seven years later, a Visiting Forces Agreement was signed that allowed U.S. military personnel access to 22 ports and bases. It was a return to the abuses that women’s rights activists had long struggled against: the conscription of young girls and women from poor families into prostitution; a growth in criminality, narcotics, and alcoholism in the communities near the bases; the trafficking of Filipinas and their global devaluation as low-paid workers and servile brides.

In the Philippines historically, violence against women has correlated with high levels of militarization by foreign troops. Currently, two long-standing domestic armed conflicts, together with the U.S. military presence, have contributed to an extreme level of militarization that represents not only a heightened role for the armed forces in government, but also a lack of effective checks on its expenditures and reach.

Studies published during the 1990s by Filipino, Australian, American, Vietnamese, and other scholars provide considerable documentation of the brutalities toward women that resulted from the type of large-scale, institutionalized prostitution that existed in the Philippines until 1991, when the U.S. vacated its largest military installation outside North America. Between the Vietnam War era and 1991, Filipinas were subjected to many forms of dehumanization and violence at the hands of U.S. soldiers, including rape, battery, widespread abandonment of the Amerasian children they fathered, and a legacy of sexually-transmitted disease. At Olongapo and Angeles cities, where two American bases were located, live sex shows had been banned at the height of U.S. occupation, but women’s performances involving bodily contortions with objects—which were equally demeaning—were still taking place. In both of the largest base cities, a popular form of entertainment for military men was “foxy boxing,” in which the female participants were forced to fight each other until they drew blood or showed bruises. Without demonstrable injuries, they were not paid, according to a 1995 book published by a scholarly press, Madonnas and Martyrs: Militarism and Violence in the Philippines, by the Australian scholar Anne-Marie Hilsdon. While it might be argued that the women involved in prostitution, as well as the mail-order bride industry, are not always helpless victims, Philippine women’s rights advocates maintain that poor women of developing countries do not choose sex work but, with no other option for economic survival, are forced into it. Once caught up in prostitution, women exercise almost no control over the poor pay, abusive conditions, social stigma, and other risks they face.

These deeply rooted problems, which scarcely had time to abate during the ten-year hiatus in U.S. military involvement in the Philippines, are now worsening under today’s return of American forces and the strengthening of the Philippine military’s power with assistance from the United States. Following September 11, when President Bush declared the Philippines America’s “second front” in the war against terrorism, several thousand U.S. troops have been deployed to the country. This return of military forces means an increase in the domestic and cross-border sale of Filipinas. For example, in Zamboanga City, where most military personnel are based, local rights activists estimate that 2,000 women are now caught up in prostitution, in contrast to almost none before the new deployment Estimates from the International Organization of Migration indicate that over the last year and a half, the rate of recruitment for prostitution has risen six-fold, if the domestic transport of women is added to the trafficking of Filipinas to Okinawa and South Korea to serve U.S. troops.

Among rights activists in the Philippines, GABRIELA, the largest coalition of progressive women’s organizations and institutions in the country, has been a leader in the struggle against what it defines as three, closely-connected obstacles to Filipinas’ rights and welfare: U.S. troops’ lack of accountability for abuses against women; the Philippine government’s tolerance of its own military’s transgressions; and its failure to implement the human rights mechanisms set in place during the Aquino administration. The latter include constitutional guarantees of democratic freedoms, a national Commission on Human Rights, and an office of the Ombudsperson. The Commission’s inability to charge anyone despite the evidence amassed by GABRIELA affiliates has led the women activists to abandon the Commission as a tool and instead push for change by publicizing the troubling human rights record with respect to women of successive administrations.

A key challenge for GABRIELA is the status of impunity of American military personnel. A clause in the Visiting Forces Agreement makes it impossible to hold U.S. troops accountable to a foreign country for crimes committed on its soil, including violence against women. In 2003, the U.S. also required and received assurances from 43 nations, including the Philippines, that its military personnel were exempt from prosecution under the International Criminal Court, which has recognized sexual abuse, forced prostitution, and rape as war crimes. In response to this setback, GABRIELA is organizing a campaign to pressure Filipino politicians to renegotiate the agreement, arguing, in explicit human rights language, that the exemption invites violence against women while leaving them without the right to redress grievances, due process, or equal protection under the law. GABRIELA advocates are also documenting U.S. troop actions that are considered crimes under Philippine law and demanding that, in the case of violence against women, jurisdiction be given to Filipino courts.

One signal success, following GABRIELA’s almost 20-year campaign against sex trafficking, is the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, which was drafted and strongly promoted by GABRIELA chairwoman Lisa Maza, a congresswoman since 2001. The Act affirms the Philippine state’s commitment to protect the dignity and individual rights of women and men, as specified in the international conventions and human rights instruments to which the Philippines is a signatory. The legislation, which is notable for its sanctions against military personnel, police and foreigners engaged in trafficking or patronizing the sex trade, is the product of years of protests and advocacy aimed at protecting Filipinas and Filipino youth from military prostitution, mail-order-bride rackets and sex tourism. The struggle against U.S. “reoccupation” (as women’s groups see it) has been couched as much in terms of national sovereignty as in terms of women’s basic rights to lead lives free of the violence linked to the presence of foreign troops. Yet, passage of the Act is seen by GABRIELA and its allies primarily as a victory in the effort to secure broader rights in the criminal justice system for the underprivileged and marginalzed sectors of Philippine society, the majority of whom are women and children. Viewed as the result of a joint effort by women’s groups that include not only GABRIELA but the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women, the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women, Sibol, Batis, Buklod and others, the Anti-Trafficking law also received a critical push toward passage from a committee of 100 legislators, church leaders, media stars, women artists and others formed by GABRIELA during its four-year-old international Purple Rose Campaign against trafficking.

Resort to a discourse of human rights has also been crucial in another problematic arena: deflecting the Philippine military’s attempts to characterize GABRIELA as a movement to overthrow the state. Amidst the post 9/11 rhetoric of terror and stepped-up military assistance from the U.S., the setbacks have been considerable. Dissidents on the left, including GABRIELA members, continue to be labeled Communist and targeted for assassination. Five GABRIELA activists, for example, have been murdered over the past year in highly-militarized rural areas, apparently for openly speaking out against the Philippine armed forces and advocating women’s human rights.

Yet alliance members believe that the toll would be higher if not for the domestic and international support they have mobilized by exposing the arrests, imprisonments, and other brutalities endured by their members for upholding their commitment to protect and expand Filipinas’ democratic rights. Appeals to women’s groups in other countries have kept pressure on the Philippine state to consider its image in the international community as a country concerned with its women’s freedoms and safety. But in the aftermath of 9/11, as new funding from the U.S. reinvigorates the Philippine military and U.S. troops are deployed in the southern islands, women’s rights advocates are working once again to prevent the domestic armed forces from abusing women as a means of intimidating the population. At the same time, they are opposing government policies of allowing sexual access to Filipinas in exchange for U.S. foreign financial and military assistance.

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