"He was like a father to me," public school teacher Jelieta Ruca says of her thesis advisor Dr Melvin Mende, professor of industrial education and member of the graduate studies at the State-owned University of Southeastern Philippines (USEP) in Davao City. So, when Ruca found herself alone with Mende, to consult with him on her thesis one early evening on November 6, 2001, she could hardly believe what he did to her. Inside a deserted graduate school study room at the USEP, Ruca's mentor suddenly stood up, went straight to her, kissed her on the mouth and stroked her breasts.
"I felt so shocked and ashamed, that I did not even look up when I heard someone; it was probably the janitor who came to the door just then," she recalls.
"I walked out, nearly walked into a speeding taxi as I crossed the street, and went straight home. I told my husband I was really angry, but did not tell him about what really happened that evening."
At first, out of humiliation and fear, Ruca chose to bear her trauma in silence. But she could not put it out of her mind, and realized one day that she could not handle the silence any longer. "I had to fight back," she says. Despite efforts by Mende and others to dissuade her from doing so, in May 2002, Ruca filed criminal and administrative charges against Mende on the grounds of sexual harassment.
Earlier in 2006, however, the courtroom battle ended with Mende's acquittal. The decision penned by Judge Antonio Laolao of Municipal Trial Court in Cities (MTCC) said that the victim did not "instinctively do every action she can to...stop any unlawful attack by any man against her womanhood".
Women's advocates slammed Laolao's decision for using "skewed logic", "anti-women bias" and "sadly, setting standards that are outdated".
The court's decision stands in stark contrast to the recommendations of USEP's Committee on Decorum and Investigation (CODI). The committee found Mende guilty of sexual harassment and recommended his dismissal from service based on "substantial evidence". The five-member CODI said it "cannot be convinced" of Mende's alibi that he went home at around 3 pm and thus could not have committed the sexual harassment as alleged by Ruca. Mende's daily time record, the committee noted, said that he went out at 5:25 pm. "It created a doubt on his honesty," the decision said.
This case has been a five-year uphill battle for Ruca, who is now teaching grade five students at the Catalunan Grande elementary school in Davao City. She fought against the humiliation, continued, and succeeded in finishing her Masters degree from USEP. She ignored the stigma and went on to pursue her doctorate studies, even as CODI deliberations were being held in the university.
During this time, she struggled to save her marriage, grieved over the loss of her brother and was frustrated over the rejection of her application to become a school principal despite her excellent academic credentials. "I felt discriminated against over and over again, and for what? For speaking the truth and standing up for my rights?" laments Ruca, who is also known as a member of an activist teacher's organization here.
Ruca now fears that the recent court decision will convince the USEP's Board of Regents to ignore its CODI recommendation and reinstate Mende, who had been dismissed following the CODI investigations. "Where is the justice in all this? I am so angry and so shocked at how the court has distorted the facts and made it appear that I was lying," she says.
Lyda Canson, chairperson of the women's solidarity group, Gabriela, notes that the court's theory on Ruca's lack of "instinctive" action is "outdated". Ruca's lack of reaction, she says, was due to a "post-traumatic syndrome and the battered-woman syndrome". She points out that these are "medically recognized phenomena that explain why women do not resist so-called attacks on their womanhood".
Former judge Adoracion Avisado, Convenor of Transformative Justice Institute, says Judge Laolao's decision is "typical of the prevailing and pervasive patriarchal mindset in the judiciary. It is lamentable how judges set these standards. They have no background in behavioral science, but they are the ones who set the standards on how women should react to incidents."
Theresa Balayon, Coordinator of the Institute for Family Violence Prevention, a training arm of the Women's Crisis Centre, agrees with Avisado.
"Traumatologists have found that when women suffer from emotional trauma or are in a state of shock following sexual abuse, they will, in most cases, not react at all."
While the court found Mende's act of sexual harassment towards Ruca "contrary to natural and ordinary human behavior", the CODI asserted, "no woman in her right mind would expose herself to humiliation if her allegations are not true." Avisado explains further that the elements of sexual harassment are already present in a thesis advisor-student situation: "There is authority, there is influence, and there is moral ascendancy. He had the power not to endorse Ruca's thesis to the panel of thesis reviewers."
Davao City has a very high rate of reported cases of violence against women, comprising 62 per cent of the total cases in the Davao Region, according to 2005 year-end statistics.
Avisado says that despite the fact that the Philippines is a signatory to the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and despite the passage of domestic laws that are in favor of gender equality, "the way the judiciary handles sexual abuse cases have been in defiance of the spirit and intent of these laws and instruments".
"It comes as no surprise, therefore, that women are increasingly losing their belief in the Philippines justice system," Canson adds.