Before they are women

published March 27, 2013, page A5, MST
The school used to be exclusive to girls. Not anymore—it  started admitting boys a little over 10 years ago. Still, in any given class, the girls outnumber the boys roughly three to one.
And so when I was asked to speak, as a journalist, before 12- and 13-year olds on any pressing social issue of my choice, I immediately decided to talk about the Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act of 2004.
There was no need to go into the tedious details and crow about the gaps in implementation that sometimes frustrate the law’s intent.  Talking about why the law is there, what is seeks to do, who it wants to protect and from which acts of injustice was enough.
First came a short skit from some members of the freshman class. Louie, cast as the drunk father, staggered into his house where his wife Dana asked him where he had been. Louie cursed Dana for being meddlesome and slapped her. Their little son Mark saw the confrontation and cried aloud. Louie motioned for the boy to approach him and slapped him as well.
The class members laughed all throughout the short skit because it took less than 30 seconds, and the participants looked too thin and scrawny for their “mature” roles. But minutes after, everybody was sober—the topic at hand was certainly no laughing matter.
Some of the kids vaguely knew about the law but their knowledge was confined to grave instances of physical battery, perhaps those cases that made it to the news or to the movies. They were especially interested to hear about the many forms that violence can take. Indeed, sometimes there are worse things than bruises—very low self-esteem fostered by the very people who should help build it, inability to trust others, hopelessness.
The kids also learned that there are several options that abused women and children—or the people around them—could take under the law. They could seek a barangay protection order, a temporary (and later on a permanent) protection order, or file criminal charges where the abuser could be jailed or pay a fine, or both.
A girl asked if she could file a complaint anonymously against her neighbor for beating up his wife and kids. Admittedly, the pervading view even now is that what happens inside the house is strictly a private matter, best resolved without the interference of outsiders.
A boy asked—what about battered husbands?  I assured him there were laws covering that as well even as it does not fall under the subject at hand.  The numbers will tell you however that most of those who need the protection of the law in this instance are women.
And then, there is the condition called battered woman syndrome, where the victim is in no position to do something about her situation. She is depressed and suffers from low self-esteem and is not able to seek help from others, fight her abuser or take steps to leave the abusive environment.
I cautioned the kids that they should not be quick to judge victims as stupid for enduring an abusive relationship, especially when there are children involved, or if she is economically dependent on her partner.  The key is helping them find the strength to know what’s best for them and take action pursuing that.
At some point, there was sobbing somewhere in the class. One of the girls was apparently able to relate. My heart broke but I did not dare call attention to her lest she feel self-conscious.
In the end, why do we care? Violence is always a public crime. Refusing to talk about it and, worse, putting up appearances, puts the helpless even more at risk. It kills one’s spirit and prevents the victims from achieving their full potential.
Before I ended, I told the girls that this early they should know that they must not allow themselves to be treated shabbily, even if it is by a person they love, or think they love.  The boys, too, had a few things to learn: to treat the women in their lives—mothers, sisters, future partners—with respect.
It’s comforting to think we can do something not just to rectify acts of violence already done but to prevent them from happening.