The thing about sexual harassment is that it feeds on silence. Perpetrators bask in it while it cloaks its victims in its heaviness, masking their mouths, keeping them afraid. Made worse is that institutions that victims can turn to — the police, the government, and most especially schools — rarely act in their interest. There are few statistics available as to the prevalence of sexual harassment in universities in the Philippines because they don’t get reported out of fear or shame. On the rare occasion that they are reported, the consequences are often ugly.
Last week, a viral post by a young man named Geo Celestino made the rounds on Facebook, narrating the story of how his sister, a third year fine arts student in the University of Santo Tomas (UST), was bullied by UST’s Social Welfare and Development Board (SWDB).
According to Celestino, his sister tweeted a photo of the fifth year engineering student who harassed her while sleeping in a UV Express on the way home. She posted on Twitter to warn other female commuters. The male student reported her Twitter post to the SWDB, and after a long string of back-and-forths, she retracted her statement, and was made to apologize to the male student. Her brother took to social media when he saw the “Notice of Resolution” that the Celestinos’ parents had to sign as a conclusion of the issue.
Five days later, the University of Santo Tomas released an official statement in their Facebook page:UST’s response came a little too late, and is tepid at best. It defends the outcome of the case, and therefore defends the perpetrator of the crime.
When asked why Yssa Celestino did not report the crime, she told her brother that she worried that she would not be a credible witness to the crime against her. “What if I was only imagining this? What if hindi maniwala sa’kin mga kasama ko dito sa UV express?” she said. “What if mapahiya lang ako? What if hindi naman pala sinasadya ni Kuya na hipuan ako, na baka inaantok lang din siya?”
Many universities in the Philippines have yet to fulfill their promise of being a safe haven for all its students. It’s important for UST and other universities to show that accountability and justice will always prevail under their purvey — in this case, what do they do to protect their students from unwanted sexual advances, especially from other students or members of the school? What safeguards do students have against their harassers, when the institution itself hardly has the structure to protect their welfare?
The truth is, as can be gleaned from the UST official statement, universities can be more concerned with prevention than protection. Take the Stanford University rape case involving Brock Turner early last year. Stanford’s harass.stanford.edu seems to be more concerned with putting the burden on women to stop their harassment. When you ask Stanford University what you can do to stop sexual harassment, they’ll say: “If you can, tell the person to stop” or “Send a written message to your harasser.” Under which header do we find Stanford addressing men to stop sexually harassing women and members of the LGBTQ+ community?