In much of the conflict-wracked areas of the world, it’s the women who’re keeping things together despite civil war, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, and the other ills failing and failed states are heir to. They manage households despite tremendous odds; they nurture children in violent and threatening environments; they keep families together even when forced to flee their communities.

In the Philippines it’s mostly women OFWs who’re keeping many men of the house in idleness and gin and the children in school–and incidentally keeping the economy afloat too. Without the Filipinas willing to immerse themselves in strange environments and to risk beatings, mayhem and rape, the economy would be coughing its last and there would be rioting in the streets.

Women indeed “hold up half the sky,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer for their pains (or that men are holding their end up). The National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW) says that of the cases of violence against women (physical injuries, rape) that are reported to the Philippine National Police, some 50 percent are cases of battering and are committed in the home by husbands and live-in partners. The peak was reached in 2001 with a reported 5,668 wife-battering cases out of 9,132 attacks on women.

Note that these may not reflect the number of actual cases, many of which are unreported and are so common a wife’s being beaten hardly elicits community interest, and on the contrary is very often dismissed as a domestic issue of no bearing to the public. Note as well that deputy national security adviser Luis “Chavit” Singson argued that his admitted beating of his ex-live in partner was a “private matter”–despite spouse-battering’s being a crime under the terms of Republic Act 9262 (the Anti-Violence Against Women Act of 2004).

Though conventional lore makes it seem as if it they happen only among the poor and powerless, the beatings actually cut across socio-economic classes. At one point NCRFW said that there’s battering in six out of ten marriages or live-in arrangements, whatever the socio-economic status of the people involved: it doesn’t matter whether the couple’s living in a one room shanty in the slums of Malabon or in a 26-room mansion in Corinthian Hills. Not only unemployed ne’er- do-wells with a grade three education beat their wives or live-in partners. As we’ve lately learned, former governors and deputy national security advisers do too. Look out for that doctor neighbor of yours. That shiner on his wife may not have been the result of a fall, or a door’s slamming into her face.

Given that they’re socio-economically worlds apart, what binds ne’er-do-well and former governor together in their common devotion to wife-battering?

Power and its exercise, and ironically the lack of it, unite them. As powerless in the scheme of things as he is, beating his wife is for the former proof that he has power over his wife (and children–he beats them too) at least; while, as powerful as the latter is, beating his ex-partner affirms his power over what, in this country as well as others, is no more than bought and paid-for property.

Both occur in the context of a feudal society where women, despite two women presidents, thousands of women CEOs, and all the laws that address gender inequality, are still expected to bow to husbands, live- in partners, and even sweethearts—or else. The “or else” part is a threat of violence at its most primitive: the use of superior physical force, rather than such sophisticated means as psychological and/or economic pressure.

The same threat as well as actual beatings, it seems, happen in places one would think to be the most hostile to such primitive impulses.

The University of the Philippines has taken great strides in assuring gender equality, but a professor at the Center for Women’s Studies nevertheless points out that violence against girlfriends occurs frequently among students anyway.

My own direct knowledge bears it out–and shows that wife beaters can start young. In one case, a student asked to be allowed to go on leave despite her probationary status, because, she said, she was “afraid of my friend.” The friend turned out to be her boyfriend, a male film student, who the previous day had dragged her across the College of Mass Communication parking lot, pushed her into his car, and nearly strangled her to the point of leaving finger marks on her neck before finally spitting on her.

In another case in the same college, what seemed to be an instance of plagiarism and dishonesty turned out to be a case of girlfriend-battering and exploitation. A professor had noticed that a student paper submitted to one of her classes had been submitted to her in another class under another student’s name. The paper turned out to have been authored by an outstanding woman student, who, upon investigation by the college, reluctantly admitted that on pain of being beaten, she had given the same paper to her boyfriend for his (the boyfriend’s) fraternity brother to submit.

In the first instance, the parents provided a clue as to why their son could so casually do what subsequent investigation showed he did. Himself a UP alumnus and fairly successful professionally, the father was all macho bluster, and favored taking his son to strip shows and bars to promote his masculinity, while the mother could only nod in silence as the father defended his son’s actions without once denying that they had taken place. In the second case, sheer terror had compelled the woman student to perform the same services for her boyfriend and his fraternity brothers, to the extent that she was spending sleepless nights practically studying for four or five people.

While the good news is that the first student was suspended (a penalty downgraded by the UP Board of Regents from the UP Student Disciplinary Tribunal’s recommendation of expulsion), and the second similarly disciplined, the bad is that wife-, live-in, and girlfriend-battering are likely to continue, rooted as they are in the contradiction between, on the one hand, relatively enlightened laws, and the feudal traditions of centuries. No, it’s not just the powerful who’re mad enough to beat wives. The powerless as well as the would-be powerful, to whom beating wife, live-in partner or girlfriend is power as well as a claim to property, do too. Even the man of her dreams can turn out to be the ogre of a woman’s nightmares.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. Very nicely put Sir.

    Perhaps, this is the reason why I choose not to marry a Filipino, I myself was a witness of my father beating my Mom growing up. And now as a married woman, I really do notice myself being on a defensive stance whenever my husband and I have some arguments. He has never laid a hand on me which I am grateful for.

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