Filipino Women Are Key in Resistance to Duterte
Editor’s note: This two-part series probes the political situation in the Philippines, where state authorities are allegedly orchestrating a wave of extrajudicial killings, mostly of drug users in the poorest neighborhoods of the country. The fiercest resistance to these state-sponsored crimes has come from two female legislators, as well as women’s rights activists and the young women who have stood in solidarity with them. Part 2 will be published Thursday.
His boorish, brash, in-your-face performances helped win him the presidency of his country. He told voters he would “drain the swamp,” a swamp of drugs and crime. He was born to privilege, yet the poorest revere him as a “man of the people.” He is thin-skinned, constantly appearing to be angry, and his own brother declared that he needs to learn anger management. Many believe he is bonkers. And when he utters misogynist comments, he defends them by saying, “This is how men talk.”
No, this is not a description of Donald Trump, but of the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been called the “ ‘Donald Trump’ of the country.” He is also called “Dodirty”—the doer of despicable deeds.
Much has been written about Duterte’s brutal behavior. He is an alleged killer, not only of drug traffickers, but also of drug users. Nevertheless, he has said he abused drugs, becoming dependent on fentanyl for pain. (Duterte later claimed he made up his story about fentanyl abuse.)
He dislikes being asked about his medical status and demeaned one journalist with the crude retort, “How is your wife’s vagina?” He says God speaks to him, but he has called Pope Francis the “son of a whore.” (He subsequently canceled his plan to apologize to the pope in person, but the Philippine press reported in January that he wrote the pontiff a letter.)
As the mayor of the city of Davao for 28 years, Duterte allegedly “cleaned it up” by authorizing a squad of killers to wipe out drug sellers and users. Most of the victims were not drug dealers but drug users who were unemployed or worked at unskilled jobs. Within six months of his May 2016 election as president, thousands of killings took place, with figures ranging as high as 7,000. Philippines Sen. Antonio Trillanes, one of the rare Senate critics of Duterte, has called him a “mass murderer” who brags about people he has killed and “how the brains were splattered all over the place, gangland style.”
Before and after his presidential election, Duterte’s own statements have given critics more evidence to use against him than those collected from other sources. When he was mayor, he said he would go “around Davao with a motorcycle … I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.” In a televised speech, he boasted of another lethal altercation: “Whoever will use [public funds] for corruption[,] I will get him [to] ride the helicopter with me going to Manila and will push him out while we are up in the air … I did that before and I can do that again.” Duterte also promised that in his first six months in office he would kill 100,000 criminals and dump so many bodies into the sea the “fish will grow fat.” After his inauguration, he told military officers in the city of Cebu, “All those deaths happening here? Let’s add to them. Let me take care of it.”
Most of the victims of Duterte’s alleged drug killings have been men. What is happening to women in the poorest barangays (districts) devastated by the death squads has been less reported. When I spoke with a member of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity, a human rights network protesting his regime’s deadly policies and programs, she explained: “Young women who have been sold, and [those] with whom we work tell us that women and girls are sexually exploited because they are offered by drug-dealing parents to vigilantes or policemen so their own lives are spared.” They “fear for their own lives or that of their kin who are listed in the precincts as having links with either drug use or drug peddling,” she added.
Jean Enriquez, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women—Asia-Pacific, an organization that assists victims of extrajudicial killings and their families, told me: “The killings threaten to increase the number of women facing exploitation, abuse and violence.” Victims lack services that provide medical and economic relief. Many daughters have been orphaned, mothers have lost sons, wives have been widowed and families have been deprived of breadwinners. Women have no access to justice and are vulnerable to sex trafficking.
Any kind of “civil space is increasingly contracting,” because there is no safe place to go in the neighborhoods, Enriquez said. “Communities are silenced by fear … Solidarity in communities also breaks down as many shrink from going to wakes and funerals of victims, lest they are tagged as drug users or pushers.”Duterte is an unapologetic, appalling misogynist. When an Australian missionary held hostage during the 1989 Davao prison uprising was gang-raped and had her throat slit by prisoners, he joked, “I was angry because she was raped. … But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been the first. What a waste.” (Duterte was then the mayor.) When his political party issued a statement claiming he had apologized, he nullified it by saying, “I will never apologize.”
Sen. Leila de Lima, his most outspoken critic, has argued that Duterte and his followers have perfected the art of “weaponizing humor against women.” Duterte’s trivialization of rape has intensified an extant rape culture in which sexual harassment, prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation have become normalized, and men feel freer to treat women as sexual playthings. Enriquez compared Duterte’s rape remarks to the prima nocta behavior used by pimps. “They need to be the first [to break in the women and girls]. … That’s the system and machismo rule.”
After Duterte won the presidency, he enlarged his pool of targeted demographics, adding journalists to the mix of drug pushers and users. He denounced “corrupt journalists” who “deserved to be killed” and also threatened human rights activists. Casting activists as enemies, he warned he would place on his list of imperiled individuals those who oppose his extrajudicial killings. “I will include you because you are the reason why their numbers swell,” he taunted. Sources have confirmed that intelligence agencies have listed leading female activists as “persons of interest” (read: suspects).
Prior to the election, women’s groups led by the World March of Women announced they had filed a complaint against Duterte with the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. Although Duterte was found guilty, the commission has no prosecutorial power. Given their visibility in the campaign against extrajudicial killings, female activists continue to receive death and rape threats online and by text sent by anonymous supporters of Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos, the now-dead former dictator of the Philippines.
Yet the women in Duterte’s life stand behind him. After he uttered the repulsive gang-rape joke, his daughter Sara admitted that she had been raped. He publicly expressed doubt about her statement and dismissed her as a “drama queen.” Sara, who had also been mayor of Davao, told reporters she was not offended by her father’s joke nor, seemingly, by his belittling of her.
During marriage annulment proceedings with his ex-wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman, in 1998, a psychological evaluation of Duterte found that he had a “narcissistic personality disorder” and a “pervasive tendency to demean, humiliate others and violate their rights.” Zimmerman summed up 25 years of marriage to him as “miserable.” But in 2016, during his presidential run, she campaigned for him.
Sen. de Lima has been Duterte’s most vocal and persistent opponent. No one of her political prestige has challenged him so unrelentingly. Duterte seems to have cowed most legislators in both houses of Congress. A Filipino human rights activist I interviewed said that even his former Muslim and Communist critics have been bought off with money and/or positions in the Cabinet, and Duterte has taken advantage of historical divisions within the left to foster his goals.
De Lima’s criticism of the president dates from when he was mayor of Davao, or, as some would say, “mayor of the Davao death squads.” In 2009, when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed de Lima chair of the Commission on Human Rights, de Lima launched an investigation into Duterte’s role in the landslide of extrajudicial killings, many involving street children in Davao. Multiple hearings that produced no actionable evidence against him earned de Lima Duterte’s ruthless vengeance.
Not one to back down, in 2016 de Lima opened another investigation into Duterte’s alleged drug war killings after he became president. During the election, he promised to quickly rid the country of drug traffickers and drug users. As chair of the Senate Justice Committee, de Lima led a number of Senate investigations into allegations of police involvement in “state-inspired” killings. But she upped the ante by bringing two former death-squad members—one an ex-policeman—to testify against Duterte.
The former police officer said he had acted on direct orders from Duterte, who was mayor at the time. De Lima concluded: “The implication is that we have a group of serial killers and mass murderers within the ranks of the organization which is supposed to protect and serve the people.” The officer’s testimony confirmed what Duterte had been boasting about for years.
The president fought back, using his congressional allies to remove de Lima from her position as Justice Committee chair. His cronies also exonerated Duterte and launched their own investigation of the senator, producing seven criminals to testify against her at a hearing. Using a prison scandal that occurred on de Lima’s watch as Justice secretary, Duterte’s allies accused her of favoring powerful inmates who were living lives of luxury in the prison and were supplied with guns and narcotics. The criminals testified that de Lima had received payments from drug lords and organized a drug-trafficking ring in the prison.
During the hearing, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, another Duterte ally, offered to present a video that allegedly would prove de Lima had engaged in a sexual relationship with her driver. The video had nothing to do with the case, but Duterte warned, “I will have to destroy her in public.” The video was obviously meant to humiliate and discredit, undermine her character and turn public opinion against her.De Lima strongly denied that she was the woman in the video, and women’s groups and female legislators blocked it from being shown at the hearing. But the video, full of lurid details, went viral on social media, was sold on the streets and provoked a barrage of slut-shaming slurs. Duterte capitalized on this exposé, calling de Lima “immoral”—a hypocritical charge from the mouth of an antediluvian womanizer who has boasted of having two wives and two girlfriends, paraded his affairs in public while married and offered to give Pfizer Inc. an award for inventing Viagra.
In solidarity and resistance, millions of women took to Facebook and proclaimed, “It was me in the sex video. #EveryWoman,” identifying with “Leila” and challenging her misogynistic accusers. I asked one de Lima supporter why so many women rallied to her side. She responded: “If you’ve done this to a senator, you can do it to ‘EveryWoman.’ ” “EveryWoman” offered to testify on de Lima’s behalf.
During her 2016 Senate campaign, de Lima enjoyed the backing of many young people, especially women. Students admired her respect for human rights, commitment to promoting social justice and concern for issues such as education and jobs. Young women in particular saw her as a role model. De Lima said their support “definitely motivated me to work harder.”
And they worked harder for her. Students came out in large numbers to protest her detention and what they called her “misogynous crucifixion.” Many of her supporters were from such historically Catholic women’s schools as Miriam College, St. Scholastica’s College and La Consolación University. Noticeably missing was any organized protest from students at traditionally male colleges, such as Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines.
In her willingness to go after prominent people, de Lima made a lot of enemies. In a country known for high levels of political corruption, she did not hesitate to pursue the president who had appointed her to the 2009 Duterte investigation. In 2011, as Justice secretary, she arrested former President Arroyo, who was later jailed for misuse of state funds and election fraud. A source familiar with political corruption in the Philippines told me that Duterte swayed the Supreme Court to acquit Arroyo of all charges in 2016. De Lima also pursued earlier actions against the judge who consigned her to jail, and filed criminal indictments against three high-profile senators for alleged misuse of funds.
In February, de Lima, her former bodyguard and driver, and a former prison official were arrested after a judge ordered their detentions under a questionable warrant. De Lima has denied all charges, including those of drug trafficking and receiving payments from drug kingpins. “If they think that by jailing me, I will turn my back on my principles, they are mistaken. Instead, they have encouraged me more to pursue truth and justice,” she said.
De Lima is currently being held in solitary confinement, though she can see her lawyers and family. Some of her Liberal Party colleagues fear for her life, because another of Duterte’s targets—a mayor accused of drug trafficking—was assassinated in his cell by police officers. De Lima remains defiant and has called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the drug killings.
Meanwhile, ignoring years of Duterte’s human rights abuses, President Trump this week invited his counterpart from the Philippines to the White House.