This is an update on the incident of sexual assault at a national writers workshop in the Philippines. About 800 writers and cultural workers have signed an Open Letter to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to probe into the charges together with other government agencies and for policy reforms to ensure that writers workshop and other training events funded by public funds be #safespaces for women and other vulnerable sectors.
Open Letter to the NCCA Regarding the Incident of Sexual Assault at INWW
(IMPORTANT UPDATE: NCCA is holding a meeting today. We will try our best to continually update you of the progress. Thank you for your support.)
Over the past few days, a series of social media posts relating to an incident of sexual assault at a recent writers’ workshop between an older male keynote speaker/panelist and a female fellow have made the rounds online. According to the survivor’s testimony, which she posted as a note on her Facebook on Monday, August 5, 2019, the incident in question occurred on the evening of May 31st, 2019, the final and culminating night of the 26th Iligan National Writers Workshop (INWW), at a room of the workshop participants’ accommodations: the university hostel of Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT).
The details can be read in their heartbreaking entirety on the survivor’s note, which is set to public and has already been shared multiple times. What is particularly striking, sadly, is the treatment she received from the workshop director and the Mindanao Creative Writers Group (MCWG), Inc., the organizing board. In her testimony, the survivor made it clear that she “called and wrote” said workshop director about the incident and had even consulted a lawyer, who sent a letter addressed to the latter attached with affidavits of the survivors’ witnesses. All this was done in the hopes that the workshop director would at least “acknowledge what had happened,” “condemn what the [keynote speaker/panelist] had done to [the survivor],” and subsequently blacklist him so as to prevent him from perpetrating a similar act in the future.
Unfortunately, the workshop director replied with a dismissal of the survivor’s request, reducing the incident to an “issue” between the survivor and the keynote speaker because, to quote the workshop director in the survivor’s testimony: “it was done behind closed doors and nobody heard anyone screaming, being dragged down the stairs, or trashing about.” As if the director's narrow definition of rape wasn’t enough, she added that blacklisting the keynote speaker was “impossible” because the survivor’s request was “already beyond the mandate of both its implementing organizations.” In an “official statement” the workshop director posted on her Facebook page also on August 5th, she pointed out that the incident occurred “several hours after the workshop officially closed,” thereby implying that she and the MCWG were absolved of responsibility. This same statement, which was originally viewable by the public, has since either been deleted or had its privacy settings altered and can thus no longer be viewed by certain Facebook users.
We therefore understand that the survivor, after being shunned by the immediate authorities, was left with no other recourse but to turn to the online community. Equally apparent is the workshop director’s and the MCWG’s failure to handle the case in a manner expected of them. Instead of providing the survivor with the necessary support, assurance, the slightest “feminist solidarity,” or at the very least an apology, she appears to be more concerned with protecting the reputation of the keynote speaker and the workshop, as evidenced by the content of her official statement. The director’s apathy is even manifest in her naming the survivor (and misspelling her name to boot) while withholding the identity of the keynote speaker.
We, the undersigned, therefore, express our solidarity with the survivor of the incident and admire her bravery in coming forward. To ensure that justice is served and that incidents of this nature do not happen again, we urge the following measures:
That the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), having funded INWW through the years, conduct a thorough and independent inquiry into the matter, together with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR, given its mandate to look into human rights violations by state agents and duty-bearers in government agencies), the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW, because it is mandated to protect women and their human rights), and MSU-IIT (as it is the institutional sponsor of the workshop and the incident took place within the university premises).
That the Ombudsman investigate the unjust and improper handling of the survivor’s complaint by the workshop organizers, who are also professors of a state university.
That the results of these investigations provide input or feed into a review of policies vis-à-vis grantees of NCCA’s programs to ensure that every workshop, training, or any other project will be a safe space for everyone, especially the women, indigenous peoples, the youth, PWDs, the aged, members of the LGBTQ community, and all other vulnerable sectors, without worry of being discriminated against, harassed, or caused emotional or physical harm.
That the government, through the educational institution, extend psychosocial support services to the survivor as a person at-risk, as provided for in the Philippine Mental Health Policy Act.
That the MCWG acknowledge that the workshop director's dismissive reply implied that there is no truth to the survivor's narrative, for she claimed that INWW “does not condone rape or any form of sexual harassment,” that it “abhors such acts, and would actively cooperate in securing justice for any of its writing fellows who may have been victimized,” and yet her actions (or inaction) spoke otherwise. Based on her official statement, where she dismisses the incident as “a private matter between two consenting adults,” it appears she has judged the survivor and already rendered her guilty, even if it is only the courts of law that have the authority and competence to determine whether there was rape or not. She has therefore excused herself from accountability as the workshop director, and she also excused herself from holding the keynote speaker responsible.
That the NCCA foster a climate of open critique and discussion by discouraging the workshop institution and/or officials from filing legal charges against sympathizers of the aggrieved for speaking out in view of her interest. Legal maneuvers that seek to penalize expressions of support for any survivor of sexual assault, especially coming from a position of power or institutional prestige, comes with a chilling effect: It equally suppresses such support as much as any articulation of experience and desire for justice by the aggrieved.
As things stand, we are sorely disappointed by the response of the workshop director and MCWG. This is not what we expected from institutions and individuals who receive financial support in the form of public funds. Any further inaction, then, is tantamount to complicity by those of us expressing concern but also a disservice to the good Filipino taxpayers. -