Call for Help: Gender-Based Violence and 911 in the Philippines
March 30, 2022
Before the pandemic, one in every four Filipino women had experienced domestic violence, but when Covid-19 struck the country, the number of cases rose steeply. The Philippine Statistics Authority reported an increase in cases of rape from 1,656 in 2018 to 2,168 in 2020. At the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns, from March to May 2020, the Philippine government recorded an average of eight victim-survivors of sexual assault every day and a threefold increase in tips reporting online sexual exploitation of children.
It’s clear that violence against women and children (VAWC) and gender-based violence (GBV) are pervasive social problems in the Philippines. The challenge of reducing such incidents and changing the conditions that enable them is immense, but steps to improve the situation must begin somewhere.
For The Asia Foundation’s Coalitions for Change program (CfC), the process began with a simple question: who can victim-survivors of VAWC call for help? Against the backdrop of the pandemic and the Philippines’ long-running lockdown, which severely limited personal mobility, the answer was not encouraging.
Checking social media and government websites yielded a long list of hotlines, ranging from police and investigative assistance to legal help and psychosocial support. But one problem was immediately apparent: these hotlines were hard to use in emergencies, because many had long phone numbers or email addresses. They were simply not helpful for someone in distress.
Trying out the published hotlines over a span of two weeks also uncovered another set of problems: (1) most numbers simply did not work, especially after 5:00 in the afternoon; (2) many others took too long to pick up; and (3) responders who did pick up were often unsympathetic or gender-insensitive. In one instance, an operator at a published public-assistance phone number asked aggressively, “How did you get this number?”
The reality was painfully clear. VAWC and GBV emergency services were sparse, fragmented, and not easily accessible. There was no easy, reliable way for victim-survivors to access government services and get prompt responses.
Eyes on the 911 Hotline
Coalitions for Change turned its eyes on the government’s Emergency 911 National Hotline (E911). Established in 2018, the E911 hotline was initially designed for fire, police, and medical emergencies, search and rescue assistance, and bomb threats.
CfC asked: could E911 be expanded to include VAWC and GBV? After all, the E911 hotline was already available and linked to emergency-service agencies nationwide. It’s toll-free, and it’s accessible and easy to remember.
Navigating the bureaucracy
Incorporating VAWC response capabilities into an already operational nationwide hotline might seem like a simple and obvious first step to address this complex and pervasive problem, but that simplicity was deceptive. CfC would have to make a strong technical case to convince the various government agencies and policymakers with jurisdiction to add VAWC and GBV to the E911 hotline system, and to do this, they would need to understand the institutional landscape
To survey the terrain, Coalitions for Change met with a range of stakeholders. One was the Inter-Agency Council on VAWC, comprising key government agencies mandated to address VAWC. Others included the various civil society organizations active in GBV and VAWC issues. Drawing on the insights gained from these discussions, CfC was able to develop a policy proposal.
The E911 National Office and its executive director found the proposal timely and relevant. It was a significant win to have the head of E911 as a reform champion. The director emphasized, however, that the decision to include VAWC should involve other government agencies, particularly those involved in the referral pathways that route incoming emergency calls to the agencies most appropriate to respond. There were no guarantees that these other agencies would buy into the proposal.
CfC and the E911 National Office had to ensure that the proposed reform would be effective and sustainable. For this, two pillars were crucial: the policy instrument and capacity building. First, relevant government agencies needed to establish a policy to include VAWC and GBV calls in the E911 system. Second, E911 operators needed to be trained to handle these calls—a different kind of emergency that requires specialized knowledge due to the sensitive nature of the cases.
It took considerable time for the policy instrument to clear the multiple hurdles of review and approval by the government agencies involved. Covid-19 mobility restrictions also slowed the training of the emergency operators who would be receiving the VAWC calls. At more than one point in the journey, CfC doubted the feasibility of including VAWC emergencies in the E911 hotline.
It was at these low points that CfC also drew strength from like-minded advocates and reform champions inside and outside the government. It was the E911 National Office, the staunchest champion of the reform, that worked to get commitments from other key government agencies and skillfully navigated the many bureaucratic hoops and potholes.
On the technical front, CfC also worked with the University of the Philippines’ Center for Women and Gender Studies, the Philippine Commission on Women, and the E911 National Office to develop training materials and procedural guides for emergency operators who receive VAWC calls, to equip them to provide survivor-centric care.
A milestone, and new opportunities
Finally, on December 7, 2021, a joint policy document to expand emergency hotline coverage was signed by the Department of Justice, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government. This milestone was witnessed by representatives from the Philippine Commission on Women, The Asia Foundation, and the Australian Embassy in the Philippines.
With the advent of this policy, women, children, and others experiencing a GBV emergency can now call the toll-free E911 hotline.
CfC’s efforts also created other opportunities to introduce gender-sensitive and survivor-centric concepts of care to government agencies. For the team, the mission is clear: the government’s response must be continually improved to ease the burdens of victim-survivors.
How do we achieve a VAWC- and GBV-free country? How do we uproot deeply entrenched social ills? How do we fix systemic issues? These are monumental issues with immensely difficult answers.
As CfC and its partners have shown, even the most complex solutions can sometimes begin with the simplest of questions, like who do we call for help?
Hygeia Chi is a program officer with the Coalitions for Change program and Kathline Tolosa is a senior program officer for peace and stability for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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