The Philippines’ first and only industry magazine that deals with safety and security matters pervading the environment today.

Rape happens to other people but not to you

I could have been Given Grace.

This thing happened when I was 15 years old, when I was more silly and naïve than I remember. Some three years before, a grade school friend of mine taught me how to hitchhike. We were inside a private subdivision and had been having some fun after school. She then suggested that we hitch our way back to her house. This was back in the late 80s when films along the lines of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun taught kids like me that we could do stupid things with fun consequences. I don’t know how it looked like, but there we were, two 12-year-olds putting our thumbs up and waiting for a car to stop and take us. Amazingly, a black Mitsubishi driven by a decent, good looking young man stopped, picked us up, and brought us to the place we wanted to go without a catch. Wow! I said to myself. This is easier than I thought.

Later, at 15, I found myself in a situation that made me want to try that stunt again. I had gone to church with a relative and due to some misunderstanding, he left me and had gone home ahead, thinking I had already left. To my horror, I discovered that I was left alone with no fare to get back home. I was too ashamed and too shy to admit my situation and ask anyone for help. The solution was simple, I thought. I would hitchhike my way back home. I remembered how easy it was the first time I did it with my friend, and I remember thinking, I could do it again.

This time it wasn’t so easy. For what seemed like a long time (perhaps less than an hour), I stood there with cars rushing past me until a car driven by a decent man with his daughter stopped and gave me a ride. When I got off outside the village, I had to do it all over again with my thumb up and pointing thataway, hoping for another nice car. For what seemed like hours, no one would stop for me, until finally a pick-up truck with two men who seemed to be dubious characters and who looked like they worked as laborers stopped for me. Desperate, I sat in the front with them and I remember seeing that they were both smirking. Now that I think about it, they pretty much looked like the cat that got the cream. They asked me where I was going and I don’t remember saying much. For the most part of the drive we were silent.

When we were finally on the main road, I was increasingly becoming uncomfortable with them, but all I could focus on was that the place where I lived was about a 45-minute drive away so I needed to cover as much distance as I could. The pick-up truck began to slow down and then eased onto the side of the road and made a turn towards a grassy place far away from the main road. This was an empty space where there was nothing but trees and grass, and in some distance were some shanties that led to an informal settlers’ area. Behind us was the busy road, close enough to still be seen but already at a considerable distance. The truck finally stopped.

Then the unthinkable happened.

I got off from the truck and without looking back, just walked away. I just walked back up to the road again and started the hitchhiking all over again. No one stopped me and no car stopped for me. I ended up walking the whole distance (some 4 kilometers) back to my house. But there was one last incident. During the remainder of my walkathon, a jeep stopped right next to me, and seated at the front, smirking and beckoning towards me was one of the men from the pick-up truck. I merely ignored him and walked away from the traffic and towards the crowd as the jeep sped on. When I got home I was red-faced from anger and walking too long under the sun but too ashamed to tell anyone what really happened.

This is one of the stupidest things that has ever happened to me.  I’m sure that there are many girls at age 15 who are more streetwise than I was. There are also 15-year-olds with the wisdom and diskarte of 5-year-olds, and I think at the time I was one of those. But you might be asking why I was not raped. To this day I still don’t know the answer why. The only thing that I remember is that I prayed to God really hard while I was onboard that truck and that some miracle happened, thus giving an anti-climactic ending to this story.

When the rape-slay incident involving a young UPLB student, Given Grace Cebanico dominated television news last week, I realized that there was an extremely high chance that the incident that happened to me when I was  15 could have made me end up in the same predicament as Given Grace. The fact that one of the men followed me on a jeep lends credence to the suspicion that those two men had designs towards me. There but for the grace of God, perhaps that I did not end up a statistic.

I was struck with how many of Given Grace’s friends and families said “Why did this happen to her? Of all people?” This is a reflection of how many of us view rape. In fact, a lot of people probably put rape up there on a list which includes cancer or arson; those things which you think happen to other people and you hear about on the news, but never to you. But in fact, rape is a high statistical probability, and it happens to more people than we think…which include women who refuse to report or even mention such incidents.

A study in the United States shows that a woman is raped every 2 seconds. However, in the Philippines, statistics on rape are usually based on available police records and are often inaccurate; it does not represent the problem of rape in our society well, mostly due to cultural and social stigmatization. According to The Asian Women’s Resource Exchange (AWORC), 794 rapes occurred in the Philippines in the first four months of 1997 while in the first semester of 1999, 2,393 children were tagged as victims of rape, attempted rape, incest, acts of lasciviousness, and prostitution. As of 2006, rape remained as a problem, with most rape cases not officially reported, including sexual abuse of women in police or protective custody.

In our present era when most people think nothing of women and girls being out on the streets during late hours, the authorities must step up  security measures for women and children so that the case of Given Grace will not happen so easily again to another. Given Grace thought nothing of walking the UPLB campus at 2 AM as she was going back to her dormitory, in the same way that many women like me don’t think much of it when we go home in the wee hours of the morning as we are coming back from jobs in BPO centers for example. Being a BPO country, our sense of time has been twisted and pulled out of whack. In Northgate Cyberzone, where I used to work, the streets and restaurants are lit up between 12 AM to 4 AM with a high traffic of people coming to work, having coffee, dinner, or going shopping. Children play on the streets, and the bakery and shops are open at these unholy hours in my village, perhaps to service the number of people coming home from their BPO jobs. But these eccentricities, much unheard of in other countries (in fact my French and German clients used to recoil in horror when they realized that I was working with them at 10 in the evening. “Very late for you, no?” “Er… no, it’s just almost dinner time for me.”), gives many of us the false sense of normalcy in being out on the streets late at night.

On the other hand, rape can happen at any time of the day and not just on grassy knolls or godforsaken places. The key is to remember that things can and do happen, and that they may very well happen to us and not just to “them”. While it is true that the UPLB administration must step up campus security measures (some commenters pointed out the empty police outpost, not enough lounges for students within the campus), Given Grace’s safety was within her power. If she had the presence of mind to remember that bad things can happen to lonely girls who walk the streets alone at night, she could have had better judgment not to do it.

Bad things can happen to girls who try to hitchhike around town, too. I am no longer a naïve 15-year-old. I am now a mother of one girl and very much concerned that my own daughter will not perform the same foolish stunts as I had. Let us warn our mothers, sisters, and daughters of the perils that may happen to them. We can educate the young; we can express concern and protect our friends and family. If we live in a state of vigilance and awareness, we don’t let our guards down.