Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — An infant’s baby clothes, a teenager’s pajamas, and a woman’s corporate suit: these are the kinds of garments on display in the powerful exhibit “Don’t Tell Me How to Dress,” launched by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women.
Set up in a raw concrete room on the second floor of the Rockwell Sheridan Business Center, “Don’t Tell Me How to Dress” features representations of the clothes that 11 Filipina survivors wore when they were sexually harassed or abused. The clothes challenge the destructive belief that the way a woman dresses instigates her assault. Exhibitors implore viewers to break this stigma — sexual violence is never the victim’s fault.
Accompanying each outfit is the true and chilling story of its owner: from catcalling, workplace harassment, to child molestation and date rape.
The assaults strike in all forms of everyday scenes.
Walking to school, a teenage girl would receive vulgar remarks from a construction worker every morning. She eventually diverted to a longer route to avoid the man.
Working in her office, a woman endured three years of incessant requests for sexual favors from her colleagues — causing her to feel violated and lose her focus at work.
Sleeping in her room, a 13-year-old girl was raped by her uncle. When she told her mother about the incident, her mother feared the consequences of telling her father. The girl succumbed to suffering the pain in silence.
Culture of silence
The response of the young girl’s mother is rife in Filipino households. In the Philippines, survivors of sexual assault are often coerced into silence due to a culture that instills blame, shame, and fear on girls and women. Instead of offering a safe and supportive environment, friends and family members often deem victims as flirtatious for being raped, or malicious for construing remarks on their bodies as harassment.
Because speaking out on their assault is largely shunned by society, many victims are left to repress their painful experiences and survive in solitude.
Veiled in this culture of silence, violence against women (VAW) remains rampant. According to the Philippine Commission on Women (PWC), one in every ten Filipinas has been raped, while one in every five Filipinas survive physical or sexual violence between ages 15 and 49. Beyond these alarming ratios, many cases go unreported — largely because of a lack of faith in the country’s justice system, or the overpowering sense of shame weighing down on victims, inhibiting them from coming forward.
Buried beneath these faceless reports are the deep physical, mental, and emotional damages suffered by victims. When left untended, these wounds can cause severe impacts on the heath, dignity, and personhood of survivors. The profound psychological effects of sexual assault thus take years — and for some, decades — to conquer.
Pervasion of power
Despite its disturbing effects, VAW remains indiscriminate to age, class, and culture. Experts link its violent acts to a deeply rooted, widespread truth: an imbalance of power relations between women and men.
In the exhibit, several of the perpetrators were men that held positions of dominance over their victims. The men then used their victim’s trust and subservience as an entryway to their act of violence: a female soldier was ordered to give her boss a bath and apply lotion on his private part, and a 15-year-old girl was told by her stepfather to drink a pill for her headache. He molested her while she slept.
According to the PWC, VAW serves as men’s expression of control over women in order to preserve their power. While the country ranks eighth worldwide in gender equality based on the 2018 Global Gender Gap, traditional roles in Philippine society still expect men to be leaders and providers, and women to be their nurturers and supporters.
As long as such mindsets dominate — women seen as existing solely to serve men — Filipinas risk living in a society that allows men to view women as objects for their use, rather than as autonomous human beings, worthy of respect.
Exposing the terrible truths about sexual violence, the exhibit dispels prevailing myths surrounding harassment and rape. The narratives told sketch hauntingly real portraits of abusers and survivors, based on reported cases and news articles.
A woman rode home with her colleagues one night after she had a few bottles of beer to drink at work. As she rested at the back of the car, the man seated beside her attempted to lift her skirt and touch her without her permission. She immediately slapped his hand away, but kept silent out of embarrassment.
Whether occurring in homes or workplaces, several stories revealed abusers who were closest to their victims: a colleague, a boss, an uncle, or a stepfather. This challenges the pervading “stranger in the alley” myth portrayed on media, which influences the public to stereotype attackers as strange, violent men lurking in the dark. In the Philippines, the Center for Women’s Resources reported that in 2016, 7,037 rape cases in the country while the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that there were 4,605 cases of rape, attempted and incestuous rape, and acts of lasciviousness perpetrated on women that same year.
The exhibit also defies the profound misconception that provocative clothing leads to rape. Many of the survivors had been wearing their everyday uniforms or office attires during their assault, while younger victims had on their snug sleeping clothes.
“Free as a butterfly” was written on the romper of a four-month-old infant. Before her mother fell asleep one night, her baby lay beside her in their home, where curtains functioned as makeshift doors. Her baby was later found in a coconut field, with her diaper laying about a meter away from her.
Shedding light on the voiceless
In the darkness overshadowing survivors and their loved ones, light comes in the form of awareness efforts flooding the media. The #MeToo movement has sparked a global phenomenon of survivors sharing their stories and holding perpetrators accountable, penetrating powerful institutions from Hollywood to the Roman Catholic Church.
The phenomenon has shown how stories of other survivors give courage to those who have kept silent. Because of the #MeToo movement, more survivors are now moving from powerless to empowered — signaling progress and hope for those who have long been struggling for justice and healing.
Building on this momentum, the UN Secretary General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women has proclaimed every 25 of the month as “Orange Day,” as part of their “Orange the World: #HearMeToo” campaign. Their vivid public exhibitions such as this serve as a bold form of educating beyond the confines and distance of social media — moving viewers to confront stories too close to home for many Filipinos.
Amidst the wave of global awareness on sexual violence, the exhibit shines light on the girls and women left on the margins of these conversations: brave Filipina survivors who lack the support, platform, or resources to show their voice.
One leaves the exhibit aching for the girl who was silenced from telling her father about her abusive uncle, and the baby whose innocence was robbed before she could even learn to speak.