The Violation of Jelieta Ruca

Aug. 23, 2006

A Davao City court junks a sexual harassment case filed by a teacher against her thesis adviser, setting off a barrage of condemnation from womens groups and highlighting concerns that the Philippines has a long way to go in combating violence and discrimination against women.

By Amabelle Plaza-Laminero
Womens Feature Service

DAVAO CITY — He was like a father to me, public school teacher Jelieta Ruca says of her thesis adviser Dr. Melvin Mende, professor of industrial education and a member of the graduate studies at the state-owned University of Southeastern Philippines in this city.

So when Ruca found herself alone with Mende to consult with him on her thesis on Nov. 6, 2001, she could hardly believe what he did to her.

Inside a study room at the university, Mende, according to Ruca, stood up from his table, went straight to her, kissed her on the mouth and stroke her breasts.

I felt so shocked and ashamed that I did not even look up when I heard someone, it was probably the janitor who came in at the door at that same moment, Ruca recalls. I walked out on him, nearly had myself killed by a speeding taxi as I crossed the street, and went straight home. I told my husband I was so angry, but I did not tell him about what really happened that night.

At first, out of humiliation and fear, Ruca says she kept the incident to herself, to bear her trauma in silence. But the scene keeps repeating in her mind until one day she could no longer take it.

I have to fight back, she says. Despite efforts by a superior and by Mende himself dissuading her from doing so, she filed, in May 2002, criminal and administrative charges against Mende on the grounds of sexual harassment.

Last July 28, however, the courtroom battle ended with Mendes acquittal. In his decision handed down on July 21, 2006, Judge Antonio Laolao said he found in favor of Mende because Ruca did not instinctively do every action she can to stop any unlawful attack by any man against her womanhood.

Womens advocates criticized Laolaos decision for using skewed logic and anti-women bias. They said the decision sadly set what they called outdated standards.

The courts verdict was in contrast to the findings by the universitys Committee on Decorum and Investigation, which determined, based on substantial evidence, that Mende was guilty of sexual harassment. The committee recommended his dismissal.

The committee said it cannot be convinced of Mendes alibi that he had gone home at around 3 p.m. that day and thus could not have assaulted Ruca. The committee noted that Mendes daily time record indicated that he had gone out at 5:25 pm. It created a doubt on his honesty, that the time he declared was deceiving, the committee said.

Rucas case, according to equal-rights advocates, stands as a classic example of how far the Philippines has conformed to or violated the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In condemning all forms of discrimination against women, CEDAWs Article 2 provides that the state shall establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.

An Uphill Battle

It was a five-year uphill battle for Ruca, who also holds a doctorate degree aside from teaching Grade 5 students at the Catalunan Grande elementary school this city. She fought against the humiliation, continued, and succeeded in finishing her masters degree in the same graduate school. She ignored the stigma and went on to pursue doctorate studies even as the committee deliberations were held in the university.

During this time, she struggled to save her marriage, grieved over the loss of her brother, and frustrated over the rejection of her application to become a school principal despite her credentials.

I felt discriminated over and over again, and for what? For speaking the truth and standing up for my rights? laments Ruca, who is also a member of an activist teachers organization here.

Ruca knew Mende way back in 1989 when he was the adviser of the League of Filipino Students where she was the chapter president. So it was not surprising that she chose him as thesis adviser 10 years later for her masters studies at the same school.

He thrice told me that finishing the thesis would be a breeze if only I would consent to going out with him, she narrates. At first, I thought that he just wanted to go out to some cool place and so I gave him 200 pesos, which he flatly refused, Ruca told WFS.

Then on Nov. 6, 2001, the incident happened.

It took five months before Ruca had the courage to complain about it. Three years later, the school dismissed Mende.

Ruca fears that the recent court decision will convince the universitys Board of Regents to ignore the committees recommendation and reinstate Mende.

Where is justice? I am so angry and so shocked with how the court can distort the facts and make it appear that I was lying, that it did not occur, Ruca says.

Lyda Canson, chairperson of the Gabriela womens group, noted that the courts theory on Rucas lack of instinctive action was outdated because Ruca was apparently suffering from a post-traumatic syndrome and the battered-woman syndrome. Canson said these are medically recognized phenomena which explains why women do not resist against so-called attacks on their womanhood.

Former judge Adoracion Avisado, convenor of the Transformative Justice Institute, said Laolaos decision was typical of the prevailing and pervasive patriarchal mindset in the judiciary.

She told WFS that it is lamentable how judges can set the standards. Even if they dont have a background in behavioral science, they set the standards on how women should react to incidents and, sadly, women dont usually subscribe to the standards they set.

Theresa Balayon, coordinator of the Raquel Edralin-Tigalo Institute for Family Violence Prevention, a training arm of the Womens Crisis Center, agrees with Avisado. She told WFS that traumatologists have found out that when women suffer from emotional trauma or is in a state of shock following a sexual abuse, normally will not react at all.

Balayon said the problem is the internalized mindset, and this is apparent in this case.

While the court found Mendes act of sexual harassment toward Ruca as contrary to the natural and ordinary human behavior, the university committee tasked to investigate the case considered that no woman in her right mind would expose herself to humiliation if her allegations are not true.

The court also did not consider Mende to have committed sexual harassment even if he was Rucas thesis adviser. Avisado believes that the elements of sexual harassment are present in the case. There is authority, there is influence, and there is moral ascendancy. He was the adviser to the point that he had the power not to endorse Rucas thesis to the thesis panel of reviewers.

Davao City had the highest reported cases of violence against women comprising more than half, or 62 percent, of the total cases in the Davao region, based on 2005 year-end statistics.

Avisado said that despite the countrys being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the CEDAW in 1981, and despite the passage of other laws that are in favor of gender equality, the way the judiciary handles sexual abuse cases in general have been defiance to the spirit and intent of these laws and instruments.

It comes as no surprise therefore that women are increasingly losing their belief in the Philippine justice system, Gabrielas Canson said. (Amabelle Plaza-Laminero/Womens Feature Service)

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