The silence of mothers

Bohol Representative Ernesto Herrera has a bill prescribing imprisonment for mothers who do nothing even when they know that their daughters are being sexually abused by their fathers.  I have not seen the full text of the Herrera bill, but I have the feeling that it is unnecessary, insensitive, and possibly counterproductive.

Charging them with collusion and threatening them with imprisonment will not encourage more women to come out and report their husbands’ beastly act.  To the contrary, it may just give them one more reason to want to keep it a secret.

Incestuous rape is not anything new in our society.  But the risk of public humiliation and exposure deters many families from treating it as a crime.  They prefer to regard it as an illness or a curse, a private misfortune rather than a public crime — a dark spell cast upon an entire family, for which they may often seek the counsel of a close relative, a priest, or even a psychiatrist, but never the police.

The reasons are practical.  As in other rape cases, the need to protect the social image of the family often clashes with the desire to punish the rapist and affirm the self-image of the victim.  In incest, this dilemma is compounded by the knowledge that going to the police will not only expose the victim and the whole family to public ridicule but will also deprive them of a breadwinner.  But the most common deterrent to reporting incest is the terror of pathological violence which a rapist-father typically threatens to unleash on the entire family.

It is clear to me that the cases of incestuous rape being reported in the media, alarming as they are, probably constitute but a small portion of the actual number of such incidents.  The Herrera bill intends to flush out the unreported offenders from behind the silent walls of their families’ private pain.  The purpose is good, but it may ironically create the opposite effect.

To make the silence of mothers a crime is to assume that they are not themselves devastated by the victimization of their daughters.  The guilt and pain they must feel is unimaginable.  To be married to a man who rapes his own daughter is undeserved punishment enough.  To be compelled to remain silent in the face of such outrage can only be a hellish experience.   Congressman Herrera wants to add to all this by defining the silence of mothers as a crime and making them equally culpable as their rapist-husbands.

Imprisonment is for parents who, pleading poverty, conspire to prostitute their own children.  It may be for parents who refuse to work while forcing their children to beg in the streets.  But it is definitely not for mothers who, for a whole range of unexamined reasons and causes, watch silently while their children are being raped by their husbands.  Such mothers need help so that they may summon enough courage and will to protect their children.  The last thing they need is the threat of imprisonment.

The first thing that a bill seeking to stop incestuous rape ought to do is to analyze the circumstances in which it typically occurs.  It may not be possible to devise responses that take into account every possible occurrence of this crime.  But simply looking at those reported in the media already gives us an idea of the conditions that tend to sustain the concealment of this act, and the practical measures that a society might adopt in order to curb it.

Even without a careful study, one may immediately note the close relationship between the total or partial absence of the mother from the home and the occurrence of incestuous rape.  I would not be surprised if the massive deployment of women workers to overseas assignments from the ‘80s onwards was accompanied by a rise in the number of reported incest cases.  The existence of such a correlation should provide  solid ground for re-examining the wisdom of deploying women OCWs who are also mothers of teenage children.

But other than legislation, practical measures must be found to induce affected families to seek help by any means in order to immediately rescue the victim.  Such measures should be independent of a family’s decision to go to court and press charges or to remain silent about the offense.  To tie up one to the other, especially in the face of the threat of death penalty, is to encourage more families to close their doors and to put the victim beyond the reach of a helping community.

Here is a role cut out for religious counselors, social workers, professional psychiatrists and NGOs, but not for the police.  The latter are compelled by their position to view the problem as primarily a police matter, but the former must be allowed as much leeway as they require in order to make the rescue of the victim a first priority.

Better than penalizing silent mothers as accomplices to the rape of their daughters, is the propagation of a culture of women and children’s rights.  Traditional and patriarchal societies like ours were formed by an attitude that makes of women and children the property of men in the family.  Our laws and existing institutions, as well as our everyday relations at home, still bear traces of this way of thinking.

It is not to say we have not had moral progress in this area.  On the contrary, I view incestuous rape and other forms of child abuse not just as the symptoms of a society groping for its moral bearings in a changing world, but as equally a function of the growing acceptance of the validity of children’s rights and of the boundaries of parental power.   This acceptance has made incestuous rape visible, and that is a major step towards defeating it.


Comments to <>