The will to fight back

That was a powerful speech Leni Robredo gave the other day. It was short, simple, and filled with formidable images that depict the situation our people find themselves in today. It gave the electorate a clear idea of why she’s running for president and why the nation desperately needs someone like her at this time.

Her key message was direct: It’s time to leave an abusive relationship. It’s time to fight back. “Whoever loves must do battle for the beloved.”

As a woman lawyer, she said, “I remember the multiple cases of domestic abuse that I handled when I was a practicing lawyer and how my clients endured all the pain and abuse inflicted by their partners. When you ask them why they chose to suffer, the answer was constant: Their children.

“And I remember when, finally, they chose to be free—when they found the courage to pack up, bring their children, and take the first steps out the door. It is because they have realized that if they cannot find within themselves the resolve to leave, their children will only inherit their sufferings. Today, I stand with full resolve: We must free ourselves from the current situation. I will fight. We will fight.”

The metaphor she employs references the complex situation of countless victims of domestic violence. Without saying so explicitly, she likens the Filipino public’s forbearance with Mr. Duterte’s incompetent and violent presidency to the deep ambivalence that women experience when the men they chose to love and raise a family with turned out to be dissolute tyrants. They continue to love their abusers, offer excuses for their repugnant behavior, and hang on to every little sign that they are at heart good persons.

Over lunch a couple of weeks ago, my brother Bishop Ambo asked me the same question that has baffled many: How do you explain the seemingly undying loyalty to President Duterte of the millions of voters who chose him in 2016 in the hope of a better life—despite the glaring failure on many fronts of his administration in the last five years? Not to mention the nonstop torrent of verbal abuse that emanates from his mouth, and the daily violence that police forces under his direction have inflicted upon the very poor who form his electoral base.

In short, how can they continue to love someone who not only has betrayed their trust but also subjects them to unceasing intimidation and brutality?

Have you heard of the phenomenon called the “battered woman syndrome?” I asked my brother by way of a reply. It’s a psychological concept that has been recognized in judicial proceedings as a valid ground for self-defense. As a theory, the BWS goes far into explaining why women who are in an abusive relationship find it hard to leave that relationship in spite of the repeated instances of emotional, verbal, and physical violence to which they are subjected.

According to the theory, abused women typically go through repeated cycles of violence that begin with threats, bullying, and intimidation, then ripen into an acute phase of physical harm, and culminate in loving contrition and appeasement. A period of calm temporarily restores the assurances that bind the abused to the abuser. Until a new cycle starts again.

The psychological effects on the victim are complex. In an effort to understand her partner’s abusive behavior, she may actually begin to think it is all her fault, and so she learns to adjust to his moods and verbal cues. She learns to bear the actual beatings by imagining her share of the blame for these incidents. She draws renewed hope every time from the sweet moments of forgiveness and reconciliation that usually come after every episode of violence. Before long, she is trapped in a life of abuse with no insight into the “learned helplessness” into which she has fallen.

When at last she realizes that she or her children could actually die in the abuser’s next outburst of brutality, she does something she never thought she was capable of doing—she kills her oppressor. In the landmark case People v. Marivic Genosa (GR No. 135981, Jan. 15, 2004), the Supreme Court recognized, for the first time, the existence of the “battered woman syndrome” as a legitimate reason to claim self-defense in a case of parricide. Though the high court, in a majority decision, fell short of actually exonerating the defendant Genosa, it nevertheless opened the door for her immediate release since she had served the minimum period of her original sentence.

The Court thanked Genosa’s counsel, lawyer Katrina Legarda, for bringing the theory of the BWS to its attention. On March 8, 2004, a day globally celebrated as International Women’s Day, this concept formally became part of Republic Act No. 9262: The Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004. Section 26 of this pathbreaking law provides: “Victim-survivors who are found by the courts to be suffering from battered woman syndrome do not incur any criminal and civil liability notwithstanding the absence of any of the elements for justifying circumstances of self-defense under the Revised Penal Code.”

As a woman, as a mother, and as a lawyer, Leni has shown her thoughtful understanding of the predicament of battered women; she doesn’t judge or blame the victims for the poor choices they have made. But she urges them to pack up, take the children, and leave—for the young ones’ sake and their own—before anything more horrific happens.