Warning: This case deals with topics that are especially grave and may cause trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. If you have experienced violence and need assistance, please refer to this list of country help lines provided by UN Women.
In R.P.B. v The Philippines, a case of sexual violence against a disabled woman, who was mute and had a hearing disability. She was 17 at the time of the offence in 2006, therefore a child, when she was raped by her neighbour. She reported the rape, with the assistance of her sister, who translated for her using sign language. R.P.B. was interviewed by a male police officer. On the basis of the interview, a statement was written in Filipino – however, R.P.B. was unable to understand it, as education for deaf people in the Philippines is conducted wholly in written English. A medico-legal report confirmed “blunt penetrating trauma” to R.P.B.’s genital area. The perpetrator was charged with qualified rape “aggravated by the circumstances of treachery, abuse of superior strength, night-time and dwelling” committed against a minor, whose disabilities were known to the perpetrator. In the course of the investigation and trial, R.P.B. was not given translator support to enable her to participate in the investigation, and only limited assistance in the trial proceedings. The trial proceedings were delayed over several months. It was more than two years after the rape that R.P.B. gave evidence to the court. The medico-legal report was accepted as evidence. However, three years after hearing this evidence (and five years after the rape) the accused person was acquitted.
The trial court relied on many rape myths during the trial:
a) That it is easy to make an accusation of rape, but it is difficult to prove, but more difficult for the accused person, although innocent, to disprove;
b) that because normally only two persons are present, the accused and the complainant, the testimony of the complainant must be scrutinised with extreme caution;
c) evidence for the prosecution must stand and fall on its own merits and cannot draw strength from the weakness of the evidence of the defence.
The trial court also questioned R.P.B.’s credibility because, in its view, she had not responded to the attack in the manner expected (i.e. she had not summoned “every ounce of her strength and courage to thwart any attempt to besmirch her honour and blemish her purity”). The court was particularly critical of R.P.B.’s “failure to even attempt to escape … or at least to shout for help despite opportunities to do so” or to fight back physically, which in its view, “casts doubt on her credibility and renders her claim of lack of voluntariness and consent difficult to believe”.
R.P.B. claimed that the trial court failed to assess the evidence, that she had made noise to raise the alarm – which had wakened her mother, who gave evidence of that – and apply the law properly and with due diligence. She also argued that the trial court relied on gender stereotypes, and failed to consider her vulnerability at the time of the attack as a girl with a hearing disability.
R.P.B. referred to the CEDAW Committee’s decision in the case of Karen Tayag Vertido v Philippines, which was promulgated before the judgment in her case, but apparently was not taken into account by the trial court, which continued to apply stereotypes that the CEDAW Committee had highlighted is that case as discriminatory and a violation of the CEDAW Convention. Furthermore, R.P.B. emphasised that she had been discriminated against because of her disability as a deaf and mute girl, even though, as a State Party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Philippines should have taken account of the fact that “women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk, both within and outside the home, of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation”(Preamble of the CRPD, paragraph (q)) and that they are subject “to multiple discrimination”(Article 6(1) CRPD).
R.P.B. also claimed that the translation services and transcription services was not adequate, affecting her right to a fair trial, and that she often had to wait outside court for hours for hearings to start, in the presence of the accused.
R.P.B. noted that high numbers of deaf women and girls are subjected to violence, but there is no comprehensive policy to assist them in accessing justice: that therefore deaf survivors are dependent on a non-governmental organisation to provide assistance, which is unable to provide appropriate levels of service.
What was the decision?
The CEDAW Committee noted the delay of five years in bringing the case to a decision, and the failure to provide effective interpretation.
The CEDAW Committee affirmed that stereotyping affects women’s right to a fair trial and urged the state party to ensure that all criminal proceedings involving rape and other sexual offences are conducted free from prejudices or stereotypical notions regarding the victim’s gender, age and disability. The Committee also called on the Philippines to institute effective training of the judiciary and legal professionals to eradicate gender bias from court proceedings and decision-making. The CEDAW Committee also emphasised that “rape… constitutes a violation of women’s right to personal security, autonomy and bodily integrity.”
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Learning from other institutions
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R.P.B.’s case developed the principle about substantive rape law in the Karen Tayag Vertido case, that rape is a violation of women’s right to personal security and bodily integrity, with an additional aspect, “autonomy.”