Access to Justice and Health Services for Women in Rural Uganda

by Jillian Ohayon

I came to Uganda this summer to work as an intern for the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development in the city of Kampala. I want to use this post to focus mostly on one aspect if the work that I have done here, and will likely use the next to write more generally about life in Kampala (which, spoiler alert, has been pretty amazing and an incredible experience of self-growth).

The Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development is an organization comprising about thirty employees. Most of them are lawyers, although vital members of the organization also include administrators, research officers, communications officers, and accountants. CEHURD has three programs which generally function separately from one another, though they are intentionally and intrinsically interlinked. They are Community Empowerment; Research, Documentation, & Advocacy; and Strategic Litigation. In Ugandan NGO terms, I have come to understand that CEHURD is a rather well-known name, despite it being a young organization of only about seven years.

I began my time at CEHURD by attending a court session regarding Ugandan tobacco laws with the Strategic Litigation team, but was soon after incorporated into a project with the Community Empowerment program. This will be a two-year long project supported by The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). CEHURD’s project is under a PEPFAR partnership with the DREAMS project, which stands for “Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe Women.” The DREAMS goal is to create country-owned and country-driven sustainable programs to address the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa. The vision is to combine evidence-based approaches with regards to the structural drivers that directly affect adolescent girls and young women in their risk of contracting HIV. This is where CEHURD comes in. CEHURD’s fieldwork on the DREAMS project involves going into villages to interview adolescent girls and young women as well as a variety of stakeholders. The work is focused predominantly on access to HIV services and the legal and societal context surrounding sexual assault. Due to the societal framework and corresponding views prevalent in rural Uganda, young women who are village dwellers are heavily susceptible to sexual assault. This, in turn, drastically heightens their risk of contracting HIV.

My work on this project began in the Kampala office, where I wrote a literature review for the Community Empowerment team. I researched past work that had been done on this topic, and noted the successes, failures, and recommendations that came out of those studies. This helped to shape and inform the fieldwork. I was also involved in editing and writing many of the research tools for the interviews we conducted in the field. Once the surveys were completed and the stakeholders had been mobilized, I joined the team to spend a week in the district of Gomba, about three and a half hours outside of Kampala. We visited three villages where we interviewed adolescent girls and young women, as well as various stakeholders, including police officers, parole officers, healthcare providers, NGO officers, and various members of local government. I had the opportunity to engage both with the stakeholders and women alike.

Village of Kanoni, District of Gomba

sitions in local government. In relative terms, these interviews were relatively encouraging experiences. Most spoke English very well, and they were all quite highly educated. They were also all quite familiar with the prevalence of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in their district, and seemed to have been very aware the structural drivers that perpetuate the problem. They shared with me their plans and programs that are being developed to address the problem, and all of them seemed serious and committed to the work. I am confident that CEHURD will be able to work with them toward the implementation of programs that will improve upon this situation in a significant way.

Health Facility Assessment

On my last day, I conducted a facility assessment, which took the form of an interview with the in-charge at a health facility in the village of Mamba. Luckily, I had been given a detailed assessment tool, because if I had been told to assess this facility according to my own standards, I’m not sure how I would have proceeded. The health facility does not have a doctor. From what I understood, the in-charge is trained in nursing, and, occasionally, they have a midwife come by. The facility has no electricity, no bathrooms, no running water, and had run out of stock on about half of its medication. Unfortunately, CEHURD’s area of expertise does not lie directly in facility improvement. From what I understand, it is the government that is responsible for that.

Interviews with Adolescent Girls and Young Women

In total, I surveyed 17 girls. 15 of them were transactional sex workers, all of whom were in relationships, some of whom were married, and all of whom had been tested and were HIV negative. I asked them questions about their experiences with gender-based violence, ranging from verbal abuse to being violently forced into sex using a weapon. Only one of the 17 told me she had never experienced any abuse, and the translator seemed to think that she wasn’t telling the truth. One of the girls, after I asked her whether her husband insults her and humiliates her in public, looked deeply confused, and then replied, “Of course.” Others laughed when I asked whether or not their partners had ever slammed them against the wall as if to say, “What kind of a question is that? Doesn’t that happen to everyone?”
To say the least, it was a lot to process.

One main issue that revealed itself from the interview responses we received is the lack of access to justice and the necessary HIV services in cases of sexual assault. The problems that amount to this issue are extensive and interlinked. Girls are very often married off at a young age in order to bring money to their families. If a girl has been sexually assaulted, she may be considered impure and possibly not suitable for marriage. Therein lies the first problem. Next, there is a 72-hour window in which a person can visit a clinic after sex in order to get the medication that would prevent HIV had they contracted it. However, since many girls are too afraid to tell anybody when they have been assaulted, and are also unaware of the 72-hour window, many do not receive the proper preventative care. Furthermore, most of the women with whom I spoke told me that they were too afraid to tell police officers about their experiences with sexual assault. They fear not being believed, being stigmatized, and having to face the anger of their perpetrator and/or their families. Furthermore, often, private negotiations will take place between the victim’s family and the perpetrator, and so the perpetrator is rarely formally punished. Beyond this, even if a victim does go through with the process of successfully filing a police report, there are two related access to justice problems that lie beyond that. The first is that the only court that hears those cases is quite a significant distance away from the village, and transport is both inconvenient and costly. The second is that the law states that the health worker who examines the victim after the assault took place must testify at the hearing. However, there exists no means of compensation for the worker’s time or transportation. Therefore, the large majority of the time, the health worker simply does not show up. When this happens, the case is thrown out.

***

On a more personal note, I have to say that as emotionally challenging as it was, speaking with these girls and women was a humbling privilege. Despite the hardships they shared with me, I sensed nothing but kindness and positivity radiating from them.


I sincerely hope that the empowerment programs that CEHURD implements will effect real change in the lives of these girls and women. Given the passion, focus, and dedication of the Community Empowerment team, I have faith that they just might.

Sunset over Lake Walamo in the village of Mamba

Women & Human Rights: Part I

By Yuan Stevens

This is the first of two blog posts about the work of women in human rights.

 

All street art photos from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s project, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Photo by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.


In this post, I’m going to tell you a bit about the work of Salini Sharma in Delhi, India and some thoughts on her organization’s work in relation to privacy. 
In my next post, I’m going to talk about the work of a civil rights activist in Morocco.

First of all, why (these) women? 

The organization I interned with, Equitas, held their 36th annual International Human Rights Training Program (“IHRTP”) this past summer.

The theme of the entire program was centred on how to better equip young girls and women to meaningfully participate in their societies. That very theme inspires this post. I’m writing about these women because I find their work fascinating and connected with them at the IHRTP.

Salini (pronounced Shaw-lini) Sharma, the first female in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, studied biotechnology engineering before working with Safecity in India.

11694357_10206727812335658_470220138_n

Me (left) and Salini (right), during Equitas’s International Human Rights Training Program.

Salini told me that she didn’t find it incredibly satisfying to work in biotechnology engineering — even though she absolutely loved studying it. Once she began working in the field, she was consistently given odd tasks she was overqualified for. The timing of her shifts were consistently very inconvenient. It’s hard not to attribute this to the fact that she was female in a very male-dominated field.

After months of volunteering with UN Women and a growing passion for working in the development sector, Salini is now the Program & Outreach Officer with Safecity, an amazing organization in India that fights against gender-based violence — primarily through their crowd-sourced map that reveals anonymous complaints of sexual harassment all over the country.

They advocate for change in urban planning and police enforcement through reports, their community-led campaigns, events, and through the sharing of digital tools that empower women.

According to BBC, the site was created just after a 2012 gang rape of a Delhi student.

harassing women masculinity

Photo by Pat Gavin.

An important feature of Safecity’s work is that they welcome and encourage anonymous complaints of all kinds of sexual harassment.

This of course results in some practical problems of accountability — but, as Harvard Berkman faculty associate Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent Medium article, the ability to choose when to reveal information about ourselves — or not — is a necessary corollary to an “open and connected world.”

Tufekci wrote her article in response to Mark Zuckerberg and his family’s decision to share that his wife, Priscilla Chan, had had miscarriages before they had conceived their current baby to-come. (Congratulations to their family!)

Tufekci eloquently reminds us [emphasis added]:

 “Privacy, the bedrock of openness, is at its core about agency, about control and about the right to engage the world on your own terms (and with the name of your own choosing, too).”

 

On MLK

Photo by Graff Hunter via streetartsf.

 

The work of organizations like Safecity are emblematic of this same belief that we must first and foremost celebrate self-determined privacy and control. Only then are (a woman’s) decisions (to be open) meaningful. 

Safecity provides women with the ability to have meaningful control over their lives through community-involvement and advocacy about their needs to state decision-makers.

Tufekci ended her article the way I will end this blog post:

 

“Just like privacy, openness are connectedness are about agency and control — otherwise, they would be exploitative and become a violation. There is no contradiction between strong privacy and an open and connected world.

Privacy and openness, control and connectedness, agency and disclosure feed on each other, and can only be built on each other.

 
two women

photo by carnageflushx.

HIV/AIDS Legal Network hosts a conversation with Frank Mugisha

2013 Alyssa Clutterbuck 100x150Greetings from Toronto.

I am at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.  The Legal Network’s 5th Annual Symposium took place last week.  The highlight of the Symposium was A Conversation with Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan activist and advocate for LGBT rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

A Conversation with Frank Mugisha

The Canadian  HIV/AIDS Legal Network was honoured to host Frank Mugisha, one of Uganda’s leading activists in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights at the Toronto Refernece Library last Thursday, June 13.  Executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and founder of Icebreakers Uganda, Mugisha received the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for his activism in combating homophobia throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Former Toronto mayor, Barbara Hall, introduced Mugisha, and reflected on the city’s early failure to mobilize a public response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s.

Mugisha spoke about the 2009 introduction of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill (An Act to prohibit any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; prohibit the promotion or recognition of such relations and to provide for other related matters), introduced by Member of Parliament, David Bahati.  The legislation proposes to impose the death penalty for serial acts of homosexuality, broaden the criminalization of same-sex relations and even includes provisions for Ugandans who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, potentially extraditing individuals back to Uganda for sanctions.  The bill also imposes penalties on individuals, companies, media outlets, and non-governemental organizations that know of LGBT people or support LGBT rights. Under present law, same-sex relationships are illegal in Uganda, and punishable by incarceration up to 14 years.

This blog post was prepared for Legal Aid Ontario and can be read via their website:  http://blog.legalaid.on.ca/2013/06/17/keynote-event-roundup-a-conversation-with-frank-mugisha/

Mugisha noted that the roots of the proposed law can be traced back to a conference at which three prominent American evangelical Christian leaders asserted that homosexuality threatened the cohesion of African families.  Since being introduced, the bill has been denounced by the international community and numerous governments have threatened to rescind aid from Uganda.  Strong resistance from the international community and from local Ugandan activists has helped delay the bill in committee, though Bahati re-introduced the bill in February 2012.

Mugisha advocated a delicate approach in combating current myths that impede progress for LGBT rights in Uganda, including the view by many Ugandans that homosexuality is a Western import and not indigenous to African culture.  As one way to reduce stigma, Mugisha calls for more community discussions to help give a face to LGBT people.

Despite threats to his life and the 2011 murder of his mentor and colleague David Kato, Mugisha remains resolute when responding to concerns about his safety.  He feels that his recognition as an activist has helped protect him from arrest.  “My visibility and my speaking is my protection,” he said.  He did admit, however, that he must take caution when moving through Kampala and the rest of the country.

Mugisha has received offers of asylum in many countries, but insists on staying in Uganda. “I can never think about leaving Uganda. I have lived there all my life.”

Video of the event is available via the website of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

This blog posted is also available on Legal Aid Ontario‘s blog.

Postcard from Cambodia: How a new law threatens Canada’s aid to millions

Just up on THIS Magazine. Based on a previous article published in the Guardian (UK), this post takes a closer look at Canada’s role in the Cambodian draft NGO & Associations Law.

Sunrith Ham, Deputy Director of Monitoring & Protection at LICADHO: Representing human rights defenders in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

Sunrith works with a number of human rights victims in Cambodia including the Dey Krahorm community (above). Members of the community were evicted from their land in 2009 for ‘development purposes’ and moved to a relocation site. Their former land remains vacant.

At first face, working as a lawyer in Cambodia seems like a disheartening experience. Corruption is endemic: the rich and powerful bribe judges to have cases found in their favor and use criminal sentencing to deter resistance from members of the community. The police, acting under the instruction of the government, often comply in the harassment and arrest of human rights activists.

Someone recently asked me why anyone would continue working within such a broken legal system. I think Sunrith’s story is a good example of how coping with difficult circumstances in the hope of helping suffering individuals starts with a personal decision – one intimately connected to culture and religion. In the end, perhaps change makers are not inspired by a single defining event, but rather an uphill struggle led by instinct.

Sunrith graduated with a legal diploma from a Phnom Penh university in 1997 at the age of 22. The government appointed him as a law clerk in his hometown. As a government employee, he was making $20 USD a month. His first experience with the evolving Cambodian legal system was not a positive one. He recounts how a woman’s child was arrested and arraigned in front of the judges. The mother offered them a bundle of money carefully tied with a rope made from banana leaves. The money had clearly been saved up – diligently, meticulously, through hardwork. She bought her child’s freedom; the judges did not complain.

Religion and culture can deeply influence a person. In Cambodian culture, and particularly in Buddhist families, youth are taught to obey their superiors. But, Sunrith was different. He felt he had received two messages: to listen to people older than him; but also to question decisions like those made by the judges at the provincial court. He says his religion, Buddhism, also helped him make the difficult decision to leave his clerking position: “I didn’t feel like I was doing a good thing. I felt that if I was not making people feel better, I was not taking the right route.”

His parents were surprised by his decision. As a class-conscious family in a class-conscious society, they were delighted that their son had found work with the government. Despite this family pressure, he left this position to permanently move to Phnom Penh, the country’s growing capital, some 160 km away.

Sunrith’s first job was as a typist. At first, he was content. He was financially independent as the new job paid more than the government. However, after a few months, he began questioning his decision: should someone with a diploma in law work as a typist? Could he push himself to do more?

Soon he decided to leave his relatively comfortable position as a typist and began volunteering and then interning with LICADHO. He spent the first five years working with the Prison Office. Cambodian prisons, notorious for their horrific living conditions, became a second home to him. While others would express fear or disgust towards prisoners, Sunrith was happy to talk with them, bringing them bananas to help the day past faster. Seeing people energized and rewarded by his presence clearly made him happy.

Eventually, Sunrith transferred to LICADHO’s Human Rights Monitoring Office and this helped him make the decision to become a practicing lawyer. “You see injustice from case to case, but as an observer [a human rights monitor who tracks human rights abuses] you cannot express yourself, you are not in the system.”

Sunrith says that some days he is exhausted and considers leaving the legal profession. Yet, his friends and colleagues convince him that if he stops working, human rights defenders will have a difficult time finding a trusted lawyer to represent them free of charge. Around LICADHO, Sunrith has the reputation of a formidable lawyer: someone with a chilling confidence in front of the Cambodian Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

While he acknowledges that changing old societal practices would be difficult, he does believe that he can help change the attitude within the courts in Cambodia. To fight corruption and injustice, Sunrith hopes that the next generation will not be taught to accept the orders of their superiors, but rather to question authority. He says that future legal professionals should not concentrate on whether or not there is law, but rather on implementing the existing law and abiding by the rules set out within.

Working with LICADHO, Sunrith, who has been in the thick of human rights activities in Cambodia since the late 90’s, does note some positive changes. He says that the number of political killings has decreased substantially. Rather, the government is now using the courts to dissuade people from challenging them. The fact that the government’s weapon is no longer primarily the gun, but rather the law, is seen as a step – although a twisted one – forward.

Watching community activism in action also seems to give Sunrith renewed hope. He speaks admiringly of the communities living around Prey Lang forest who came all the way to Phnom Penh a few weeks ago to protest the destruction of their forest. He advises the residents of Boeung Kak lake, another community being evicted from their land, to believe in their struggle. “How can you change injustice? How can you change the attitude of the government? Hope comes day to day, from the people. It does not come from institutions or the policymakers.” He says that while Boeung Kak lake residents may lose their homes, in the end, they have set a fighting precedent that will hopefully grow and overcome the “cancer”of corruption and exploitation ailing the country.

LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia: Reconciling Family Norms with Sexual Orientation

I recently published a longer article on the LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia. Here is an extract:

Last week, Cambodia finished celebrating its third official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride celebration, a week of movie screenings, workshops and other activities organized by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK).

The celebration of LGBT rights in Cambodia has come a long way. Between 2003 and the first official LGBT pride week in 2009, these celebrations in Cambodia were limited to just one evening a year.

Collette O’Regan, a member of the organizing committee, says that the hosting of such an extensive and well-organized week, like Pride 2011, marks a new beginning for LGBT rights in Cambodia. Previously, it was mostly the ‘men having sex with men’ or MSM community that was organized and supported by donors. This necessarily excluded women and stigmatized transgender and sexual orientation by linking it to HIV/AIDS. “You can imagine what this leads to, including horrific discrimination, violence, self-harm and suicide,” she said.

You can read the full article here on Toward Freedom.

Traditional justice systems in Cambodia?

Siena AnstisI am considering focusing my McGill-related work while in Cambodia on traditional justice systems in the country, but I have mostly come up against dead-ends in terms of research. My interest in traditional justice is based on research on the gacaca and mato oput systems in Rwanda and Uganda. Is there something similar in Cambodia? If such a structure exists, is there any relationship between the Khmer Rouge atrocities and a traditional justice system? For example, have communities considered using whatever systems might exist now to provide ‘justice’ for victims or is the ECCC the main or only focus? If not, why not?

Fortunately, I spent a couple of hours today with a Cambodian translator (who will remain anonymous) who has a fairly extensive understanding of NGOs working on legal issues in the region, as well as local community conflict resolution systems. It seems that there is a traditional justice system among the indigenous ethnic minority in Cambodia. These communities prefer using the system they have in place because they are not familiar with the local courts. Not being literate, they are also vulnerable to what the court dictates without being aware of the proper procedures. Moreover, with the courts being so corrupt, they cannot meet the costs of winning a case. The translator describes the courts as not belonging to the people, but rather solely to the rich, i.e. those able to pay off the judges. He does not consider the 2010 Anti Corruption Law to have improved the situation.

With that said, it looks like one organization is starting a mediation program for small-scale, local conflicts in Cambodia. It looks like this will probably circulate around family issues and gender-based violence. I have not yet had a chance to follow-up this source, but I will start looking into this angle in the coming weeks. You can also check out this report from the UNDP “A case study of indigenous traditional legal systems and conflict resolution in Cambodia.”

Also, coming back to corruption in Cambodia: from what the translator discussed, it is clear the issue is similar in its core to corruption in Kenya. Police and civil servants are paid a pittance and being paid-off becomes a necessary bonus on their salary if they are to survive. In his community, the translator said he did occasionally offer what he called donations to the police. These donations were announced publicly in front of several policemen to ensure the resources were split between several members. This contribution, he said, is meant to ensure that they can get fuel in their cars and actually patrol the neighbourhoods and respond to calls. From this angle, corruption morphs more into something like a ‘tax,’ without the government being directly involved. I remember a similar narrative in Nairobi: a taxi driver telling me that “chai” or a small pay-off was literally for the policewoman’s cup of evening tea as she sat in a miserable lean-to next to the highway leading to the airport.

If you have any suggestions on where to find more information on traditional justice systems in Cambodia, please contact me at siena.anstis(@)mail.mcgill.ca.

(Cross posted from here).

A personal perspective

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Last week, as part of a project I’m working on, I had the chance to talk with Nonoy Espina, the Vice-Chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. Mr. Espina is also a 20-year veteran of the Filipino press. We spoke about recent killings of reporters who have been critical of government officials, freedom of expression in the Philippines, and the prospects for change under the new President, who was inaugurated on Wednesday. As I mentioned in a previous post, politically-motivated killings of reporters and activists are all-too-common here in the Philippines; recently three reporters were killed in less than a week.

I’ve decided to post a transcript of part of our conversation. I think it might be interesting to readers of this blog because it provides a personal perspective on what it’s like to work in a country where rights to life and freedom of expression are often violated. Since we talked for more than half an hour, I’ve edited our conversation for brevity, with Mr. Espina’s permission.

What was your reaction to the recent killings?

During a transition phase, you expect a lot of things. I think the message here with these killings is that the perpetrators really don’t care. It doesn’t matter who is in power, they’re confident enough that they will get away with it. It really shows the level of impunity of people in this country. They really feel that they can get away with anything.

Why is there such impunity; why does it not matter who’s in power?

The answer comes on different levels. On the first level, there is the political system we have, the system of government that’s gone on for so long. There’s a lot of political patronage, especially in the provinces, where you have people from a few elite families lording their wealth over others. Many of them are warlords and many of them were, and probably still are, crimelords.

The national government has always operated on the basis of political expediency. It needs these people to deliver votes, and so it allies itself with these guys and that’s what allows the [politicians in] government to stay so strong, it’s what allows them to get away with a lot. The perfect example is Maguindanao – where you had one family lording their power over the province.

That kind of system is everywhere; it subsists in a lot of provinces, but to varying degrees of course. It goes on at a lot of levels. Sometimes, it’s so bad that it runs all the way down to the village level […].

The problem is that the government has never really shown it cared. Just take the nine years of [Gloria] Arroyo’s Presidency. We’ve got something like 103 journalists dead and something like nine convictions, all of gunmen, none of masterminds. And I think that ties in to the political side of things. I’d bet anything that if you dig into these cases, a lot of these names are going to show up – mayor so-and-so, governor so-and-so, and so on. The latest killing, they’re saying that it was the vice-mayor who was the mastermind.

So tell me how all this affects your day-to-day work as a journalist.

In the provinces, where I worked for more than two decades, politics can get really personal. Some politicians really believe that public office is a privilege, it’s like they act like feudal lords. So you know that if you cross them, it can have dire results.

To what degree do journalists find themselves compromising on their work as a result of this?

To be honest, a lot. Sometimes journalists are so poorly paid that there are cases where local radio stations say to politicians, ‘Mr. Congressman, can you take care of our local reporter working in your district?’ So the congressman actually pays the journalist’s wages. You can’t expect him to report anything bad about the congressman.

So it sounds like there’s a financial factor weighing in here alongside the fear of getting killed if you cross these guys.

Yes, that’s true. In fact in some places, it’s either you take the envelope or you take the bullet. That’s no choice at all.

What about you and your reporting? Do you still try to challenge corrupt officials?

I’ve always done that.

Have you written stories where, after publication, you find yourself looking over your shoulder?

Oh, yes I have. I’ve almost lost my life, in fact.

How did you almost lose your life?

Well, back in 1989, I was almost picked up by military intelligence. Not to blow my own horn, but in Negros, I was like the resident insurgency specialist. I reported on the insurgency a lot and the social conditions that caused the insurgency. And if you do that, you get on the order of battle list, you’re automatically labeled an ‘enemy of the state’ and stuff like that. So one time they tried to pick me up.

I was lucky. My reaction to extreme danger is not freeze or run; everything sort of slows down. I remember the first thought that I had was that they were not going to take me alive. They were stupid enough to try to pick me up on my own street, so I just talked loud enough to attract attention. I just kept my voice up loudly so that people came into the street. They asked if I was okay and I said ‘yeah, I’m just talking to my friends here,’ but I got them to stick around, saying stuff like ‘just stay here; I want to talk to you later.’ That pretty much limited the soldiers’ options, so they left. And that’s when I just slumped to the ground, trembling.

And yet sometimes, like this week, even when there’s witnesses around…

Yeah, they’ll still do it. When that happens, you’re dealing with hired killers, and planned hits. In my case, it was probably more of a political thing where they probably wanted to take me and torture me into some kind of confession. I wasn’t about to let them do that. I was scared, though. There are a few other times where I’ve practically French-kissed the muzzle of a gun. Probably the worst thing that happened to me was getting a text message that said, ‘tomorrow, you’ll be writing about your family.’

So how do you live life with these threats, knowing that you can be killed just for doing your job?

You just do what you have to do, I guess. I’m not trying to sound brave or anything, but I guess I’ve always believed that someone has to tell these stories. It’s sad; a lot of the reporting on the troubles people are experiencing does not delve into why they are taking place. I don’t think government likes people thinking about that.

I imagine that people are still thinking a lot about the troubles in Maguindanao and the November massacre, which you alluded to earlier. How did that affect you? To what extent did it make you reconsider your chosen line of work?

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, but I’m still traumatized by Maguindanao. For about a month afterwards, I kept being bothered by thoughts of it. There was nothing I could do to stop them, they just kept recurring and recurring, but I’ve pretty much gotten over that. […] I remember when I went there [during the aftermath], everyday bodies were still turning up and I kept wondering – is this not ever going to stop? It was a bad scene.

What can be done on the legal side of things to help stop killings like this from happening? Are there legislative initiatives that need to be taken or is it just a matter of enforcing the laws that are on the books?

You know, there really are too many laws in this country. There have in fact been calls for a law to amend the penal code to make the murder of journalists a more serious crime than ordinary murder. But we don’t want that, actually.

Why not?

Because we don’t want to be treated like anyone special. We don’t actually consider ourselves better than any other poor guys being bumped off. A life is a life is a life. All we’re asking is that people enforce the law, and do their duty to protect people’s lives. You know, sometimes we get cynical about lip-service pronouncements, but there is something to be said for moral suasion. If our leaders were serious enough about this, probably all they would need to do is just give a clear, unequivocal order to get the killers and stop the killings. And we’ve been asking [President] Gloria [Arroyo] to do that for nine years. She’s never done it.

So what’s your outlook? Are you hopeful for the future (now that a new president, Noynoy Aquino, is coming into power)?

Well, I don’t know […]. It’s important that we not give him a honeymoon of justice; lives are at stake here. More than a hundred lives have been lost, and hundreds more are in danger. We look at this as a matter of state accountability. It isn’t just Gloria that needs to be made accountable. Noynoy should also be made accountable, for making sure that lives are protected and that justice is being served.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.