Vulnerability to sexual violence differs across classes. The inseparable link between economic- and gender-based oppression endangers poor women most.

Across the world, it is poor women who fetch water (that they don’t have at home), work longer hours (for which they’re paid less), and are the most fearful of walking alone (regardless of to or from where). Low-income victim-survivors of sexual violence simply don’t have the time or money to heal as they are expected to bring home money while also raising kids and doing housework. Even if they want to seek help, their contextual incapacities trigger a ruthless cycle that keeps them poor (if not poorer), and consequently, vulnerable (if not more so).

Of course, sexual violence can happen to anyone. But the worst of its kind, as with many other phenomena, is experienced uniquely by the poor. 

Women in Poverty

As a Cause of Sexual Violence

Where household income is low, sexual violence tends to increase. Here, poverty is a cause of sexual violence, as poor women are confined to unsafe neighborhoods and insecure housing. Children of poor women also often have to be left unsupervised due to work. In some cases, children have to go to work themselves. These visceral risk factors thereby explain, in part, the sexual violence against women and children that happens outside the home. 

But it often occurs inside the home, too. Intimate partner violence, of which sexual violence largely comprises, drastically affects poor women—especially given the changing landscape of sex roles vis-à-vis traditional models of materialist masculinity. As more women become breadwinners (on top of their household duties) due to their relatively increased economic mobility, more men feel humiliated that they cannot financially support their families and have no success to prove to their surrounding communities. As a result, men resort to channeling their aggression towards women, demonstrating that poverty can also be a reason for the perpetration of violence as it is a risk factor for victimization.

There are many more contexts in which poor women are sexually abused. Prison is an important one. Jails have gender-insensitive protocols and a male-dominated workforce. Life in detention is also largely unexplored as a research issue. In the few local studies which look into jail-based sexual violence, a significant number of women have reported rape, attempted rape, sexual abuse, and sexual touching by prison officials. Even among inmates, this is also true. Forced sex is often a strategy for the imposition of hierarchy and discipline. To put all of this into perspective, note that most of those imprisoned—and therefore sexually abused—are poor.

Militarization in the Philippine setting is also a pressing context that results in sexual violence. A 2003 Carnegie Council study correlates foreign militarization in the country to incidences of violence against women, including sexual violence. In particular, sexual violence and militarized prostitution are prevalent in areas with US bases.

Militarization by our own—usually in rural areas or areas of conflict—isn’t any better either. Martial Law in Mindanao started with Duterte encouraging the military to rape through a public announcement of crime absolution. Indigenous women are continually prone to and fearful of sexual violence by the military, given the blatant impunity and even support from national and local governments.

As a Result of Sexual Violence

Poverty isn’t just a cause of sexual violence; sexual violence is also a cause of poverty. These two phenomena interact to subjugate poor women most, such that they face the worst degree of the consequences of sexual violence.

Poor women lack access to reproductive healthcare, psychological healthcare, and legal aid, and thus can’t fully recover or seek justice. They are unable to report, whether because of social stigma from the community, or lack of financial capacity. 

There are deeper layers too. In a lot of cases, economic dependence on abusers render women unable to move out, much more bring their children with them. This dependence can even be manufactured, as predators use social isolation, sabotage of education and occupational opportunities, and restriction of access to cash and credit as tactics to keep their partners within sight.

In the case that victim-survivors do escape from violence, they do not necessarily escape from poverty (which situates them in a cycle of vulnerability to violence). Limited income-earning opportunities come by in the aftermath due to low confidence and self-esteem, decreased performance, poor health, missed training, or job or schooling absenteeism. All of this goes to show the gravity of sexual violence—extremely concerning given its pervasiveness.

Women at Work

Discourse on sexual violence is incomplete without labor. But in today’s status quo, while women’s individual mobility as women has increased, their collective ability as workers to protest sexual violence and other unjust conditions has decreased due to the decline of organized labor brought about by anti-worker legislation and court rulings, among other factors.

Low-income working women, in particular, have been left behind by this absence of collectivism. The inability of low-income working women to express discontent over company policies, simply find another job, or file a case against their employer due to fear of retaliation is the missing context in the individualism promoted by the #MeToo movement. This is problematic, because sexual harassment is most prevalent where low-wage workers dominate, due to the wide power imbalance between employee and the employer.

Farmworkers also have context-specific plights of sexual violence. Threats and retaliation exist in farmlands too, but are amplified because many familial farmworkers work for the same employer. This means that coming forward entails the possibility of losing the entire family’s income. Other concerns beset farmworkers as well, such as walking long paths to access a bathroom and living in a farm labor camp which Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker activist, describes as similar to slave cabins that allow for no privacy.

On top of all of this, poor women are socially and financially pressured to maintain their jobs and perform well in school, which all the more make them targets for sexual favors. 

Sexual violence is thus also a labor union issue. Poor women workers are (and will continue to be) targets under male-dominated work systems with anti-labor regulations, that are, necessarily, gender-blind too. 

Moving Forward

There are ways to stop the cycle. These include bolstering research in sexual violence and strengthening report systems; using this research to assess and amend current interventions, or forward entirely new programs; and passing legal reforms that can help alleviate the problem.

Admittedly, these require some (if not a lot of) patience and degree of faith in the system. For comparatively immediate solutions, we can always look towards the grassroots. Organizing in communities and empowering labor unions can go a long way, and fast. Organically educating, capacitating, and mobilizing groups of people for victim-centered relief and long-term campaigns against sexual violence is the future—and the more sustainable one.

 The most important and urgent step to take is to ensure the availability of quality legal, psychological, and reproductive aid to victim-survivors as soon as possible. Currently, Project Sulong offers free legal and psychological aid for victim-survivors of sexual violence; aims to expand towards also providing reproductive aid; and is looking for donors to help supply its Survivors’ Solidarity Fund, the fund source from which it pays victim-survivors’ fees and thereby keeps its services free.

No more impunity for sexual predators!