JOLO, Philippines (UCAN) - A Jolo vicariate official has joined the call for action against gang rapes in his southern Philippine town, where at least 25 rape cases have been reported in the past two months.
Oblate Father Romeo Villanueva, director of the vicariate's Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation commission, denounced lack of government support for victims of the reported rapes, mostly young Muslim women returning from night classes.
Father Villanueva addressed hundreds of people representing more than 60 civil society groups in Sulu province demanding government action to stop violence against women.
Jolo vicariate, based in the provincial capital, covers Sulu and neighboring Tawi-Tawi province, which comprises 457 islands and islets. Roughly 2 percent of the territory's 1.1 million inhabitants are Catholics, while the vast majority are Muslims.
Under a sweltering sun, young women from religious and government schools carried placards at the September 4 rally demanding action to stop the rapes as well as justice for the victims. One placard read, "Women must be loved and respected and not abused."
The rally resolution, read out by Anwar al-An, convener of the interreligious and multisectoral Sulu People's Congress (SPC), lamented local authorities' failure to act competently and protect women.
Father Villanueva urged local authorities to document the abuse carefully, so their investigations could lead to successful prosecution of wrongdoers.
The government also should promptly provide protection to victims, he said at the rally, broadcast over local radio.
The priest also signed a two-page resolution prepared by the SPC.It appealed to the Philippine National Police, National Bureau of nvestigation, Commission on Human Rights, other government bodies and elected officials to create immediately a fact-finding mission on the mounting rapes.
Father Villanueva told UCA News on September 17 that one recent victim, an 80-year old woman, reportedly was raped by 10 men. He added that he went to see her, but was told she fled Jolo out of fear the rapists would return for her.
Fear is common among the victims, who complain that police do not follow up on their complaints, he added.
"Usually, the reports about gang rapes involve young Muslim girls walking home after classes, usually alone," the priest said. He described the attacks as coordinated: "A number of motorcycle riders who spot a victim contact a covered van that then picks up the victim, who the gang will rape."
He said no Christians have reported being raped, but pointed out that if some had become victims, they might be reluctant to report this to police.
"We are upset because the police are in a state of denial and refuse to accept the accounts of the victims," he stated.
Father Villanueva explained that his Church commission joined the prayer rally because its role is to promote human rights and freedom and to share the task of peace-building. Catholics, though a minority, form networks with other civil society organizations hoping to help transform Sulu, he said.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Women's Desk of the Sulu provincial police conducted a two-week information drive on the Anti-Violence against Women and Children law in all high schools and colleges in Jolo, since majority of the victims are students.
The National Statistical Coordination Board ranks Sulu 13th-poorest among the 80 Philippine provinces. (UCAN)