KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 4 / October-November-December 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Women On Death Row
Invisible Realities, Forgotten Voices:
The Women on Death Row

BOOK REVIEW by Alecks Pabico
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

MANILA — MAY 16 2006:

Women on death row and their harrowing stories of domestic violence and abuse, extreme hardships endured in silence, and childhood traumas are the focus of a new, groundbreaking study launched today by the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights) and Women’s Education, Development Productivity and Research Organization (WEDPRO).

Timed for the celebration of Mother’s Day … the book, titled “Invisible Realities, Forgotten Voices: The Women on Death Row from a Gender and Rights-based Perspective” is a product of a year-long research among inmates at the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong who have been meted the death penalty [1] since it was restored on January 1, 1994.

Dr. Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan, executive director of PhilRights and spokesperson of the anti-death penalty multisectoral coalition Mamamayang Tutol sa Bitay-Movement for Restorative Justice (MTB-MRJ), said the book is intended “to call attention to the women and mothers whose day-to-day lives are spent under the specter of death.”

Simbulan said the study illustrates the flaws and weaknesses of the country’s judicial and penal systems and calls for the abolition of the death penalty. At the same time, the study recommends replacing the prevailing “retributive” justice system with restorative justice to make it more responsive to the needs of women inmates, who, as the study pointed out, “have not relinquished the most basic role that society and culture have ingrained in them: that of being mothers.”

There are currently 33 women in death row, including four whose sentences have recently been reduced to reclusion perpetua after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced [on Easter Sunday 2006] the wholesale commutation of death sentences… [2]

At the time the PhilRights-WEDPRO study commenced in July 2004, there were 28 death-row inmates. Of the 28, 13 were convicted for kidnapping for ransom; five for drug-related offenses; five for parricide; three for murder; and two for arson with homicide.

The Supreme Court had already affirmed the sentences of five women, all of whom were involved in kidnapping. The 23 other cases have pending appeals. Two more women, one convicted for kidnapping and another for a drug-related offense, were added to the death-row population in 2004.

Of the 28, 12 women agreed to participate in the survey, while four inmates later consented to take part in the case studies, each representing one case for the following crimes: murder, parricide, drug-related offense, and kidnapping.

Combining documentary analysis, survey and case study methods, the research team headed by Aida Santos, WEDPRO’s managing trustee, aimed to present a general profile of women on death row, describe the circumstances that led to their incarceration, and the impact of their death-row status on their self-perception and on relations with their significant others.

By looking at the experiences of death-row women, Santos said the research tried to “examine the gender dimension of capital punishment and prison life in general without delving into the legal debates on the death penalty or tackling the legal issues of the women’s cases.”

The study is considered to break new research ground on crime and the justice system in the Philippines as there had been no previous research on the justice and penal systems that brings to light the distinct experiences of women in prison and tries to understand their circumstances from a gender and rights-based approach.

While there have been studies on capital punishment in the past that have included women in their samples, the very small female ratio in the death row population have “tend(ed) to obscure the distinctive characteristics and experiences that are unique to women inmates, Simbulan claimed.

Most of the women in death row, the study found out, come from poor families, with markedly low educational attainment. (See also the Free Legal Assistance Group’s 2004 survey [3] of death row inmates.) The study also noted how “the women had barely understood how the legal system works despite the legal counsel available to them.”

Below are the findings of the research:

End notes:

[1] see Philippine Republic Act No. 7659, An Act to impose the Death Penalty on certain heinous crimes, approved 13 December 1993, Chan Robles Virtual Law Library web site
[2] see President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Easter message, April 15, 2006, commuting all death sentences meted to some 1,200 convicts to life imprisonment; also Pabico’s commentary ‘Debate on death penalty rages anew’ The Daily PCIJ blog site, 17/04/2006
[3] see Sheila Coronel’s commentary ‘Death Row reflects Philippine society’, The Daily PCIJ blog site, 17/04/2006; also the Free Legal Assistance Group web site

“Invisible Realities, Forgotten Voices: The Women on Death Row from a Gender and Rights-based Perspective” Published by Phil-Rights & WEDPRO, 2006.

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