Vol. 21 No.
4 / October-November-December 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia
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  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… 
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  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:
- No criminal records
The researchers found it disturbing that all of the women who have been meted the death sentence had no criminal records prior to their conviction. This means that these women facing capital punishment are not habitual or hardened offenders.
- Lives on hold
As of November 2004, the women had each been in the death row from six months to six years and eight months. The sentence of one of the two longest-serving death-row inmates had her sentence affirmed only in 2004.
Most of the women (78.6 percent) have spent more than four years in prison (on death row and in jails). Five of them had spent between eight to ten years behind bars.
- Productive years lost
During the time of the study, the oldest female facing the death penalty was an 84-year-old woman who was hauled to court when she was already aged 80; the youngest was 22 years old, arrested when she was only 17. Under the law, anyone below 18 or above 70 years old at the commission of the crime cannot be sent to the death row.
The majority of the death-row women, however, are usually in the most productive years of their lives. Twenty out of 28 belong to the 21 to 40 age group. Slightly more than half of them are in their 30s.
A significant number of these women were gainfully employed immediately prior to their arrest, although in marginal, low-paying jobs. They were supporting their parents and siblings, or their own families. Ten of them worked as househelpers, nine were self-employed (vending and buy-and-sell business), and the rest were farm laborers (2), factory workers (2), and a waitress. Three were engaged in unpaid work as housewives, and one was a student.
- History of violence and abuse
A critical finding of the study was the history of violence and abuse suffered by the inmates during their childhood as well as in their domestic relationships. Of the 12 inmates who participated in the in-depth interviews, six cited child abuse as the reason for their estranged relationship with some or all of their family members, reporting various forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of one or both parents, stepparents and other members of their extended family.
Of the 10 women who were in a domestic relationship, 8 admitted that they were abused by their respective intimate partners. All four women who participated in the case study shared similar backgrounds of sexual violence.
- Mothering behind bars
Relationship with their children is a significant aspect of the lives of the death-row women. Of the 12 women surveyed, 9 are biological mothers to their children while one was the primary caregiver of her partner’s children from his first relationship. Six of the women in the survey have 3 to 4 children, while 3 of the respondents have 5 to 6 children. One has 2 children.
Five of these women have dependent children aged below 18 years old. In addition to this, 2 women have children who are still studying in college, while one is a mother of a mentally challenged son who is already in his 20s. Two of the respondents are single and do not have children.
Despite their incarceration, women on death row continue their roles as mothers to their children. For these women, seeing their children regularly and ensuring their welfare remain as their primary concern. They continue to provide not only emotional support to their children, but even financial support as well.
Because of their imprisonment, 4 out of the 10 mothers surveyed stated that some of their children had to stay with their relatives.
Incarceration clearly took a toll on their relationship with their children. Children of death-row women reacted differently to the sentencing of their respective mothers, ranging from grief to anger towards their mothers. All the mothers surveyed decried the fact that they do not see enough of their children. In one case, visits and communication from the children stopped when the woman received her death sentence, whereas before her children regularly visited her, wrote letters and sent her money. Since her transfer to the CIW, her children had not visited nor communicated with her.
Two of the ten mothers surveyed also face possible loss of legal custody over their children. For one of the mothers, custody over her children is already being litigated.
- Separation from loved ones
Their imprisonment has severely affected their relationships. Because of their incarceration, the women could not see their loved ones as often as they would like to, and when they do, it was only for a brief period. Nine women who had been previously imprisoned in provincial jails stated that the number of visits from family members was also affected by their imprisonment at the CIW. Most of the inmates’ families, especially those from the provinces far from Metro Manila, do not have time nor money to visit. The families of some inmates, however, would rather forget about their loved ones inside the death row. The mother of one inmate, for example, would not visit her daughter though for a time she was residing in Manila.
Only 4 of the 12 inmates have regular visitors (at least once a month), which included their children, intimate partners, parents and siblings. The remaining 8 women have had no visitors in the past four years of their imprisonment.
Having one’s family living in Metro Manila does not assure regular visits, however. One inmate lamented that her children rarely visit her, and on the rare occasion that they did, it was only to persuade her to transfer her house to their name.
Relationships with their intimate partners also suffer because of their incarceration. Of the 12 inmates surveyed, seven were in an intimate relationship prior to their arrest. Of these, only one maintained her relationship with her partner. The others (4) broke off their relationship, while one maintains communication with her former live-in partner because he happens to have custody of one of her children. There is no information on the status of the relationship of one inmate.
Some of the women, however, have formed relationships with fellow inmates. In these relationships, the partners are referred to as “kaibigan” (friend). As one inmate explains, “Hindi naman kasi kagaya ng mag-asawa eh. Parang companionship lang. Siya ang tumulong sa iyo, umalalay sa iyo, nagmalasakit sa iyo.” (It’s not like being married to a man. It’s more for companionship. She helps you out, supports you, shows compassion for you.)
 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 http://www.chanrobles.com/republicactno7659.htm
 see President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Easter message, April 15, 2006, commuting all death sentences meted to some 1,200 convicts to life imprisonment http://www.op.gov.ph/speeches.asp?iid=801&iyear=2006&imonth=4; also Pabico’s commentary ‘Debate on death penalty rages anew’ The Daily PCIJ blog site, 17/04/2006 http://pcij.org/blog/?p=808.
 see Sheila Coronel’s commentary ‘Death Row reflects Philippine society’, The Daily PCIJ blog site, 17/04/2006 http://pcij.org/blog/?p=806; also the Free Legal Assistance Group web site http://flagfaqs.blogspot.com/
“Invisible Realities, Forgotten Voices: The Women on Death Row from a Gender and Rights-based Perspective”
Published by Phil-Rights & WEDPRO, 2006.
PHILIPPINE HUMAN RIGHTS INFORMATION CENTER (PhilRights)
53-B Maliksi St., Brgy. Pinyahan, 1100 Quezon City, Philippines
Tel: +(632) 433-1714 & +(632) 436-5686