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Meet the volunteers behind a chat service to address gender-based violence

By Susan Claire Agbayani Published Oct 09, 2022 4:51 pm Updated Oct 24, 2022 9:24 pm

"Kailangan ko ng tulong; nakaranas ako ng pang-aabuso." 

"Kailangan ko ng tulong tungkol sa contraceptives."  

"Gusto kong mag-volunteer para sa Lunas Collective" 

These are some of the messages received by a chat service helpline that has been serving survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and advocates since the first pandemic lockdown in the country. 

UP Assistant Professor Sabrina Laya Gacad documented the online chat service as the immediate response of the Lunas Collective to reports of increasing GBV in a chapter in the book Resisting Marginality: Filipino Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, edited by Dr. Nathalie Africa Verceles (University of the Philippines and Oxfam Pilipinas, 2022). 

“We launched Lunas Collective on March 29, 2020, two weeks into the lockdown,” Gacad said during an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe. Lunas provides women and queer folk care as a starting point for taking action.”   

She stated that the service assists women and LGBTQI individuals who experience abuse or have concerns about GBV and reproductive health. Lunas Collective operates the helpline from 1 to 7 pm, Mondays to Saturdays.

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns from March to May 2020, “the Philippine government recorded an average of eight victim-survivors of sexual assault EVERY DAY,” according to Relief Web International.  

In addition, being cooped up at home “gave birth” to jokes about how pandemic babies increased exponentially from the end of 2020 well into the early months of 2021. 

By December 2020, nine months since the lockdown was imposed, the UP Population Institute, and the UN Population Fund estimated that an extra 214,000 unplanned babies would be born in 2021, on top of 1.7 million births a year.

“It’s not even funny,” Gacad said. “There is a very real threat to women when they are stuck in their homes. No woman wants to be pregnant all the time.” 

“The system was organized by volunteers,” she explained. “Around 20 people responded via Facebook to operate the helpline. They didn’t need to know anything about gender and sexuality, but had to have the interest, care, and the understanding and practice of a feminist approach to psychosocial first response. “You just had to have a reliable internet connection,” she added. 

“We had a very diverse group of volunteers from all over the Philippines: From as far north as Pangasinan and Pampanga, hanggang Capiz. 

They also had moms in their mid-40s, older volunteers with counselling experience, millennials, Gen Zs, and even senior high school students who knew how to navigate the environment, make decks and Google forms, and were very well-networked online,” Gacad recalls. 

“The maximum for volunteering was five hours per week, para walang mabe-burnout. We kept extending every two weeks, until June 2020.” 

“In time, medyo humina ‘yung volunteer drive, but they persevered. Mabigat din ‘yung gender-based violence. [It’s] very exhausting,” Gacad admitted. 

Nevertheless, she said that they’ve “provided care for over a thousand people in the past couple of years, for survivors, for those who need information about sexuality and reproductive health, and for advocates.” 

Survivors of a hidden pandemic 

“Lunas Collective views those who have suffered GBV as survivors and not as victims who should be saved. Survivors have power, and they are agents in their own right,” Gacad said.  

“We have been promoting survivor-centered care from the very start, something lacking in all the public health and social welfare initiatives related to GBV,” she added. “We do this to shift public discourse on GBV towards healing and care, rather than sensationalized content on violence and victimization,” she said. 

In a talk at the Ateneo Institute of Philippine Culture, Gacad and Verceles stated that “Gender-based violence IS the hidden pandemic.” 

“It became clear that Lunas Collective was providing a service not only to women and people of diverse sexuality who were affected by the pandemic, but also to people who have long been affected by the hidden GBV pandemic and the traditional and patriarchal control of people’s sexualities. Lunas Collective’s advocacy and contribution extends beyond the pandemic’s limits,” Gacad writes in the book. 

“It’s not like repacking, when you wait for the next typhoon. It is about making sure there are people during specific hours on specific dates, and that they have access to the set of information they might need, like a script or directory,” she said. 

Gacad did not want the Lunas Collective to be a funder-driven NGO. She wanted financial sustainability as well as “the opportunities that startups have: agile, iterative, with services that are not burdened by the structures that address the advocacies.” 

The Collective has since become an enterprise supported by Ashoka, a network that brings together communities who are in business, education, and social entrepreneurship, and equips and empowers them to be changemakers. One program of Ashoka (with S & P Global Foundation) is Deepening Impact of Women Activators (DIWA), an online training program designed to empower women social entrepreneurs (WSEs) to create a stronger impact, in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

“I was already looking at Lunas as a service provider. The service has a demand, and there was a need to keep it going as an enterprise.” 

Meanwhile, the Collective continues with its other advocacy projects such as infographics, mini-plays, and videos.