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When hookup apps can save lives

Technology has been blamed as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines. But what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.

IMAGE BY EDAR FROM PIXABAY.COM

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The first time Quezon City-based 22-year-old Xander* “met” a person openly living with HIV was through a gay geosocial networking app. “He ‘advertised’ in his profile that he lives with HIV,” Xander recalled, adding that “this surprised me because he didn’t hide his HIV status, as I expected people living with HIV (PLHIV) would.”

After a chat, it was this HIV-positive person who encouraged Xander to also get himself tested. “Not that I may have HIV,” Xander said sheepishly, “but as he said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather know?’”

As it turned out, that person Xander was chatting with was also a peer educator, who encourages other men who have sex with men (MSM) to get themselves tested for HIV. That same person eventually accompanied Xander to a nearby social hygiene clinic (SHC), “providing not just information about HIV, but – I suppose – a hand I knew I’d need whatever the test result may be,” Xander said.

Xander’s experience – i.e. “Chatting to pick up, getting laid… and getting tested for HIV,” he laughed – highlights the continuing evolution of the use of gay geosocial networking apps. And this is even if the latter (that is, with it serving as a tool for change) often overshadowed by the former (i.e. hooking up).

“HIV largely affects the gay and bi community, and I believe gay and bi men in the Philippines could immensely benefit from education and other necessary interventions to curb the rise of the epidemic,” Evan Tan said. And here, “a platform like Blued can be used as an effective tool.”
PHOTO BY PORAPAK APICHODILOK FROM PEXELS.COM

WORSENING SITUATION

In June 2017, the Department of Health’s (DOH) HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) reported 1,013 new HIV cases in the country, bringing the total reported cases from January 1984 (when the first HIV case was reported) until June 2017 to 45,023. Also in June, most (93%) of the newly infected were male. The median age was 27 years old (age range: one to 73 years). And half of the cases were from the 25-34 year age group while 32% were youth aged 15-24 years.

The number of people getting infected with HIV in the Philippines continues to grow. If, in 2008, the country only had one case reported to HARP every day, it now has 30 new HIV infections every day.

It therefore comes as no surprise that on August 1, the Department of Health (DOH) held a press conference to announce the undesirable news that the Philippines now has the “fastest growing” HIV epidemic in Asia Pacific. Citing data from the UNAIDS Report on global HIV epidemic, Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said that new HIV cases among Filipinos more than doubled from 4,300 in 2010 to 10,500 in 2016, so that the Philippines “has become one of eight countries that account for more than 85% of new HIV infections in the region.”

Most of these new infections occur in 117 “high burden areas”, including the National Capital Region (NCR), Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Bulacan, Cebu, Davao, Tagum, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Zamboanga, General Santos City, Koronadal, Butuan, Iloilo, Bacolod, Puerto Princesa, Tacloban, Naga, Lucena, Angeles, Mabalacat, Tarlac, San Fernando, Cabanatuan, Olongapo, and Baguio.

And most of these new infections involve the young, particularly men who have sex with men (MSM), who start engaging in risky sexual behaviors at a tender age, with the first sexual encounter happening at 16 years old.

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The trickier part comes with the finger pointing on who (or what) to blame.

And here, a big chunk of the supposed culpability is pointed to access to Internet and social media, as well as use of new information technologies, often cited as among the most flagrant factors facilitating early sexual engagement among young people. This point has been stressed by, among others, the Commission on Population’s regional studies conducted through the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and Demographic Research and Development Foundation (DRDF), using the data from the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS 4).

But with the talk about – or even blaming of – technology as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines, what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.

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IT’S BUT A TOOL

Putting the blame on technology may not be surprising, even if very simplistic. After all, it may help facilitate having multiple sexual partners and other high risk behaviors, but it is not necessarily the catalyst for these behaviors.

Overseas, various studies have already looked at the effectiveness of dating and hookup apps and sites in distributing HIV prevention information to gay, bi and MSM. And – surprise! – the apps have been found effective.
PHOTO BY JESHOOTS FROM PIXABAY.COM

According to Evan Tan, country marketing manager for the Philippines of Blued, apps are among those that are dissed as “just for picking up”. But he thinks that this very notion needs to be reconsidered, with these technological innovations deserving a better look.

A study that looked at the acceptability of smartphone application-based HIV prevention among young MSM noted that over 90% of 12-29 year olds are online and utilize the Internet as a primary source of information gathering, communication, and social networking. More specifically, young MSM have been found to heavily use Internet search engines, gay-friendly chat rooms, and pornography websites for information on sex behavior, sexuality, and sexual health.

“We know very well that technology can do so much more,” Tan said, adding that in Blued’s case, for example, “we stay true to our mission of building a better community by spearheading (CSR) efforts.”

In the Philippines, for instance, Blued works with The LoveYourself Inc. (TLY), a non-government organization promoting HIV awareness and testing. Tan himself personally spoke with TLY’s head, Vinn Pagtakhan, to help the NGO set up a Blued profile. And now – with the help of TLY’s head of community relations Paul Junio, the NGO has a team of counselors who provided answers to HIV-related queries gathered from TLY’s official Blued profile (TLY’s official Blued account: LoveYourselfPH).

“HIV largely affects the gay and bi community, and… I believe gay and bi men in the Philippines could immensely benefit from education and other necessary interventions to curb the rise of the epidemic,” Tan said. And here, “a platform like Blued can be used as an effective tool.”

EFFECTIVE APPARATUSES

Overseas, various studies have already looked at the effectiveness of dating and hookup apps and sites in distributing HIV prevention information to gay, bi and MSM.

Putting the blame on technology may not be surprising, even if very simplistic. After all, it may help facilitate having multiple sexual partners and other high risk behaviors, but it is not necessarily the catalyst for these behaviors.
PHOTO BY EDAR FROM PIXABAY.COM

In 2016, for instance, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined paid ad analytics from gay-specific dating and entertainment apps (including Scruff and GAY FM), and it found that users on these apps were twice as likely to click on HIV prevention ads than they were on general apps (0.30% versus 0.15%).

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A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases supports CDC’s findings, claiming that over 63% of participants exposed to HIV prevention information through online dating sites reported getting tested 12 months later. In comparison, only 42% of participants who did not receive similar intervention messaging reported getting tested.

Sexual Health also published a study that found dating apps for gay men effective in giving give out HIV self-test kits to men at risk of HIV infection, thereby reducing the spread of HIV. In this study, the link of the service provider that advertised in a gay app received 4,389 unique hits in four weeks, with 333 HIV test kit requested.

Similar scientific studies continue to be deficient in the Philippines, though anecdotes abound particularly from service providers on how tech has helped make their jobs better.

Ronnel*, 32, Xander’s peer counselor, has accounts in “more apps than I can count,” he smiled. In his profile in these apps, “I provide information about HIV and AIDS, and how those who want to know their status can get tested for free. It’s very straightforward… I suppose no different from the candid approach to finding partners nowadays.”

Although Ronnel also goes to various locations (for instance, bars or “eye balls” of “clans”), he claimed getting most of his clients mainly through these apps. “Perhaps the anonymity (also) helps,” he said, though mostly “these MSM are part of hard-to-reach populations whose major mode of joining the PLU community (“People like us”, a colloquial term used by MSM to refer to themselves – Ed) is through these apps.” And so for Ronnel, “yes, nakakatulong talaga ang apps (the apps truly help).”

APPS BEYOND PICKING UP

This successful use of app in dealing with HIV also motivated Blued’s efforts in other countries.

In China, Blued closely partnered with UNAIDS, WHO, the Chinese Association of AIDS/STD, and the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association to deliver health information, promote HIV testing, and carry out HIV-related care programs through Blued. It also has live broadcasts on HIV and AIDS prevention through the Blued Live feature, with each Blued live broadcasting program reaching over 5,000 online audiences. It similarly utilized the platform to be an online HIV testing reservation system. In 2016, 22,857 people received intervention, 6,362 got tested (of which, 30% have never been tested before), and 311 were diagnosed to be HIV-positive and who were able to get access to life-saving HIV medication.

Already, Blued has collaborated with NGOs, universities and international agencies to conduct more than 40 online surveys to explore the changing trends of high risk behaviors over time. Nearly 30 papers and reports have been published from these collaborations.

In China, “our long-term goal in the country is to establish an app-based platform for comprehensive HIV and AIDS prevention programs at national level, and to form national technical guideline by implementing scientific researches,” Tan said.

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Outside China, Blued also collaborated with organizations in Vietnam, including with the ICS Center in Ho Chi Minh and ISEE in Hanoi. Meanwhile, in Thailand, Blued is working with APCOM, a coalition of non-profits and various organizations in the Asia and the Pacific, to create HIV awareness campaigns for the gay community. APCOM is behind TESTBKK, an HIV testing campaign that was adopted in the Philippines also by TLY.

Beyond HIV-related efforts, Blued supports LGBT-related endeavors. In Vietnam, for instance, it is a major supporter of the upcoming Vietpride 2017, which will be held this 22nd to 24th of September.

“We continue to look for more ways to strengthen our existing initiatives,” Tan said. “We believe that LGBT empowerment and the HIV advocacy are causes that are very important to champion for us, especially as members of our community are highly affected by HIV and LGBT stigma and discrimination.”

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MORE THAN JUST A MEAT MARKET

Tan said that the impetus for the establishment of Blued is helping define its current direction.

Blued was launched in 2012 by Geng Le (a.k.a. Ma Baoli), a married former police officer in northern China. He secretly managed Danlan.org, a website for gay people, for 12 years. But his superiors eventually discovered the website, leading to Geng Le losing not only his job but also his family. It was this that drove him to create Blued

Blued now counts 27 million users (majority of them in its country of origin, China), making it the largest gay social network in the world. Every day, Blued sees active use from 11 million pax.

In the Philippines, Blued has about half a million users, with most between 19-32 years old. A big bulk of the current members come from Quezon City, San Juan City, Makati City, Banugao, Bacoor and Bacolod.

“Blued’s existence has been pivotal in shattering barriers for the gay community in China. Our vision to create a more inclusive community has led us to other spaces where we can offer our help,” Tan said. This is why “we are working with various organizations (to benefit) the gay and bi community. The seed to help was there from the very start, and not just grafted into our other efforts as an afterthought.”

Barriers continue to exist not just for gay and bi men, as well as other MSM (and even the other members of the LGBT community. In fact, over 70 countries still have laws that make same-sex relations a punishable offense.

For being LGBT, you can be sent to jail for 14 years or more in 66 countries (including Chad and India); and at least in 12 countries (including Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen), one can be punished by death for homosexual acts. A hundred countries (including Australia, Indonesia, Northern Cyprus and Russia) legalized homosexual acts; but other anti-LGBT restrictions continue to exist (e.g. ban on adoption and same-sex marriage/civil union).

For Tan, technology should be seen as a tool that can link instead of divide.

With the talk about – or even blaming of – technology as expediter of the spread of HIV particularly among the young in the Philippines, what is not as discussed is how the same tool can actually be used to curb the increase in HIV infection.
PHOTO BY RELEXAHOTELS FROM PIXABAY.COM

And at least in the case of 22-year-old Quezon City native Xander, this proved to be the case.

His (latest) HIV test was non-reactive; but he was encouraged by the peer counselor to get himself tested again at least after three months, “just to be sure,” Xander said.

He stays in touch with that same counselor, “not just if I need information – such as where to get (free) condoms and lube, or about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – but also to recommend friends who want to get tested.” In this sense, Xander said that he’s glad “na gumagamit ako ng (that I use) apps in the first place,” he said. “Sabi nga (As they say): ‘Technology can be your friend, not an enemy’.”

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*NAMES CHANGED FOR THE INTERVIEWEES’ PRIVACY

MAIN IMAGE BY EDAR FROM PIXABAY.COM

The founder of Outrage Magazine, Michael David dela Cruz Tan is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Though he grew up in Mindanao (particularly Kidapawan and Cotabato City in Maguindanao), even attending Roman Catholic schools there, he "really, really came out in Sydney," he says, so that "I sort of know what it's like to be gay in a developing and a developed world". Mick can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (DUH!), shoot flicks, community organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language (FSL). Among others, Mick received the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) in 2006 for Best Investigative Journalism. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

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Discrimination of LGBTQIA Filipinos goes beyond CR access, say activists

51% of 400 LGBTQIA community members surveyed claimed that they experienced discrimination in public schools, 31% in the streets, and 28% in private schools. This highlights that LGBTQIA-related discrimination happens in the Philippines go beyond toilet-related access.

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All photos taken during Metro Manila Pride parade in 2019

Gretchen Diez may have self-proclaimed herself to be the “face of the LGBT movement”, but advocates of the SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) Equality Bill noted that LGBTQIA-related discrimination happening in the Philippines go beyond toilet-related access.

Diez recently made the news because of her ordeal while trying to access the female toilet in Farmers Plaza, a mall in Cubao, Quezon City. But Diez, who has been in the limelight following her experience and not because of her involvement in LGBTQIA advocacy, now fashions herself as the sole representative of the local LGBTQIA community/as the community’s “face”.

During a Senate committee hearing on the measure held on August 20, mentioned was a survey conducted by Rainbow Rights Project Inc. (R-Rights) with Metro Manila Pride Inc. from 2017 to 2019, with the results showing that 51% of 400 LGBTQIA community members surveyed claiming that they experienced discrimination in public schools, 31% in the streets, and 28% in private schools.

And so Atty. Jazz Tamayo, executive director of R-Rights, the Constitution’s equal protection clause is not enough to guarantee equality. “We need laws that will specifically compel if it cannot make people understand what equality is. The fight for the SOGIE (Equality) Bill has been too long, all these cases, all these suffering… they simply must stop.”

There are also instances when State bodies end up promoting LGBTQIA discrimination. In Cagayan de Oro City in 2016, for instance, the regional trial court (RTC) sided with a school principal who ordered a Grade 4 student to wear school curtains as punishment for violating the dress code.

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“The child was made to wear school curtains as a punishment for failing to abide by (the) uniform policy. This was done to the child no less than six times by the defendant principal,” Tamayo said. “The judge ruled that the child was too young to venture into a lifestyle of a gender identity that is different from the child’s assigned sex at birth.”

The RTC judge further ruled that the mother of the child was to blame for “not guiding her child better.”

“I can imagine the chilling effect it will have for other parents who would have to file cases like this… (with) the judge just berating them about how they did not discipline their child,” Tamayo added.

For her part, Disney Aguila, president of Pinoy Deaf Rainbow Inc. (PDR), the pioneering organization for Deaf LGBTQIA Filipinos, recalled how she – herself – encountered discrimination because she identifies as a transgender woman.

Speaking to Outrage Magazine, Aguila recalled how – when she applied for a job – the HR (human resource) person of a clothing company based in Pasay City at first “praised her for looking nice”. But the same PR officer – when going through Aguila’s bio-data – saw that her assigned sex at birth was male; and “she frowned.” The HR officer asked Aguila to turn around, and then started pulling her braided hair; she then asked Aguila to have her hair cut.

When Aguila asked why, she was told that it’s because she is a “he”, based on her assigned sex at birth, and that either she presents herself as a man or not be hired. Aguila left that office without a job.

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“The level of discrimination we encounter is doubled not only because we are persons with disability (PWD) but also because of our SOGIESC,” Aguila said.

Meanwhile, Perci Cendaña – former commissioner at the National Youth Commission, and now with Babaylanes Inc. – cited the cases of: 1) a certain Jay, a Grade 12 transgender man from Pampanga, who did not finish his secondary school because when he met with his principal for college requirements, he was berated for not following the school dress code; and 2) transgender senior high school students of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines who – at first – were told that they would not graduate if they won’t follow the school’s prescribed haircut, and though they were later allowed to graduate, they did not receive a certificate of good moral character, which is a requirement for many colleges/universities for incoming students.

“The Philippine youth development plan states that youth development is defined as enabled, involved, patriotic youth realizing their aspirations. Discrimination, stigma… is a deterrent to development,” Cendaña said. “We would like to reiterate that discrimination is an issue not just of human rights but a development issue because it deters our young people from realizing their aspirations.”

“When you give us equal rights, there is no taking from you. There is no lessening of you. No one is any less a man or a woman. The SOGIE Equality Bill means simply that, an acceptance that we are different but equal,” Tamayo of R-Rights ended.

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Behind the bars on LGBTQIA life in prison

In the Philippines, it remains hard to monitor wrongful accusations (and eventual wrongful convictions); much more on how badly this affects members of the LGBTQIA community. Outrage Magazine interviews a gay man who experienced this, and what he went through as a minor behind bars.

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Photo by Dmitry Yakovlev from Unsplash.com

It was a tiring day for then-16-year-old Harry (not his real name). He just got home from two consecutive weddings, and so – right after arriving at their house in San Jose City in Nueva Ecija – he asked his mother if he could skip school to just rest.

Harry’s mother indulged him; but she also asked Harry to look after a younger sibling as she had to do some errands. On her way out, Harry saw his mother speak to the nine-year-old son of their neighbor outside their house; he said he was just wandering to catch a dragonfly.

With his mother gone, and before getting some sleep, Harry decided to harvest some mangoes from the tree beside their house. And while atop the tree, he noticed that the nine-year-old boy was no longer in the street. After getting down from the tree, he went inside their house, locked the door, and then slept.

It seemed that only a few minutes passed, but Harry was woken by knocking on their front door. He got up to open the door; it was the nine-year-old boy’s mother, asking about the clothes Harry wore to one of the weddings that day. When Harry moved to go inside the room to get the pants he wore, the nine-year-old boy surfaced from inside the room.

Anong ginagawa mo diyan (What are you doing there)?” the mother asked her son, flabbergasted.

He said “tinitingnan ko lang ‘yung kapatid ni Harry (I was just looking at the younger brother of Harry).”

Harry joined the conversation, saying he didn’t know that the boy was even inside.

The boy’s family went straight to the police station, accusing Harry of child molestation. Harry was eventually taken into custody.

Though he was only 16 then, Harry was detained at the lock-up facility of the Philippine National Police (PNP). This is – by itself – a violation of Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006, which sets the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old. This means that those between 15 to 18 years old (and Harry was 16 when the alleged rape happened) may be detained in youth centers and go through rehabilitation programs, while those under 15 years old are exempted from criminal liability and undergo intervention.

After a month with the PNP, Harry was transferred to the custody of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), an agency of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), mandated to direct, supervise and control the administration and operation of all jails in the Philippines.

Though he was only 16 then, Harry was detained at the lock-up facility of the Philippine National Police (PNP). This is – by itself – a violation of Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006, which sets the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old.
Photo by Ali Yahya from Unsplash.com

RAINBOW INCARCERATION

Here’s a sobering fact: the incarceration rate of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people is up to three times than that of the general population. Sexual minorities (or people who self-identify as LGB and people who do not identify as LGB but reported a same-sex sexual experience) comprise: 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail, 42.1% of women in prison, and 35.7% of women in jail.

Note: As is often used, “jails” are facilities that hold inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences, while “prisons” are facilities for those serving their (often longer) sentences.

Now this is worth stressing: Even if this has already been (partly) studied overseas, this continues to be largely ignored in the Philippine context.

One study – “Incarceration Rates and Traits of Sexual Minorities in the United States: National Inmate Survey, 2011–2012″, co-authored by Ilan H. Meyer, PhD, Andrew R. Flores, PhD, Lara Stemple, JD, Adam P. Romero, JD, Bianca D.M. Wilson, PhD, and Jody L. Herman, PhD and published in the American Journal of Public Health – found that sexual minorities are not only incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, but that once incarcerated, they are more likely to experience mistreatment, harsh punishment and sexual victimization.

Sexual minorities (or people who self-identify as LGB and people who do not identify as LGB but reported a same-sex sexual experience) comprise: 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail, 42.1% of women in prison, and 35.7% of women in jail.
Photo by Denny Müller from Unsplash.com

A LIFE IN FEAR

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Nung first time kong pumasok sa loob ng selda, binuhusan ako ng isang pulis ng tubig habang natutulog pa ako (The first day I got detained, a police officer splashed water on me while I was sleeping),” Harry recalled. Dazed and confused, and not knowing who the person was (because she was not wearing uniform), “tinanong ko siya kung naka-detain din ba siya; hindi ko alam na pulis siya. Nalaman ko lang nung bigla niyang pinakuha yung batuta niya (I asked if she was also a detainee; I had no idea she was a police officer. The moment she asked for her club/cudgel, everything just came to me).”

There was a time when Harry was almost transferred to Boystown (a facility for offending minors), but his mother pleaded for this not to be done since he would then be too far from home and she would be unable to visit him regularly. And because he did not entirely understand what was being discussed, all Harry said he could do was cry, “too scared of everything.”

Bullying/getting maltreated was a “norm” particularly for those who just enter prison.

In Harry’s case, he was beaten – an act, he was told, was “a way to welcome new inmates.”

Ano yung ginagawa ng mga jail officers? Wala lang din. Wala silang ginagawa kasi minsan parang sila na din yung nagsasabi o nagbibigay ng memo na i-welcome yung mga bagong inmates (The jail officers are not acknowledging this issue. They are not doing anything about it because there are times when they, themselves, are the ones who give orders to welcome new inmates in that way),” Harry said.

Inside the jail, minors are supposed to be separated from the adult inmates. But this policy is also amendable, depending on the whims of the warden. In their case, an inmate who was also a minor tried to escape because he wanted to celebrate his birthday outside the prison, but “after that incident, the (minors were already treated as adult inmates), included with the adult prisoners.”

Men and women have separate sections; but transgender women are mixed with men.

Wala silang sariling lugar doon sa kulungan. Isinasama sila sa mga lalaki kasi para sa mga tao doon, lalaki pa din sila (There’s no designated place for them. The jail officers still see/treat them as men),” Harry said.

Also as big as a risk for new inmates like Harry was getting raped.

Meron talagang rape na nangyayari sa loob. Lalo na sa mga bagong pasok. Yun din minsan ang parang pinaka-welcome ng mga inmates na lalaki sa mga inmates na bakla. Kahit ayaw mo, talagang pipilitin at pipilitin ka (It is undeniable that rape occurs inside the jail. They specially do it to the newcomers. This is how straight inmates would welcome gay people in their cell. Even if you don’t want to, you will be forced)” Harry recalled.

Harry was not exempted from this experience because, “sabihin ko man na ayaw ko, hindi pa din sila pumapayag na huwag kong gawin. Pag sinabi ng isang inmate na gawin namin, wala na lang din akong magawa kundi sumunod na lang (Even though I didn’t want to, I would never have a choice. If a straight inmate asked for it, you just have to obey them),” Harry said. “Na-experience ko yun as a welcome sa akin nung pagpunta ko don (I experienced it as a welcome greeting when I first got there).”

At 16, Harry was raped in jail by a 23-year-old.

Pag na-gustuhan ka nila, may mga grupo don tapos lalapitan ka nila. Papapasukin ka nila sa lugar nila tapos gagalawin ka nila. Mapapasunod ka na lang kesa masaktan ka (If you caught their interest, groups of boys would approach you and ask you to join them in their cell to rape you. You won’t have any other choice because if you refuse, they will hurt you),” he said.

This maltreatment, by the way, is not exclusive to members of the LGBT community in jail/prison, since “there, no matter what your gender is, they will hurt you if they wanted to.”

Though these may – no doubt – be known to those running the country’s jails/prisons, Harry said that they didn’t have access to any contraceptives and/or protection while inside the jail/prison.

Hindi sila nakakapag-provide ng ganun. Kahit minsan nasusubukan namin magkaroon ng sakit, hindi din kami nabibigyan ng kahit anong gamot. Itinatawag lang namin sa mga magulang namin yung mga ganun (They can’t provide things like that. Even at times when we were sick, no medicines were made available to us. We still rely on our relatives outside),” he said, adding: “Saka pa lang nagkakaroon ng aksyon pag parang mamamatay na yung tao (They only really act when someone is already really close to dying.)”

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There was a point in time when Harry said he almost gave up. But he kept telling himself that “hindi yun ang panahon na dapat akong mawalan ng pag-asa dahil naniniwala ako noon na darating at darating yung oras na malalaman talaga kung ano yung totoo (That was not the time for me to just give up. I had faith that the truth will come out),” Harry said.

In Harry’s case, he was beaten – an act, he was told, was “a way to welcome new inmates.”
Photo by Pavlofox from Pixabay.com

FLAWED SYSTEM

Much has already been said about prison management in the Philippines.

To start, and as noted by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), critical and chronic overcrowding has long been a perennial topic when discussing the country’s jail facilities. BJMP runs 415 detention facilities in 17 regions, and on average, its jailhouses report 380% overcapacity. In Metro Manila alone, the BJMP’s total cell area of 22,318 square meters, designed for 4,749 detainees; but it currently holds 21,868 detainees (a congestion rate of 361%).

The surprising – and somewhat senseless – thing worth noting here is that between 85% and 90% of the more than 94,000 inmates in the custody of BJMP are awaiting or undergoing trial.

“This makes the Philippines the Southeast Asian country with the highest number of pretrial and remand detainees and the second highest in all of Asia. Prolonged detention without charge or trial violates international human rights instruments, including Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Philippines ratified in 1986. Moreover, it ‘shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody,’ but rather released with guarantees of appearing for trial,” HRW stated.

HRW also noted that “the injustice of lengthy detention is compounded by the horrific conditions of the jail facilities (with) many detention centers in the Philippines failing to meet the minimum United Nations standards for such facilities, including inadequate amounts of food, poor nutrition, and unsanitary conditions.”

And yes, “torture and other forms of ill-treatment are also common,” HRW similarly noted.

LIFE LESSONS

Inside jail, fighting for oneself was never really an option, Harry said, because the inmates could just – eventually – get back to you for fighting back. Giving in to just go with the flow was the attitude being in jail teaches inmates.

Though one time, Harry said he tried to fight for his basic human right of… simply existing and being treated more humanely.

One time, he recalled, a lady jail officer started pushing his chest with her fist and kept asking him if it hurts. It reached a point where the officer was already pointing a knife at him.

Sabi ko sa kanya, hindi rin ako papayag na gaganunin niya ako. Bilang isang inmate, itrato din naman sana kami na parang tao dahil hindi naman kami iba sa kanila. Kasi sabi ko wala naman kaming ginagawang masama sa kanila. Tapos sabi ko pwede ko silang ireklamo sa ginagawa nilang ‘yun (I told her that I won’t let her do that to me. I may be an inmate, but I am also a person just like her. I told her that I did not do anything wrong to deserve the way she is treating me. I also told her that I could file a complaint on how she is treating me),” he said.

That – fortunately for Harry – silenced and prevented her from doing more harm.

It was while in jail that Harry finished high school under the Alternative Learning System (ALS) program offered there.

ALS is a practical option for learning in the Philippines, offering education to those who could not usually attend and access the formal type of schooling.

It was also while in jail when Harry first found love.

Harry met another minor, and “we became BFs.”

Prisoners who are in relationships and want to have sex may ask for permission from the jail officers who then give them space to do so. “Pwedeng-pwede lalo na pag LGBT ka; pero pag babae at lalaki, medyo mahirap kasi inmate na lalaki at inmate na babae, bawal ‘yun (ipagsama) (The officers are very open to that matter specially if you are a part of the LGBT community. But if the sexual intercourse is going to be between a man and a woman, they don’t allow it).”

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Their relationship lasted for a year and three months.

Inside jail, fighting for oneself was never really an option, Harry said, because the inmates could just – eventually – get back to you for fighting back. Giving in to just go with the flow was the attitude being in jail teaches inmates.
Photo by Ye Jinghan from Unsplash.com

THE WRONGLY ACCUSED

While in jail, Harry was repeatedly told that he would be transferred to “The Mansion” (how inmates called New Bilibid Prison, located in Muntinlupa as the main insular penitentiary designed to house the prison population of the Philippines). He was scared; and he was feeling bad, though not just for himself but also his mother who – even if she just gave birth – continued to regularly visit him.

And then one day, his lawyer – while on a visit – just handed him his already-signed release paper.

Bigla po akong na-congratulate ng attorney ko dahil nai-panalo ko daw yung kaso ko (My lawyer congratulated me because we won the case),” Harry said.

Relieved, he said he just wanted to have a life outside.

It is worth noting that Harry’s case is not exactly rare. And the warning bells have long been ringing.

In 2004, Free Legal Assistance Group (an NGO that provides legal assistance mainly for human rights cases) conducted a survey of death convicts in the Philippines, and it found “significant figures that could indicate a high judicial error rate”. The survey showed that 73.9% of the convicts were arrested without a warrant, 78.3% were not informed of their constitutional rights at the time of arrest, and – get this! – 90% were not assisted by counsel during police investigation and interrogation.

Perhaps it is also worth noting that 52.2% of the convicts belong to the lowest socioeconomic class.

In 2014, Innocence Project (a litigation and public policy organization composed of human rights advocates in Ateneo, UP Law School and De La Salle University College of Law, headed by Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno) revealed that some 400 prisoners were wrongfully convicted by the court; most are charged with rape.

And in 2017, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported of the Supreme Court’s admission that seven in 10 death penalty convictions in 1993-2004 by the lower courts, submitted for automatic review, were wrongly judged. Also, during trials, 59% of the suspects were represented by lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office, but 54.1% did not have regular consultations with their trial lawyers, and 10.2% never even had a consultation.

So in 2017, during the 17th Congress, former Sultan Kudarat Rep. Horacio Suansing Jr. and Nueva Ecija Rep. Estrellita Suansing filed House Bill 5582 to create a commission mandated to review all cases in which an innocent person was convicted; identify the causes of wrongful convictions; and identify current laws, rules and procedures implicated in each identified cause of wrongful convictions. This is because, the politicians noted, “at present, there is no government entity in our country charged with conducting the independent expert review of wrongful convictions necessary to identify the primary and potential causes of wrongful convictions.”

The same bill was actually originally filed by the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago during the 14th Congress and refiled during the 16th Congress. It failed to pass the 17th Congress.

Suffice it to say, in a country like the Philippines, it remains extremely hard to monitor wrongful accusations (as in the case of Harry) and eventual wrongful convictions; much more on how badly this affects members of the LGBTQIA community.  And then – yes – add to this the extra layer of hardships experienced by members of the LGBTQIA community if/when they are sent to jail/prison, some of them experienced by Harry, solely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

THE WORLD OUTSIDE

Upon his release from jail, Harry’s first stop was his brother’s house, where they accused him of escaping. “They only believed me when I showed them the release paper,” he recalled.

Not surprisingly, the complainants weren’t too happy that Harry was released. And this was even if other stories emerged – e.g. that the family of the complainant just paid the medical exam to release a report that stated that the boy was raped; that when the nine- year-old boy was interviewed, he actually denied that he was raped; and that the complainant demanded P30,000 from his family in exchange for his freedom.

Harry was also told that if he wants to turn the tables on them and file a case against his complainants, it would be a very strong lawsuit.

But not that Harry even cared at that point in time. “Pinabayaan ko na lang. Hindi ko inisip na maghiganti pa sa kanila (I moved on. Revenge is not what I wanted),” Harry said.

Harry’s relationship with his fellow minor inmate also did not prosper.

The BF is also already out of jail, Harry said, and he’s already married (to a woman). “Wala naman akong magawa kundi maging masaya na lang para sa kaniya. Pero magkaibigan kami ngayon (There’s nothing I can do but be happy for him. We’re still friends though),” Harry said.

As a freed man since 2016, Harry eventually found a job working for a local government official.

Sa totoo lang, mahirap talaga ang buhay sa loob ng kulungan kapag kayo ay papasok so kailangan talaga na mag-ingat kayo na wag gumawa ng kasalanan (My advice to the LGBT people is for them to watch their actions because it is very hard to live behind the bars),” Harry said.

And to the incarcerated: “Sana mag-ingat na lang din sila kasi kailangan din nilang maipagtanggol yung sarili nila sa lahat ng maling gawain doon sa loob (To those who are inside, they should take care and learn to fight for themselves from every wrong thing that is happening inside).”

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Civil partnership bill refiled in 18th Congress

Under House Bill 2264, all benefits and protections granted to spouses in marriage under existing laws, administrative orders, court rulings, or those derived as a matter of public policy would also be enjoyed by civil partnership couples.

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Separate but equal.

A bill proposing to allow couples to enter into a civil partnership, whether they are of the opposite or of the same sex, has been filed by former Speaker and Davao del Norte 1st District Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez in the 18th Congress.

Under House Bill 2264, all benefits and protections granted to spouses in marriage under existing laws, administrative orders, court rulings, or those derived as a matter of public policy would also be enjoyed by civil partnership couples.

At the same time, laws on marital relations, including donations by reason of marriage, legal separation, adoption, child custody and support, property division and maintenance, and spousal support, will also apply to civil partnership couples.

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In refiling the civil partnership bill, Alvarez stressed the right of all Filipinos to equal protection under the law and to freely associate themselves with others.

“This bill… hereby proposes to allow couples to enter into a civil partnership, whether they are of the opposite or of the same sex,” he said. “It aims to be a landmark effort to provide civil rights, benefits, and responsibilities to couples, previously unable to marry, by giving them due recognition and protection from the State.”

Alvarez filed the same bill in the 17th Congress, where it failed to get pass the deliberations of its mother committee.

But at that time, Atty. Clara Rita Padilla, executive director of EnGendeRights Inc., a human rights organization that fights against discrimination of women and LGBTQI people, said that Philippine law should uphold the basic human rights of everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE).

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“LGBTQI people enjoy the same rights to equality and non-discrimination as all Filipino citizens, thus, our laws should afford LGBTQI people the same rights as heterosexuals. The right to marry is a basic human right that everyone should enjoy – heterosexuals and LGBTQI people alike. It is guaranteed by our constitutional rights to equality, equal protection of the law, privacy, religion and belief,” Padilla said.

Presently, LGBTQI couples are denied the benefits enjoyed by heterosexuals, such as the right to jointly adopt children, own conjugal properties, intestate succession, immigration, avail of tax exemption, and avail of benefits related to insurance, social security, medical, hospitalization, next-of-kin, burial, among others. These benefits have long been enjoyed by married heterosexual couples simply because they are heterosexuals.

In a 2018 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey – done via face-to-face interviews from March 23 to 27, and which asked 1,200 respondents across the country whether or not they agree with the statement “there should be a law that will allow the civil union of two men or two women” – at least 61% of the respondents said they would oppose a bill that would legalize this in the country. Among them, 44% said they strongly disagree, while 17% said they somewhat disagree. Meanwhile, 22% said they would support it, while 16% said they were still “undecided,”

But according to Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson at that time, Harry Roque, the President is said to support civil unions but not same-sex marriage (https://outragemag.com/duterte-backs-civil-unions-not-same-sex-marriage-spox-roque/).

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Empowering barangays to empower LGBTQIA Filipinos

Many LGBTQIA people encounter abuse from family and community members, and yet have no one in the community to turn to. But Ging Cristobal of OutRight Action International believes that there are ways to address existing barriers.

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Thirty-one year-old Jelay (not her real name), a trans woman from Zamboanga del Norte, southern Philippines, was sexually violated by her uncle when she was still a child. But when she raised this issue to family members, the community and then the law enforcers, she was not taken seriously; her experience oh-so-easily discredited, and this largely stemmed from her gender non-conformity.

According to Ging Cristobal of OutRight Action International – noting the experience of LGBTQIA people like Jelay – “the traumatizing nature of (LGBTQIA) domestic violence prolonged through an absence of culturally competent interventions, judicial recourse, legal aid and psychotherapy supports, points to its key role in underpinning a broader experience of social marginalization and stigmatization for (LGBTQIA) persons.”

This is what led to OutRight Action International and EnGendeRights Inc. to embark – starting March 2016 – on a project, “Enhancing Domestic Violence and Family Violence (DV/FV) Protections for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) People in the Philippines”. The intent was to address barriers to domestic and family violence protections by service providers by providing sensitive, appropriate and respectful intervention, service and support.

“(We wanted) to help members of the (LGBTQIA) community have access to inclusive, free medical, legal and mental health service from barangays that are considered the first responders when they experience violence, abuse and discrimination,” Cristobal said to Outrage Magazine.

VIOLENCE IN THE HEARTLAND

From 2010-2012, OutRight Action International partnered with organizations in the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to document experiences of violence among lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) people in a five-country LBT Violence in Asia project.

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“Our findings revealed that domestic violence — including from both family members and intimate partners — is consistently the most common form of violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the Philippines,” Cristobal noted.

Many of those interviewed, including Jelay, highlighted the “haunting” nature of the sexual violence experienced… as a result of gender non-conformity.

This underscores the importance of designing strategies to “complement existing and emerging domestic violence intervention efforts,” Cristobal said; and this is where OutRight Action International and EnGendeRights Inc. entered the picture.

EMPOWERING THE GRASSROOTS

From March 2016 to 2018, for the first phase of the project, 187 barangay personnel have been trained from 72 barangays from the six districts of Quezon City (where the project was eventually started). Out of these, 65 trained trainers conducted echo trainings and 1,165 people were reached through the six district level community forums to mainstream LGBT DV/FV issues.

A DV/FV Protocol for LGBT services was also launched and disseminated; this explains procedures for case handling, obligations of barangays under Philippines national law on gender violence, and obligations under Quezon City’s Gender Fair Ordinance. 

And because of the project, the first-ever barangay intake form for handling DV/FV complaints/reports was developed at the local level; for the first time, it encourages a complainant to comfortably signify one’s sexual orientation and preferred gender.

AN ONGOING CONCERN

The project already rolled out phase two, where the intention is to “continue to increase the awareness and skills of barangay officials and service providers in SOGIESC-sensitive interventions for domestic and family violence of LGBT people,” Cristobal said.

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Other goals include: to continue to strengthen the knowledge and skills around SOGIESC-specific DV/FV of service providers, government officials and community leaders; improve the psychosocial support for trained service providers who are working with LGBTI victim-survivors of DV/FV; assist barangays to improve access of LGBTI people seeking help services related to DV and FV; develop strengthened legal protections and resource allocation for LGBT victims of violence; and eventually replicate the Quezon City LGBTI-inclusive barangay model to Muntinlupa City and other cities in the Philippines.

There remain ongoing/continuing challenges, Cristobal admitted.

For instance, barangays change their Gender and Development (GAD) and Violence Against Women (VAW) desk officers regularly.

But solutions have also been developed – i.e. in the above case, “we drafted the protocol on how to address DV/FV experienced by LGBTI persons so that the new barangay staff will be able to read, learn and apply SOGIE-sensitive intervention.” Now, too, the city GAD council will be the one to ensure that GAD and VAW service providers in barangays are and will always be LGBTI-inclusive.

Yet another issue is politicking, since “some barangay officials who are not supportive of the present mayor makes it hard for LGBTI and barangay staff to join the project.” To deal with this, “and while our project is supported by (current Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte), we do not discriminate who should join just as long as the LGBTI person, GAD and VAW desk officer is willing to provide quality service to LGBTI people in their community.”

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Because in the end, the goal for service providers to serve all the people… meaning, including LGBTQIA people, too.

For cities and municipalities interested to replicate the LGBTI-inclusive barangay model, contact Ging Cristobal at gcristobal@outrightinternational.org or (+63 9175570405).

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Phl votes for LGBTQIA rights at UN Human Rights Council

The UNHRC adopted a resolution to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert focusing on the protection against violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert focusing on the protection against violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

The resolution was adopted by a vote of 27 in favor, with 12 voting against and seven abstentions.

Now this is worth highlighting: The Philippines voted in favor of the resolution.

The Philippines’ UN voting history vis-à-vis LGBTQIA people has been inconsistent. In 2016, when the UNHRC adopted the resolution on “protection against violence and discrimination based on SOGI (which created the post for the Independent Expert), the Philippines abstained from voting for the resolution. It was then under the presidency of Benign Aquino III.

Also to date, the country still does not have a national anti-discrimination policy protecting the human rights of LGBTQIA Filipinos, even if various versions of the anti-discrimination bill (ADB) have been filed in the Upper and Lower Houses of Congress for 20 years now. In 2017, during the last – 17th – Congress, it passed the House of Representatives; but its counterpart version in the Senate failed to gain traction.

Created in 2016, the UN Independent Expert on SOGI has been supported by a growing number of States from all over the world. This new resolution to create and renew the mandate was presented by a Core Group of seven Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay.

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The UN Independent Expert on SOGI is tasked with assessing implementation of existing international human rights law, by talking to States, and working collaboratively with other UN and regional mechanisms to address violence and discrimination. Through the work of this mandate since 2016, the impact of criminalization of same-sex relations and lack of legal gender recognition, the importance of data-collection specific to SOGI communities, and examples of good practices to prevent discrimination have been highlighted globally, with visits to Argentina, Georgia, Mozambique and Ukraine.

As a top-to-bottom approach, however, the immediate impact of the UN Independent Expert on SOGI on grassroots LGBTQIA activism remains a sore issue for those critical of its.

The renewal process of the mandate had to overcome 10 hostile amendments, but the core of the resolution in affirming the universal nature of international human rights law stands firm.

RESULTS OF THE VOTE

Voting in favor of the resolution

Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Tunisia, Ukraine, UK, Uruguay

Voting against the resolution

Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia

Abstaining on the resolution

Angola, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Hungary, India, Senegal, Togo

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SOGIE Equality Bill filed anew in 18th Congress

In the Lower House, Lumad leader-turned-Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat has refiled the SOGIE Equality Bill as House Bill 258. Meanwhile, in the Upper House, Akbayan Sen. Risa Hontiveros refiled the bill as Senate Bill 159, one of her priority measures.

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We continue to #ResistTogether.

Versions of the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill have been re-filed in the Lower and Upper Houses of Congress.

In the Lower House, Lumad leader-turned-Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat has refiled the SOGIE Equality Bill as House Bill 258. Co-authors are Bayan Muna Reps. Karlos Ysagani Zarate and Ferdinand Gaite.

Meanwhile, in the Upper House, Akbayan Sen. Risa Hontiveros refiled the bill as Senate Bill 159, one of her priority measures.

The explanatory note of HB 258 talks about intersectionality, stating that “LGBT (people) often find it difficult to exercise their rights as persons, laborers, professionals, and ordinary citizens.”

For instance, “LGBT students are denied admission or expelled from school due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Companies block the promotion and stymie the career advancement of gay or lesbian employees due to the deeply embedded notion that homosexuality denotes weakness. Laws such as the current anti-vagrancy law are also abused by the law enforcement agencies to harass gay men.”

Incidentally, the latter – i.e. anti-vagrancy law – was repealed in March 2012 (via Republic Act 10158), but members of the LGBTQIA community (particularly gay and bisexual men) often still fall prey victim to harassment by law enforcers.

“It is therefore imperative to define and penalize practices that discriminate against LGBT (people),” continued the explanatory note of HB 258.

Hontiveros, for her part, said the time has come for the enactment of the SOGIE Bill; even vowing that the incoming Congress will be a “massive victory against hate and discrimination.”

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“If the Senate’s 17th Congress was a big win for women and health, the 18th Congress will be a massive victory against hate and discrimination. The SOGIE Equality Bill will pass. It is a measure whose time has come,” Hontiveros said.

In 2017, the House of Representatives actually passed the SOGIE Equality Bill. The Senate’s version, however, did not gain the final approval of the 17th Congress.

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