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A Culture of Hazing

The Philippines has a violent hazing culture that is difficult to eliminate despite laws that prohibit its practice. A recent victim is Joselito Envidiado, a senior high school student who died from injuries received during a fraternity initiation rite on 15 November 2020, in Zamboanga City.[i] The country already has an Anti-Hazing Law, which it amended in 2018 to impose more severe penalties. The law defines hazing as “any act that results in physical or psychological suffering, harm, or injury inflicted on a recruit, neophyte, applicant, or member as part of an initiation rite or practice made as a prerequisite for admission or a requirement for continuing membership in a fraternity, sorority, or organization including, but not limited to, paddling, whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the weather, forced consumption of any food, liquor, beverage, drug or other substance, or any other brutal treatment or forced physical activity which is likely to adversely affect the physical and psychological health of such recruit, neophyte, applicant or member. This shall also include any activity, intentionally made or otherwise, by one person alone or acting with others, that tends to humiliate or embarrass, degrade, abuse, or endanger, by requiring a recruit, neophyte, applicant, or member to do menial, silly, or foolish tasks.”[ii] The existence of this law did not prevent the death of Joselito.

The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, expressed a defeatist attitude toward hazing in fraternities. Commenting on a fatal case of hazing at the Philippine Military Academy in 2019, the president suggested that the only way to eliminate hazing is to prohibit fraternities, which he claims would be unconstitutional.[iii] He objected to sexual abuse in hazing rites but is tolerant of physical abuse. He said that a person brought to a hospital due to hazing injuries should at least be alive, not dead. He admitted that he had also suffered hazing injuries when he joined a law school fraternity and was hospitalized for three days for massive hematoma.

While hazing in the country is often associated with fraternities, the military, and police organizations, it can also occur in other institutions.  Defenders of hazing argue that inflicting physical and psychological hardship on young applicants instills toughness and endurance, teaches the organization’s desired values, creates a bond among members based on shared experiences, and facilitates the applicant’s integration into an organization.

Hazing does not only cause physical and mental harm to new applicants, but it also perpetuates a cycle of violence and abuse. Those who have experienced hazing inflict the violence they have received on succeeding batches of new members. Persons undergoing hazing are often blindfolded, restrained, and threatened so that physical and psychological abuse can more easily be administered.  When an organization explicitly forbids hazing, it is sometimes done secretly by members.

Hazing contributes to and supports a toxic machismo culture that values power and aggression, especially in male-dominated institutions. Male neophytes are punished if they show weakness, resistance, or “unmanly emotions” while undergoing their initiation ordeal. This normalization of violence and suppression of concern for the suffering of others can contribute to the formation of government leaders, police, and military personnel who would not hesitate to apply excessive force on perceived enemies of the state.

Some religious institutions and organizations also tolerate hazing rites when accepting new members. While these rites are less violent than those in fraternities and other secular organizations, these can still lead to a grave distortion of values and foster clericalism. Such rites within church organizations and institutions reinforce the use of power without accountability, instill passivity toward unjust or hurtful behavior, and inordinately uphold hierarchical relationships over collegiality. Even when these rites are done for humor or entertainment, they still reinforce the idea that rules and boundaries that protect human dignity can be suspended arbitrarily by those who wield power in an organization.

Experience has shown that punitive laws are not enough to solve the problem of hazing. A significant shift in the hierarchy of values in Filipino society needs to happen. An individual’s dignity and integrity must never be violated in the pursuit of inclusion in any institution or community. A distinction must be made between the cultural need for rites of inclusion and the use of abuse to test applicants. A different cultural mindset is needed to disassociate hurtful initiation rites from character formation and fraternal bonding.

As the Philippines celebrates the 500th anniversary of Christian evangelization in 2021, it is necessary to ask some inconvenient questions about the Church’s complicity in the country’s hazing culture. How effectively has the gospel of Christ been preached in the past 500 years if this predominantly Catholic country still could not eliminate the attitudes and practices that perpetuate violent hazing in many institutions? Are there distorted values in Filipino Catholicism that foster a fatalistic attitude toward suffering and tolerance for abusive situations as part of God’s will? How can the Church be credible in denouncing the abuse of power by the government, military, and the police if it does not speak and act decisively against cycles of abuse within its institutions?

Francis’ words in Fratelli Tutti, drawn from his 2017 address at a reconciliation liturgy in Columbia, are an appeal to conscience and a call to action. “Every act of violence committed against a human being is a wound in humanity’s flesh; every violent death diminishes us as people… violence leads to more violence, hatred to more hatred, death to more death. We must break this cycle which seems inescapable” (#227). Pope Francis may be referring to situations of war, but his words also apply to hazing. The cycle of dehumanizing initiation rites must end. One way to honor Joselito and other hazing victims like him is for all sectors of society to root out practices and distorted values that sustain hazing culture. The Church should set an example by getting rid of this practice within its ranks. We should aim to form a more humane society that consistently places the good of the human person above the interests of institutions.

[i] Julie Alipala, “Senior high school student dies in Zamboanga City frat initiation,” accessed 25 April 2021,
https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1361033/senior-high-school-student-dies-in-zamboanga-city-frat-initiation#ixzz6szne1Jfm.

[ii] Seventeenth Congress of the Philippines, “ Republic Act #11053 An Act Prohibiting Hazing and Regulating Other Forms of Initiation Rites of Fraternities, Sororities, and Other Organizations, and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof, Amending for the Purpose Republic Act No. 8049, Entitled “An Act Regulating Hazing and Other Forms of Initiation Rites in Fraternities Sororities, and Organizations and Providing Penalties Therefor,” accessed 25 April 2021, https://www.lawphil.net/statutes/repacts/ra2018/ra_11053_2018.html#:~:text=%22An%20 Act%20Prohibiting%20Hazing%20and,the%20Purpose%20Republic%20Act%20No.

[iii] Alexis Romero, “Duterte says hazing in fraternities can’t be stopped, a year after signing law against it.” Accessed 25 April 2021, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/10/02/1956812/duterte-says-hazing-fraternities-cant-be-stopped-year-after-signing-law-against-it#:~:text=Alcain%2FPresidential%20Photo-,Duterte%20says%20hazing%20in%20fraternities%20can’t%20be%20stopped%2C%20a,after%20signing%20law%20against%20it&text=MANILA%2C%20Philippines%20%E2%80%94%20Despite%20signing%20a,unless%20fraternities%20are%20banned%20a.