Insights and Analysis

Gender and Conflict in Mindanao

October 19, 2011

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

Newsweek/The Daily Beast, in its September 18 issue, ranked the Philippines as the “best place in Asia for women.” The Philippines ranked 17th worldwide, among 165 countries, the only Asian country to make the top 20. Data across five categories – justice, health, education, economics, and politics – were analyzed to determine the overall ranking. It is, however, interesting to see that the data points did not consider the situation of women in conflict situations. If Newsweek had analyzed the situation of women in the conflict-affected Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and women’s limited access to education and health services, vulnerability to violence and trafficking, and lack of livelihood opportunities there, then the Philippines would have certainly fallen far in its ranking.


As with most internal conflicts, women have been particularly affected by the conflict in Mindanao. Above, students outside of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp in southern Philippines. Photo by Karl Grobl.

The question of gender equality is particularly acute in the ARMM. It is well known that the provinces in the region rank lowest in the Philippines on the Human Development Index; what is less well known is that they also have the highest Gender Disparity Index. In the Philippines, it is only in the ARMM that women have significantly lower literacy and educational levels than men. Compounding the problem are the domestic roles proscribed by cultural norms, which often constrain Muslim women’s opportunities to be full participants and beneficiaries in social, political, and economic life.

The reality of gender disparity in the ARMM, however, is not only determined by religious or cultural differences but also result from the conflict situation in Mindanao. Concentrated in the Muslim-majority areas of central and southwestern Mindanao, the conflict is one of the world’s longest-running violent conflicts. It is rooted in the clash of interests over land and natural resources, and the struggle of Muslims (a minority in the largely Catholic Philippines) to preserve and protect their identity. The 26-year conflict with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) claimed some 120,000 lives before the signing of the final peace agreement in 1996. The conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an offshoot of the MNLF, continues to claim lives even while the MILF is engaged in on-and-off negotiations with the Philippine government. In addition, localized clan and ethnic conflicts (rido) exacerbate the already volatile situation between the military and the insurgents on the ground. The Asia Foundation’s studies on rido have documented a total of 1,266 rido cases between the 1930s and 2005, which have killed over 5,500 people and displaced thousands.

As with most internal conflicts, women have been particularly affected by the conflict in Mindanao. As widows and survivors of the conflict, they have provided for their families in a region mired in poverty (the poorest provinces in the Philippines are in conflict-affected areas) and have faced acts of gender-based violence. In a 2010 Asia Foundation study on “The Dynamics of Gender and Conflict in Mindanao,” the authors, Leslie Dwyer and Rufa Guiam, acknowledge that “decades of conflict have wrought substantial changes in women’s lives, as well as in male-female relationships. Women and girls have often borne the brunt of the conflict, but have also taken on new roles. There is participation of women in activities organized by local non-governmental organizations which work to mitigate clan-based conflict, provide support to people displaced by conflict, and train citizens in small-scale dispute resolution.” Yet, the study shows that “women face numerous challenges in organizing effectively – they are often fragmented along religious, ideological, and class lines, and face pressure to subordinate discussions of their core gender issues to claims of nationalist or religious identity.” The study finds that in Mindanao, as in most displacement situations, the majority of internally displaced peoples are women and children.

Conflict situations can also bring out the resiliency among women survivors. Despite the gender disparity in conflict-affected areas in Mindanao and the challenges faced by women in conflict situations, women can rise from upheavals of conflict. In Mindanao, women survivors have set up non-governmental organizations that seek to promote women’s participation in conflict resolution and peace building activities and empower women through literacy and livelihood programs. Formal associations of women advocates have also been established to address political subordination, gender-stereotyping, and violence against women. For instance, the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW), a Foundation partner since its establishment in 2001, advocates for a Mindanao peace and development agenda from a women’s perspective. When I asked Irene M. Santiago, chair and CEO of the MCW, what she thinks has been the impact of MCW, she said that “people are now considering gender issues in peace and conflict programs, peace negotiations and processes, security sector reforms, and post-conflict settings.”  She added that “although gender may not be central to or the root of conflict, it is central to the solution of the conflict.”   Since the establishment of MCW in 2001, Santiago and her colleagues have worked to put gender issues on the radar of peace advocates not only in Mindanao but also at the national level. In 2009, the MCW conducted a series of meetings and consultations with key stakeholders and experts to set the groundwork for a problem-solving workshop related to the GRP-MILF Peace Process. In May 2010, it spearheaded a meeting among Mindanao institutions regarding the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security (in response to the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325); the meeting resulted to the formation of the Mindanao 1325, with MCW mandated as secretariat. Early this month, Santiago provided gender training to members of the International Monitoring Team which has been tasked by both negotiating panels to monitor the ceasefire compliance, civilian protection in conflict areas, rehabilitation and development of affected communities, and socio-economic agreements between the government and the MILF.

Today, Ms. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, professor at the University of the Philippines, serves as one of the five members of the Philippine government’s peace panel. In July of this year, the MILF panel appointed two women, Bai Cabaybay Abubakar and Atty. Raissa Jajurie, as part of the Board of Consultants (which also includes one representative of non-Muslim indigenous peoples). Currently, the MILF peace panel is composed of five members, all of whom are men. In a conversation I had with Atty. Raissa Jajurie, Moro program coordinator of SALIGAN (Alternative Legal Assistance Center), she said that “the appointment of women advisors to the MILF peace panel is a welcome move as women peace advocates have much to contribute to the negotiations. The appointment of women advisors is a product of many years of lobbying by people to have women ‘physically represented’ in peace panels as against the earlier decision to just have their ‘interests’ represented.” Now, with a direct channel to the peace panel, she said she looks forward to the next round of talks and hopes that the members can actively participate in the consultations.

However, in order to make greater advances in women’s participation at all levels of the peace process, substantial efforts must be made collectively by the Philippine government, local governments, development partners, and civil society groups to strengthen women’s capacity as peace builders and peace makers. The Philippine government must commit to implementing the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security which it signed in March 2010 (the Philippines became the 18th nation and the first in Asia to authorize the plan). The Philippine government must also work to strengthen the protection of women affected by conflict, countering conflict-related sexual violence and advance the status of women in post-conflict settings. In the southern Philippines, as in other conflict areas, sustainable peace will only be attained when women are able to participate fully in peace processes.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s director of Programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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