Letter from Mindanao: Women Driving Change
April 1, 2020
Between 2000 and 2019, the United Nations Security Council adopted a series of Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) resolutions—starting with Resolution 1325—that call for the inclusion of women in peacemaking and peacebuilding. Despite the vibrancy of the women’s movement in Asia, not all Asian governments are interested in implementing the WPS agenda, but civil society organizations are stepping up to support women peacemakers. I observed this in practice on a recent trip to the Philippines to learn more about the pivotal role of women in building peace in Mindanao.
“This is an historic moment,” my Asia Foundation colleague, Noraida Chio, said to me excitedly soon after I arrived. “It’s the first time these senior women combatants have traveled to a meeting like this with an international NGO, after 48 years in the struggle.”
We were in Cotabato City in Mindanao, seated among scattered customers in a small café. Presently, several female officers from the Philippine Bangsamoro Islamic Women’s Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB) arrived. One had her husband in tow, who sat smiling and watching us from a nearby table while we talked.
We ordered plates of food for the women, who were hungry from their five-hour trip, and settled in to talk. These former combatants had known nothing but civil war for several decades, and many had become child soldiers at the age of eight or nine. “It was a choice of becoming a soldier, or becoming a victim,” said one woman. “The massacres were beyond anything you could comprehend.”
Today, the BIWAB has over 10,000 women members, including more than 300 war widows. They’ve now formed the League of Moro Women, with 33 branches across Mindanao, to make their voices heard in the peace process.
For those unfamiliar with the history: in 2012, after nine years of talks, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed an agreement calling for the creation of an autonomous political entity in Mindanao, and in 2018, President Duterte signed the law creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), ending five decades of violence.
The Bangsamoro is the least developed region of the Philippines, with the highest unemployment, the lowest household incomes, and the highest rates of conflict and violence. Forty percent of households have experienced displacement, and 10 percent have been displaced more than five times in a decade. Governance in the region has long been weak—in many ways a “hollow” state. Women have been economically marginalized, often denied access to education and employment.
My colleague Noraida, herself a Bangsamoro woman, has supported women’s leadership in the peace process in Mindanao, including the Women Organizations Movement for the Bangsamoro (WOMB), which has brought women together across religious and cultural lines to find common messages and strategies. In the end, says Noraida, a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Mindanao, over 50,000 women united in the political arena to support the establishment of the BARMM.
The WOMB members we met were clear about their priorities. They want to support women economically as much as politically. This includes training women to start their own businesses and connect to markets. With Islamic banks opening in the region, there’s an opportunity to involve them in supporting women entrepreneurs.
We told them that there’s interest from impact investors in creating a Bangsamoro brand. Consumers could purchase products knowing that they’re also supporting peace by giving women a strong economic foundation. The women talked excitedly about Bangsamoro-branded products such as coffee, turmeric, bananas, rice, local delicacies, silk, weaving, dried fish, and licorice.
As important as economic opportunity in Mindanao is women’s political voice. We headed across town to meet with MP Bainon Karon, chair of the Regional Commission on Bangsamoro Women, and her chief of staff, Helen Rojas, along with a group of women they invited to join us. They’re committed to sustaining women’s active participation through the transition process and beyond, including ensuring that women are involved at all levels of government.
This process is helped by the Philippines’ “Magna Carta of Women,” legislation that earmarks at least 5 percent of the national budget for gender and development programs. In addition, the Philippines’ local government code has a Seal of Local Good Governance to recognize where women are actively included in key decisions. What’s important, said Karon and Rojas, is to ensure that women represent the diversity of the population and not just politically influential clans.
Crucial to that goal is securing the political participation of the most marginalized groups. This means paying attention to the voices of indigenous women in Mindanao. Froilyn Mendoza is the executive director of the Teduray Lambangian Women’s Organization, and she described the challenges of representing the five indigenous tribes in BARMM, comprising some 120,000 people and 2 percent of the population. Many families retain traditional gender roles and have high rates of poverty and illiteracy. Health issues are a major concern, including high maternal mortality. Children tend to drop out after primary school to help on family farms. Women farmers need advice on crops, diversification, and access to buyers and markets to increase their families’ health and prosperity.
We visited MP Susana Anayatin, one of only 13 women in the Bangsamoro parliament out of 80 parliamentarians. She’s also one of just two who are Christian, the rest being Muslim. “A focus on food production is essential,” she said, “as so many women farmers are living in poverty.”
She also spoke of the psychological scars of the long conflict. “I’ve introduced a bill for economic and psychosocial support for widows and orphans. This will also reduce the potential for extremism as a result of grief, anger, and despair as fallout from war.
I asked Susana if she felt confident that things would change for women with this transitional government. She paused and then said, “My heart is filled with hope and prayers.”
Noraida, Foundation program officer Aisha Midtanggal, and I visited the Bangsamoro Museum. We walked to a wall of male governors inside the entrance. While there were images of women as weavers and textile artists, there weren’t any photos of women’s political participation. “We need a women’s memory project to capture the role Bangsamoro women have played in the peace process,” I said.
We visited another woman who we hope can be honored in the future for her role in the transitional government. Sha Elijah Dumama-Alba is the young and energetic attorney general, and she’s in charge of drafting the administrative code for the transitional government. She’s also a former Asia Foundation Development Fellow.
I asked her how she got the attorney general job. “I was supported by a great male mentor, and being a Development Fellow also gave me opportunities that prepared me for this work. Now I’m given a lot of work by parliamentary colleagues, who see me as competent and efficient. I really hope more women will be able to join me in this transitional government.”
After two days spent with those involved in the transitional government and grassroots advocacy, I departed the Bangsamoro. We have a plan to secure funding for women’s political participation and economic empowerment. I left them with our commitment to get more funds to those grassroots organizations that are working to create a prosperous, just, and equitable Bangsamoro. If more than 50,000 women can organize to lead the peace process, imagine what’s possible when they have the voice, resources, and influence to transform an entire region. Like Susana, I’m filled with hope.
Jane Sloane is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program Specialists Group. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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