WOMEN POWER. Mothers in Butig, Lanao del Sur smile as women and children in their community celebrate Eid’l Adha on Aug. 12, 2019. In observance of Women's Month, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process recognizes the role of women in bringing genuine and lasting peace to their communities. (OPAPP photo)

MANILA – The nation’s history bears witness how each milestone in the Philippine peace process was achieved because of the major contributions of women advocates whose goal was to bring genuine and lasting peace to their communities.

From the highlands of the Cordillera to the sprawling flatlands and islands of the Bangsamoro region, these extraordinary women have demonstrated that tribe, culture, nor religion would not be a barrier toward forging peace, mutual understanding and solidarity among their people.

Cordillera mediators

The call for genuine peace and autonomy in the Cordillera began when the Lumbaya Company, known to be the most-equipped armed unit of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army- National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP) in the region, decided that armed rebellion was not the answer to the challenges confronting the Cordillera.

In 1986, the group broke away from the CPP-NPA-NDFP and created the Cordillera Bodong Administration-Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CBA-CPLA). The group would later sign a peace agreement with the government now known as the Mt. Data “SIPAT” Peace Accord.

Over the last 34 years, the CBA-CPLA has worked hand-in-hand with the government in completing the implementation of the SIPAT Agreement.

Juanita Chulsi, one of the group’s elders, recalled how women served as mediators during the crucial stages of the peace negotiations.

“If not for us women, great things can happen…because sometimes the men do drastic decisions but women neutralize them,” Chulsi said in Filipino.

“Even in the discussion within our tribe if there are decisions that lead to a tribal war, these do not push through because of the women who advocates peace,” she added.

From women warriors to agents of peace

Meanwhile, in Western Visayas, the stories of Veronica “Ka Inca” Tabara and Jessie “Ka Bebeng” Batoy stand out. These women have shown that those who once took up arms against the government can also be the same people to advocate for peace.

These women are members of the Rebolusyonaryong Partido Manggagawa-Pilipinas/Revolutionary Proletarian Army/Alex Boncayao Brigade-Tabara Paduano Group (RPM-P/RPA/ABB-TPG), a rejectionist group of the CPP-NPA-NDFP based in the Negros and Panay Island.

“We came from an armed rebellion and we don’t know livelihood. So with your help, we would continuously strive to effect change, peace, and progress without the use of violent means,” Tabara said.

Meanwhile, Batoy shared how she was able to return to peaceful, civilian life after the 2000 Peace Agreement was forged between the RPM-P/RPA/ABB-TPG and the government.

“In 2013, there were people from the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), through the National Training Program, who responded to our needs. That’s why we have colleagues who were employed as forest guards while some are now farmers. Little by little we have bought truck, motors, hand set radio until we were able to put our own restaurant,” she recounted.

Women in the Bangsamoro peace process

Down in the southern part of the country, the realization of the Bangsamoro people’s decades-long aspiration for self-governance is turning a once underdeveloped, conflict-ridden area into a thriving trade, investment and tourism hub.

The passage of the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB) between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014 is said to have been a major turning point in the region’s dramatic transformation.

The implementation of the CAB’s political and normalization tracks is helping former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) combatants return to mainstream society, while transforming their camps into peaceful and progressive communities.

Many believe the approval of the CAB and the ratification of the BOL would not have been possible without the intervention of women negotiators who made sure the GPH-MILF peace talks were on track, while addressing the myriad issues that arose during the discussions.

Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer (OPAPP photo)

“Peace negotiation is teamwork. No single woman, no single man can do it alone. It involves a lot of effort,” said Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the first female chief negotiator and former chair of the Government Negotiating Panel with the MILF in an interview six years ago.

“I think it's very clear that the agenda of advancing women, peace and security is still at an uphill time. It’s not easy. You have to break barriers. You have to break stereotypes,” Coronel-Ferrer said.

“You have to make people be able to listen and put women in the process so that this perspective, these concerns will be fully acknowledged and realized,” she added.

Years later, the GPH negotiating panel’s hard work would pay off with the passage of the BOL, paving the way for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and its interim government, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).

Among the major beneficiaries of these landmark developments are the MILF combatants and their families who are now beginning to reap the dividends of peace and development in their communities.

Sixty-two year-old Linda Gumes, the wife of a former combatant, shared how their lives have started to improve after her husband underwent the decommissioning process under the CAB’s normalization track.

“Before, we could not even sleep in our own house because they peppered with bullets. Now, we have been included in the decommissioning, we trust that this is also for the Bangsamoro,” Gumes said.

Gumes has been optimistic that they would have a good life and decent job after returning to the fold of the government

A woman leads local peace engagements in ZamPen

Alias “Karen” was only a second-year college student in Zamboanga in 2011 when she was approached by the CPP-NPA. After being promised a scholarship, it did not take long for her to join the rebel movement and was soon organizing youth-led activities for the insurgents.

Like other new recruits, Karen was indoctrinated into the Reds’ ideology. She was convinced by the rebels that they needed her help so they could “save the Filipino people from government’s oppression.” For them, the government was the enemy.

For years, Karen believed that what she was doing was for the good of the country. But the lack of food and sleep in the mountains, aggravated by a life of being on the run from authorities, made her realize that armed struggle was meaningless.

She decided that it was time to leave the rebel group and return to her family.

In 2019, Karen turned herself in to government forces in Zamboanga. She did not waste time and immediately led peace dialogues with CPP-NPA members in the area, resulting in the surrender of over 50 of her comrades in December 2019.

“As a leader and being a woman, this International Women’s Month, we would advocate the rights as a woman, who is no longer merely inside the house,” Karen pointed out.

“There are a lot that we can do in society. If a woman wants to be a President, she can do it,” she added.

Currently a single mother with a five month-old daughter, Karen looks to the future with excitement and optimism. She believes that her peace advocacy will not only benefit her child, but also the generations to come.

“A woman can advocate for education, health, environment and welfare of the youth; to be active in our communities. What the men can do, we women can do it also,” she said.

Women in social healing and reconciliation

As the national government carries out its rehabilitation and recovery efforts in Marawi City, it recognizes the crucial role of women in promoting the culture of peace, reconciliation and unity in communities affected by the siege.

Among these women peace advocates is Jaslia Abbas who was caught in the crossfire when the Daesh-inspired Maute group attacked the Islamic City on May 23, 2017.

Abbas, who now works as an internally displaced person (IDP) leader at the Sarimanok Tent City, shared how she was able to change mindsets and in the process earned the respect of her fellow IDPs, especially the male ones.

“It was very chaotic then because we didn’t know each other that time. The men in our group were hot-tempered so sometimes when they fight each other, we were the ones stopping them,” she recalled.

“That gave me confidence to be a leader. And as a leader, you have to be hardworking, patient and even if they pick a fight with me, I’ll try to stay focus,” Abbas said.

To help residents recover from the trauma caused by the incident, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) Civil Relations Committee created an all-women group of soldiers and police officers called the “Hijab Troopers.”

Hijab Troopers. (OPAPP photo)

The members are called such because they are garbed in white hijabs, the traditional veil worn by Muslim women as a sign of modesty. But beyond its traditional meaning, the white hijab is considered a symbol of respect for the Islamic faith.

The Hijab Troopers has been tasked to support the overall recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of Marawi. Specifically, it provides psychosocial healing services to residents in partnership with national line agencies and civil society organizations.

“My best experience as a hijab trooper is when parents and their children see us and tell us ‘Sister, thank you’, ‘Sister, hope you would not leave us’,” said Sgt. Sharon Flor Larona, a senior member of the Hijab Troopers.

“To be a hijab trooper is to serve above self. That is the self-fulfillment that money cannot buy,” Larona added.

Role of women in peace, security

On Oct. 31, 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution No. 1325, reaffirming the key role of women in conflict prevention and resolution, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction.

In the Philippines, the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAPWPS) was launched in 2010. The plan contains programs, projects and policies that will allow women to be active participants in the peace-building process.

The NAPWPS also aims to address the plight of women who are situated in areas of armed conflict, and capacitate them to be agents of peace and development.

“WPS does not only recognize the vulnerabilities and multiple burdens of women of all ages in armed conflict situations but also their roles and capacities in the prevention, resolution and transformation of armed conflict,” said Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) director Pamela Ann Padilla-Salvan.

OPAPP serves as the national chair and lead oversight agency of the National Steering Committee on WPS.

Even on the ground, women have taken on multiple roles in peacemaking, peace-building, and peacekeeping. We contribute in addressing conflict as peace advocates, educators, negotiators, mediators, facilitators, values “formators”, healers and “reconcilers”, evacuation center managers, role models, and relief operations coordinators,” she added.

As the nation celebrates Women’s Month this year, Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr. underscored how women can help the government in realizing its mission of achieving a just and lasting peace for all Filipinos.

“The milestones we have achieved in the peace process would not have been realized if not for the unwavering dedication and commitment of women,” Galvez said.

“Truly, women are catalysts of peace and change. OPAPP is committed to support initiatives that would help unleash the potential of women as peace advocates, peacekeepers and peace-builders,” he added. (OPAPP-PR)