Mar 8, 2019

Nolisoli.ph headed to Mindanao to explore the diverse cultures of the region through food, arts, crafts via narratives often overshadowed by news of conflict. This series strives for nuanced storytelling, with dispatches highlighting the rich culture and landscape the region has to offer.

For the subjects’ safety, Nolisoli.ph has decided to use aliases instead of their real names.

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Jessa has spent almost half her life worried about when and where the next bomb will drop in the island of Basilan.

Minsan, sa kalagitnaan ng masarap na tulog, maririnig na lang namin ang mga bomba, putukan. Tapos, takbo ka nang takbo, ’di mo alam kung saan ka patungo,” the 38-year-old Basilan native and daughter of a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander says.

Malou, 31, has also experienced this hyperawareness and in fact, has traveled from one municipality to another, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m by foot, to escape the siege in Al-Barka. It was 2012. She just gave birth to her firstborn by cesarean section four months ago. Going to Tipo-Tipo from Al-Barka is almost a 20-km. walk. She was not supposed to do this.

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May dala pa akong sanggol. Ayoko ng ganoon, pero ’di talaga maiwasan,” she says.

Jessa and Malou are just two of the thousands of women affected by the decades-long armed conflict in Basilan. Their stories are often overlooked. But they are also stories of moving forward, of continuing their education and careers, and of raising families against a dreary backdrop, outside the comforts of their hometown, and amid displacements.

Jessa is now part of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, the 80-member interim government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Meanwhile, Malou is a member of Bangsamoro Women’s Auxiliary Brigade (BWAB), the non-combatant arm of the MILF that deals with the medical and moral needs of the fighters, including the implementation of the United Nations-MILF Action Plan in 2009 that ended the recruitment and use of children for the MILF’s armed wing.

They met in the Social Welfare Committee around nine years ago where they taught the essential values and advocacies of their faith as ustazah (female teacher). “Sa amin kasi, kahit alam mo ang turo ng Islam, kailangan pa rin balik-balikan. Tao lang din kasi, nakakalimot,” says Jessa. They are teachers, but their path to becoming one wasn’t easy.

Jessa was still in high school (it was in the early ’90s) when news of the 21 Philippine Marines massacre in Basilan broke out. The military then was hunting the relatives of the commander responsible for the slaughter. Jessa’s not affiliated with that commander in any way, but as a daughter of a leader, her life was in danger.

Muntik nang mapalitan ang pangalan ko. Hanggang ngayon emosyonal ako kasi identity ko ’yon at gustong palitan dahil sa pangyayaring wala akong alam, walang kamuwang-muwang. Ang sakit-sakit,” she says. When this happened, her family transferred to Zamboanga City, where her enrollment was denied because of her last name. “Ang hirap mag-sakripisyo sa mga kaguluhan na ’di mo alam.

Her studies in grade school were affected, too. “Minsan sa isang buwan, one to two days lang may klase. Ang pag-aaral sa amin dati, hindi maganda kasi madalas kami ma-displace,” Jessa says.

Malou had also experienced the same hardships. “Noong high school, maraming conflict at displacement. Palipat-lipat kami kasi ’pag may gulo, hindi kami pwedeng mag-stay sa isang lugar dahil hindi ligtas,” she says. “Sa isang buwan dati, hindi kami nakakauwi sa bahay namin.” They had to stay at a friend or relative’s house.

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As time went by, the tension slowly eased, the environment somehow improved—Jessa graduated with a degree in economics and a certificate in computer management, Malou earned her political science degree and is now taking a master’s in public administration.

The opportunities Jessa and Malou had can be attributed to the women who participated in the decision-making in peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF. One of them is Raissa Jajurie, a human rights lawyer whom MILF appointed as a member of its Board of Consultants. “Her presence made a big difference in the way the MILF handled future discussions on gender,” writes human rights activist and peace advocate Irene M. Santiago in her research paper for the UN entitled The Participation of Women in the Mindanao Peace Process.

“Because she was familiar with the issues, she took it upon herself to discuss with the MILF panel the rationale behind the proposals from the government,” Santiago writes. “When the MILF began to understand the reason behind the proposals, discussions became more open, resulting in many gender provisions being incorporated in the peace agreement,” which was signed by former President Benigno Aquino III in 2014.

Jessa and Malou also count on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as their saving grace. “Ang in-e-expect namin sa [BARMM], wala nang matagal na kaguluhan,” says Malou.

Sana hindi na maranasan ng generation ngayon ang naranasan namin before,” says Jessa.

Peace and security don’t always mean freedom from guns, mortars, and cannons or an end to armed struggle. To women (and children), it’s about being able to study without discrimination, to pursue a career with hope for the future, and to cultivate a family on safe soil. It’s reclaiming their rights to life, education, social security, and freedom from discrimination among many others.

Malou considers her re-enrollment and finishing her undergraduate studies as her biggest achievement so far. “Sa kabila ng pinaghirapan namin as members of MILF, nagkaroon ako [ng] scholarship,” she says.

Jessa, on the other hand, says establishing her career is the turning point of her life. “Na-transform ako noong nakapagtrabaho ako sa Bangsamoro Development Agency for 10 years,” she says. Being a community organizer here is her first job ever. She was 28. “Ito ang pinakamagandang nangyari sa akin. Dati, ang baba ng tingin ko sa sarili ko kasi sabi nga nila, ‘babae lang,’ mahina. Pero dahil sa mga training namin, na-transform ang ugali ko.

 

Read more:

LOOK: PH’s largest mosque seven years after its opening

This exhibit is proof that women did not sit silently during WW2

What’s next for Mindanao and Cotabato City after the historic BOL plebiscite?

TAGS: armed forces of the philippines bangsamoro organic law basilan Mindanao moro islamic liberation font women in war