COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Roosters crow as the sun’s rays start to spread across the plains of Maguindanao. Kettles and cauldrons clang and smoke starts to rise from makeshift chimneys in small huts scattered in a small community of farmers.
On normal days, Aminah (not her real name) would attend her classes in the nearby public school and learn like the rest of the kids in the country. After school, she usually helps her parents, both farmers, in the fields, along with her 3 siblings. But unlike the famous children’s poem, Aminah and her siblings play while they work in the fields.
It was 2008 and 13-year-old Aminah was just starting to get up and make her bed.
Suddenly, loud gunfire and screams of terror shattered their calm morning and all hell broke lose. Aminah and her family scampered for safety as bullets whizzed past them.
“Everyone was running, taking with them whatever they can carry in their arms. We ran and ducked and ran,” Aminah said.
While they were fleeing, Aminah witnessed how a rocket slammed and destroyed her cousin’s house. “Nothing was left in their house after it was wrecked by the explosion,” Aminah said.
As they continued to scurry away from the fighting, she saw a pregnant woman lying in the grass crying for help.
“The woman said her water broke and that she needs immediate help. I searched for my father so that he can help carry the woman, but when I saw him, he already joined the fighting and was firing his rifle,” Aminah narrated.
Aminah’s father is a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The fighting in Maguindanao in 2008 escalated after a serious disagreement between the government and the rebel group on the progress of the peace negotiations.
“Honestly, I felt frustrated that I was not capable of firing a gun that time. I felt helpless. I felt I failed my people for I was not able to fight beside them. But one look at the pregnant woman convinced me that it was my responsibility to help her,” Aminah said.
Instructing her siblings to go with their mother, Aminah assisted the woman in boarding their cart, which was being pulled by a carabao.
Fortunately, Aminah was able to bring the woman to health workers who were also responding to the incident and who helped the woman deliver her healthy baby.
“She’s so lucky that she was able to save her baby. Not all women in Maguindanao are that lucky. Many babies die not because of the war but from the lack of health workers and medical facilities in our region,” Aminah commented.
Voice of women
And with the prospect of peace now more realistic especially after the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Aminah, like the rest of the Bangsamoro women, wishes to have a place where her voice will be heard and her rights respected.
While the Bagsamoro Basic Law is being drafted, Aminah, along with thousands of women across the region, practiced their rights and further pushed gender empowerment by participating in consultations and by calling the attention of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) to always include the interests of the women sector in the creation of the new political entity.
United Youth of the Philippines Women (UnYPhil-Women), a non-profit women’s organization focused on programs for Bangsamoro women and children in the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao, through its partnership with international organization Oxfam, implemented the Bangsamoro Women in the Peace Process. It entailed a series of 21 grassroots consultations.
Along with other Oxfam partners Nisa Ul Haqq Fi Bangsamoro and Al Mujadilah Development Foundation, the results of the consultation activities were consolidated into a Bangsamoro Women’s Agenda and were submitted to the BTC.
“Aside from discussing the FAB and the peace process, the community consultations also provided the venue to determine how grassroots women perceive development in the community, and discuss women’s rights in the context of Islam. For the consultations that involved non-Moro and IP women, Unyphil-Women used the Magna Carta of Women as a framework for the discussion,” said Oxfam’s Mindanao Programme manager for Gender Mainstreaming and Women’s Rights Lyca Sarenas.
Through the series of grassroots consultations, about 1,000 grassroots women were given a voice in the transition to the new Bangsamoro State, Sarenas added.
In the consultations, the women representatives agreed that humanitarian considerations and the mainstreaming of gender sensitivity in humanitarian response during and after times of conflict must be enshrined in the BBL.
Women’s reproductive health and maternal health should be made integral in health programs, the women sector asserted.
During the consultations, the women also asked that a mechanism that would provide support for survivors of gender-based violence be established in the new political entity.
And except for reasonable regulations on uniforms in schools and offices, and as a precondition of entry in places of religious worship, no dress code for women should be imposed for women in the Bangsamoro.
The women also asserted that their participation in the parliament should be protected by the BBL.
“Participation of women in different mechanisms should be ensured by the BBL. For example, women should be included in meetings and consultations in all levels so that their voices can be heard. The relevant body to which women submit their recommendations should provide feedback within reasonable period from receipt,” the group added.
And to encourage women to form organizations, the agenda recommended that incentives be given to women’s organizations that participate in decision-making in communities.
It also said there should be no fear and hesitation for women to engage in economic activities by providing livelihood opportunities, access to capital, and jobs in general.
Aside from economic rights, the women sector also claimed during the consultations that transitional arrangements and justice be made through reparations.
“All of the communities that were consulted experienced displacement, either due to all-out-war or sporadic fighting between Moro armed groups and government soldiers. Women participants had many stories to tell about their experiences and common among them were devastated houses and crops, farm animals left behind, trauma, hunger, extreme poverty and hardship that resulted to death and serious diseases,” the group said.
“In Patikul, women would wake up in the middle of the night to harsh knockings on their doors and government soldiers illegally arresting and detaining their husbands because they are suspected rebels or terrorists. The participants said they know some women whose husbands are still missing. They also experienced strafing of their community,” the group added.
On the Shari’ah justice system, the women sector appealed for an increase in the number of women judges in Shari’ah courts and wanted to encourage the entry of women in the Shari’ah court system at all levels.
They also requested the prohibition of early marriage in the Regional Muslim Code of Personal Laws. The women representatives agreed that early marriages cause financial problems and disrupt studies of young girls. These problems result in heavy emotional suffering to young girls, they said.
Across the region, the women agreed that the children suffer from unstable schedule of classes because of the war.
“The regional and local government should ensure that youth and children go to school by responding to the barriers to their access to education. The government should also offer free education and scholarships,” the group said.
Aminah said the agenda reflects not just her life but also the lives of her mother, her sisters and friends.
“As I listen and participated in the consultations, I realized that the women should stand up and let our voices be heard. We are not mere observers. We are not just evacuees. We are constituents who should play a role in building not just our region but the entire country,” Aminah said.
She shared that she is happy she was able to rescue a woman and her baby but the new political entity and the national government should make sure no pregnant women should suffer the dangers of war again and that no babies should ever die just because of poor health services.
Like all the children in conflict areas, every evacuation for Aminah means losing a chance to finish her studies and have a better life.
In her family, Aminah is being prioritized because she can be the first degree holder in their family. Aminah is now taking her undergraduate studies, majoring in criminology, in a state university in Maguindanao.
“I will not just study hard. I will also participate in every means possible in ensuring that the Bangsamoro will work and reflect the aspirations of the Bangsamoro women and children,” Aminah said.
Aminah added it is her dream to see not just an end to the war, but also see a society where the women can speak, work and live without worries.
“The peace efforts are complicated. Our history is more complex. But I will continue to dream for my people and family,” Aminah said. – Rappler.com