By Diana G. Mendoza
“Pag buntis ka, maraming nangyayari sa loob mo. E pano na kung marami ring nangyayaring gulo sa labas mo?” (When you are pregnant, there are many changes inside you. What more when there are also upheavals in your environment?) said Anisa Taha, 51, an aleemat or Muslim woman religious leader.
Taha’s lament was quoted in the Information Packet on Women’s Participation in Conflict-Affected Areas prepared by the Women and Gender Institute of Miriam College during the final months of the congressional hearings for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
Taha recalled the difficulties of women in Maguindanao during Martial Law and how things remained the same three decades later, when she carried her small children on her arms, hips and on piggyback as she and her community fled their homes to avoid the fighting between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Interviewed via email, she said, “Muslim women have found their voice, and they are able to speak now more than ever, but it is sad that they still experience conflict and see the younger women leave their communities for lack of better choices. When we do see an end to this?”
Taha said the quest for peace in Mindanao has placed Muslim women in leadership roles in government, the peace process and other advocacies. But many more remain on the edges–living in poverty, bereft of opportunities for livelihood and options for a better life.
“We were under the impression that peace was within reach and we will begin to experience change,” said Taha, referring to government’s failure to pass the BBL that many Muslims expected would contribute to stability and peace in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Taha found her voice in Noorus Salam, a network of aleemat established in 2010 by the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy(PCID). These women religious scholars undertook formal education in Islamic studies in Islamic universities abroad including Al Azhar University of Egypt, World Islamic Call College in Libya, and the madaris or Arabic schools and Islamic institutes in the Philippines. The aleemat provide support to the ulama (Islamic religious authorities) and also teach at the madaris.
Noorus Salam took shape during the National Ulama Summit in January 2008, where 25 aleemat participated and expressed their need to organize their own consultations and networking to better address the issues of Muslim women and families.
The organization’s beginnings started in 2006 when the Magbassa Kita Foundation Inc. (MKFI) (“magbassa kita” means “let us read” in Tausug) and the PCID organized a training program with the Commission on Human Rights to enable Muslim women to monitor and report human rights abuses in their communities and to advocate and protect human rights.
The MKFI is a literacy project launched in 1966 in Sulu by Santanina Rasul who held a seat in the Senate. The PCID was formed by her daughter, peace and democracy advocate Amina Rasul-Bernardo and other Islamic leaders in 2002. To strengthen the network of Muslim women leaders, the MKFI and the PCID launched the “Muslim Women Peace Advocates” initiative that provided a venue where Muslim women can learn from one another and strengthen their capacity for conflict prevention and peacemaking.
Regional core groups were formed across the country including in Cotabato City, where the women called themselves “Noorus Salam” or Light of Peace, which was adopted by the other regions and which served as the name of their national organization. The PCID said this creation of a regional core group was the first of its kind and is considered a breakthrough for Muslim women in the Philippines.
This first national conference, anchored on the theme “Noorus Salam: Women of Faith, Light of Peace,” gathered 150 of the most influential and active aleemat and women leaders from civil society in January 2010 in Davao City.
The birth of Noorus Salam recalls Taha’s metaphor for the inner turmoil that comes from pregnancy and political and social debacle over the BBL.
Taha said the derailed peace talks and the non-passage of the BBL renewed fear among Moro women. “We fear an endless war between government troops and people who are frustrated at the way the peace talks were handled,” she said. “We have been fighting for peace, the same fight that our mothers started almost 50 years ago.”
Listening to Muslim Women
She said the new government might scuttle the process or finally enact the BBL, but whichever the scenario, Muslim women want to be heard, “and we’re hoping that the incoming president, being from Mindanao, clearly understands the need for peace.”
As peace remains elusive, poverty, the lack of education and lack of options plague large areas of the ARMM where most armed conflict is concentrated. Taha referred to them as “basket cases” that continue to witness women leaving for employment abroad to provide for their families.
“Women are poor and suffering in the Bangsamoro area. Why wouldn’t they be? They are always caught in difficult situations,” she said. “The Muslim diaspora is real. Moro women go abroad to be domestic workers as there are no choices for them because of the conflict. They and their families have to go into a painful experience of parting ways because of this.”
Highest Poverty Incidence: Lost Lives
In Taha’s area in Maguindanao, vast numbers of women continuously leave to work as domestic helpers, hospital assistants and restaurant workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen and Malaysia.
The Philippine Poverty Statistics of 2015 noted that the region still registers the highest poverty incidence rate of 48.7%. Eleven of the 20 poorest provinces are in Mindanao; three in the ARMM: Maguindanao, Sulu and Lanao del Sur. The poorest towns are in the region: Bacolod-Kalawi, Piagapom and Lumabayanague, all in Lanao del Sur and Datu Saudi-Ampatuan and Talayan in Maguindanao.
Of the 5.1 million poorest households, 11% or 573,446 are in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.The region also has the fastest population growth rate at 2.89%, much higher than the national rate of 1.72% from 2010 to 2015.
Data experts link poverty in the region to the recurrent armed conflicts combined with the island’s exposure to natural hazards. The high dependence on agriculture, an underperforming sector, is a major factor. Nine out of 10 families live on farming and nearly 70% are employed in agriculture. The fighting also contributes to the destruction of crops.
The conflict impacts more on girls and young women, noted Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, a young woman Muslim leader who was a member of the Peace Council, an independent group of citizen leaders that conducted a study on the BBL. She said, “In the different conflict areas that I have visited, I witnessed abuse, exploitation and rape of girls aged 12, 13 and 14. The abuses happened while they were in temporary shelters. Some have been abused by their own parents and relatives.”
As the founder of the “Teach Peace, Build Peace Movement” that educates Filipino youth about peace education, Sumndad-Usman said Muslim girls and young women are still in evacuation centers, in an environment away from their homes.
In most situations, they are forced to work odd and indecent jobs, adding more danger to their already treacherous surroundings. “Many leave the country for the same dangerous jobs abroad,” she said.
She said an estimated 120,000 lives have been lost in 17 years that Muslims in Mindanao have been negotiating for peace. Almost 125,000 evacuees have been displaced as an aftermath of the tragic incident in Mamasapano including thousands of young people.
Displaced, hundreds of women suffer unhealthy conditions. Children drop out of school for a long time, traumatized by violence. “When lives are stopped and interrupted, nothing is achieved,” she said. “We cannot expect anyone to develop under these circumstances,” she said.
Peace education for the next generation
Sumndad-Usman shared Taha’s reflection that these women in the ARMM live lives that are in contrast with the other reality where Muslim women have taken key roles in the government peace negotiations with the MILF and have learned to organize to achieve their goals. These include Yasmin Busran-Lao who heads the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos and has served as Presidential Assistant for Muslim Affairs, human rights lawyer Iona Jalijali, secretariat head of the government peace negotiating panel and Anna Tarhata Basman, head of legal team.
The peace documents have sections that promote the rights of women to “meaningful political participation and protection from all forms of violence.” Women, their peace and security are also high in the priorities in the processes of normalization, power and wealth sharing and revenue generation.
Taha said that Moro women continue to look forward to a better life under a new government, but for now, they are determined to educate their children about life. “We are hoping that if the current generation of political leaders is not able to help Bangsamoro people achieve lasting peace, our children and the next generation will work for peace,” she said.