Five women, five stories, one struggle: Bulatlat shares lived realities of human rights defenders

CHEERS TO Bulatlat for its report on five women and their struggle to defend human rights in the country. It was in fitting observance of International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day in November. Their lives are embodiments of the courage to keep up the fight for human rights — despite arrest, imprisonment, even torture — in resolutely “fighting for the people and with the people.” 

On November 29, the news website posted three feature stories; while two other stories were posted later. Altogether, the stories narrate those periods in Philippine history when political repression, war and alien occupation created conditions that made women even more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. The experiences of all five women underscore the essential vulnerability, but also the collective power of women precisely because they are women. 

The first story recalled the pain suffered by Filipino women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The second was during Martial Law, when women protesters and critics were detained, imprisoned, tortured and sexually abused. The third story was on the conditions of women HR defenders during the Duterte administration. All are distinguished by their determination and dedication to fight on despite the odds. 

Brell Lacerna’s report was on the struggle of Richelda Extremadura who died in August this year. She dedicated her life to helping “comfort women” so they could find their voice to speak out about the outrage they suffered, about which many Filipinos were unaware. 

The report traced her imprisonment for her political beliefs during the Marcos Sr. dictatorship. She took up the cause of “comfort women,” helping 18 of them to file a lawsuit in Japan in 1993 which led then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa to make a public apology. The Japanese government created an Asian Women’s Fund to support “lolas” (grandmothers) but they are yet to be compensated by the Japanese government. 

Extremadura has left another kind of legacy. She established a place of refuge — “Lola’s House” — so the women could have a space where they could gather with their kind in a site which now serves further as an archive of information to document their tragedy and struggle.

Dominic Gutoman wrote the second story from the point of view of Ron, the son of another woman survivor of Martial Law. Ron recalled how his mother, Adora Faye De Vera, experienced serial imprisonment. In 1976, she was abducted, and physically and sexually abused during her detention. She was again detained in 1983 and more recently, in August this year. Not one to give up, she was among the ten original plaintiffs who filed a class-action suit against the Marcoses in 1986. In the 1990s, she served as secretary general of the women’s organization, Gabriela.

Her detention in August this year was due  to charges that Ron described as “trumped up” – frustrated murder and rebellion – given her advanced age and her illnesses. 

Ron himself has taken the same path as his mother, working in several international and national human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, and ASEAN SOGIE Caucus.

The third story  by Anne Marxze Umil featured Agnes Mesina who has championed the rights of Indigenous Peoples (IP). The report traced  Mesina’s early exposure to the issues confronting IPs. She grew up in a Catholic school in which Tiboli scholars visited the school every end of the year. In high school and in college, she joined various advocacy groups working for IP rights. For her IP advocacy, Mesina has received death threats and has been arrested. 

She described the worsening situation for activists like her who have been “demonized and labeled as terrorists” during the Duterte administration. “It’s different now… Now my name is on the tarpaulins,” Mesina said, adding that “lies, if told repeatedly, become the truth.” She said that red-tagging, in particular, aims “to terrorize or intimidate” ordinary people who are only calling on government to do the right thing. 

Extremadura, De Vera and Mesina are all blessed with the courage to speak truth to power no matter the costs. Bulatlat’s report reminds Filipinos about the struggle of women, their particular vulnerability because of the gender divide. 

Media should keep asking, has anything changed? Perhaps, reports should flip the story and make it about Filipinos and the shameful lack of equality in society, the lack of which diminishes everyone. They should be asking Filipinos what they think should be done about the state of human rights and the efforts  by those in power to make women powerless. 

Two stories on a clergywoman and two missionaries all advocating for IP rights were published later than the three, CMFR will follow this up in another cheer.