The Women’s ‘Peace Table’

By Diana G. Mendoza

Women's Voices

“If given the chance, we plan to consult all the women in our community on how they can improve their families’ economic status. But we don’t know how and where to begin.” This is how Anisa Taha, a woman leader in Cotabato City, lamented the burden imposed on women by the ongoing militarization in Mindanao despite the ceasefire between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Taha is one of the leaders of Noorus Salam, which means “Light of Peace,” an organization of around 200 aleemat, or Muslim women religious teachers and scholars, who have obtained formal education in Islamic studies here and abroad.

“In Islamic principles, women hold the ties that bind families and communities. So when we empower women, we empower the entire community,” said Taha. She said this aspiration is shared by the Women’s Peace Table (WPT), of which Noorus Salam, a national network of women leaders across the country, is a member.

The WPT was launched in 2013 after the signing of the final annex on normalization by the government and the MILF, and in anticipation of the eventual passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Its lead convener is Irene Santiago, who chairs the Mindanao Commission on Women and Mothers for Peace with co-conveners Amina Rasul of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and Aurora Javate-De Dios, executive director of the Women and Gender Institute of Miriam College, which acts as WPT secretariat.

Noorus Salam, one of WPT’s member organizations, is 80 percent Muslim and 20 percent community leaders, professionals and indigenous peoples. Its members are in Metro Manila, Cebu, Lanao areas, Marawi City, Cotabato City, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat province, Maguindanao, Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi.

Taha said that through the WPT, Noorus Salam women are heard by leaders in the community. The organization has been into research on women’s perceptions of the BBL and has conducted training on health, good governance and peace. WPT members were also the first responders in Mamasapano after the firefight, but were blocked by the military upon their arrival in the area.

“The first time we went there we were not allowed in by the military. And by the second time, the military had declared an all-out offensive,” she said. “The response would have been different, more humane had women been allowed in the area. It would have been a way of ensuring that the voices of women are heard in the peace process.”

Although a short-term project, the WPT, which works with the Office of the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process and the National Steering Committee on Women, Peace and Security, has paved the way to enable Muslim women to initiate change by becoming a venue for open discussion.

On March 27 and 28, 2015, the WPT held a gathering in Davao City and came up with a plan of action on how to handle the crisis after Mamasapano, entitled “Restore and Reclaim: Women Unite for Peace and Call to Action.” Part of their statement said: “If women handled the crisis after Mamasapano, we would focus on two things: restore and reclaim – restore trust and reclaim the peace process.”

They called for the passage of the BBL that is faithful to the spirit and intent of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including provisions that ensure that women enjoy equal rights and opportunities as embodied in international treaties. They also urged a stop to military operations in Central Mindanao that has displaced more than 120,000 people in 15 municipalities.

“Women are the largest untapped resource for national stability and security. Because women have life experiences that are different from men’s, we are indispensable to building a just and sustainable peace,” the statement also said.

Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a journalist of the Mindanao Cross newspaper and head of the Young Moro Professionals, another WPT member organization, said the WPT has embodied the “space for women from the farthest to feel the closest, for the journalist to feel closest to the unwritten, un-journaled, and for the unbridled to feel close to the veiled.”

“By creating such spaces for senior women activists and youth, and the island and urban women, we are creating a pool of a peace talks worth listening to,” said Tomawis.

Taha and Tomawis, like the Muslim women around the country and the women of the Bangsamoro, are hoping for the passage of the BBL to, according to Tomawis, gain a “fair and reasonable vote in Congress grounded on an understanding and context of the prejudices and injustices brought about by centuries of Moro struggle against colonization.”

“We are not so particular on the provisions of BBL for women, but we are on the provisions of the BBL for all,” said Taha. “We expect it to really help solve inequality and decrease poverty among the people in Mindanao and to help shape the way of life of the entire country.”

During its launch two years ago, WPT lead convener Irene Santiago said the WPT chose the word “table” that is preferably round “because every seat is a lead seat” and to represent a “coming together” for various purposes, which, to women, may mean to “talk, negotiate and connect the table of the formal peace negotiations with the tables of women in the communities, especially those who have been effected by war and who long for peace to come soon.”

Aurora Javate-de Dios, executive director of Miriam College’s Women and Gender Institute which serves as the WPT secretariat, said the WPT has conducted peace dialogues with the MILF, peace panel members, the Transition Committee and interreligious groups. A forum with media will be held next month. Activities have also focused on the women in six priority and conflict-affected areas in Jolo, Southern Basilan, Isabela, Zamboanga City, Cotabato City and Marawi City.

Chief government peace negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer herself brought the struggle and success of the Bangsa Moro women to the world stage by acknowledging the role they play in attaining peace and security in their communities and the world when she received the 2015 Hillary Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security last week in Washington, DC, last week.

“I speak especially of the women in the Bangsamoro, who have endured the burden of strife, and who must now secure their places in the public sphere as equal partners in peace and development,” she said in a statement released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

Ferrer said it took 17 years of hard negotiations before the government and the MILF signed an agreement in March 2014 to stop the war and enable MILF combatants and disenfranchised segments of the Moro population to participate in meaningful autonomous governance.

She said three out of six government signatories to the agreement are women, with her as the chair. The MILF panel was all men. “In all, just three of the 12 signatories are women. Still, it’s a big leap: nearly all past negotiations were exclusively done by men,” she said.

“These three women were not alone. They were backed by a strong and active contingent of women outside of the formal table. From them, we got the strength and fortitude to see the process through, in a delightful dynamic of women inspiring fellow women.”

Diana G. Mendoza is a freelance journalist. She is a board member of the Women’s Feature Service Philippines.