Photo: CWEARC, Inc.
In October 25, 2020, Betty was arrested by a team from the Philippine National Police and the 503rd Brigade of the Armed Forces for alleged possession of three grenades. The evidence was planted. Neither Betty nor her family was inside the house when the search started at 4 o’clock in the morning.
The day she was arrested an indigenous ritual known as pusipos was supposed to take place. The ritual was planned for her father-in-law who was bedridden after being discharged from the hospital. “On October 26, my father-in-law was looking for me. He died on that same day at 8 p.m. My request to see him before his burial was denied. My family waited, but my request was denied,” she recalls. Betty had taken care of her father-in-law for a very long time.
Betty was initially held at the National Police detention facility in Tabuk City, in the same cell as the male detainees. Upon the actions of her lawyer from the National Union of People’s Lawyers, she was transferred to a separate detention space. However, she still had to share the common room and take turns to go to the bathroom. Later, she was transferred to the provincial prison where she was held for three months. Despite the difficulties, Betty encouraged the human rights defenders: “Don’t be discouraged. Grow in strength and number and don’t get tired of our job.”
Betty shared the cell with 13 other women. She was 50 years old, the oldest of the group: “I was quite well-known in prison. I was like an elder sister to them. I explained my work as a woman defender promoting women’s rights and protecting my ancestral lands. That is how they knew why I was in prison”. When the other inmates asked her why she had been charged with trumped-up charges instead of holding those who were liable, the indigenous leader answered that persecution would not silence her because if that happened, more poor people would suffer.
In prison, Betty busied herself with the gardening program. “This was the only time we would feel the fresh air. We grew and harvested a lot of pechay, which we even shared with the other cellmates. The vegetables we cultivated were important because they were the only source of fresh food”.
Their daily ration for the 13 inmates in her cell consisted mainly of 10 pieces of dried fish, two or three pieces of squash, two small tins of sardines, and rice: “The lard and sugar were rationed in the prison commissary”.
The impact of criminalization on family and the community
Due to the pandemic, face to face conversations were not allowed on visitation days. Betty explains the regulations became much stricter: “Only meals prepared by family members were allowed inside. Even if a family member brought you food on a visitation day, you could not talk. We could only wave at each other from afar.” Being away from her grandchildren was among the hardest circumstances she endured while incarcerated. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Betty had been their teacher, guiding them in accomplishing their distance learning modules.
“It was painful for me to see them without their grandmother. I was very upset. Who would help them with their distance learning modules? They were denied a teacher and a grandmother for the four months I was incarcerated. I later learned that my grandchildren were not able to complete their studies properly. When I was released, someone told me my grandchildren were by the road, waiting for their grandmother to come home”. Once back, the leader said that the kids had lost weight and that they stuck to her all the time. Betty’s arrest also affected the family’s livelihood, which consisted of farming and mushroom production, a common source of income among the Uma tribe. After her arrest, her husband was not able to take care of the mushrooms or tend to the small family farm since he had to take on all the duties in the household.
As a community health worker, Betty raised awareness on proper hygiene, waste disposal, disease prevention; she also accompanied patients to their checkups in the provincial town center, and prepared herbal medicine. When talking to the women in her community, she emphasized the importance of taking care of one’s health and vaccinating children, as well as the need for regular tests and checkups, particularly in the case of the elderly.
“It did not matter that I did not earn any money. What mattered was that I was there to help and guide my community. While I was held, I could not conduct my usual house visitations. So, upon release, I tried to call some of them to ask them about their health. Some of them cried. They told me they felt like orphans”, Betty explains. Apart from spending time with her family, Betty wants to reach out to her kailian (her tribe and community) since she does not want them to be afraid or silenced because of what happened.