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Honoring women human rights defenders in the Cordillera

In commemoration of International Women Human Rights Day (November 29), the 16-Day Campaign to End Violence against Women (IDEVAW) and International Human Rights Day (December 10), the Cordillera Women’s Education, Action Research Center (CWEARC) together with the Women Working for Justice and Peace (JAPNET)  organized a tribute to women human rights defenders in the Cordillera  on December 12, 2021. The tribute honored Women of Courage  for their steadfast commitment for indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights and social justice in the  region. The  event especially paid tribute to pioneers and women elders of the women’s movement in the Cordillera, and their exemplary, undisputed services to the Cordillera peoples in their struggle towards self-determination and defense of their land, rights and resources. Dearly departed women of courage who, in their lifetime, offered their unwavering services to the cause of the Cordillera peoples were also remembered and honored.

May we be continue to draw strength and inspiration from their fortitude to withstand and overcome the challenges of the times!

A community’s grief and anxiety through children’s eyes

The usual road to Loacan from Ucab, Itogon, Benguet is now missing in maps and photos, defaced from the wrath of the September 15 heavy downpour that saturated the soil and followed the law of gravity. The new route is via Sabkil, offering us distant views of Ucab and Loacan whose mountains bear scars from the recent onslaught, and unseen reminders of a century of mining.

After a 45-minute ride through Ambuklao Road, past landslides that were being cleared, we held our collective breath and kept our wits in place, fear disguised in nervous laughter as the hired jeepney descended down the steep, winding (i.e., hairpin curves), narrow road at Amteg.

The proof of the driving acumen among Cordillera drivers is the ability to negotiate a one-lane road while doing that nerve-wracking reverse shift to give way to an upcoming vehicle, of steering the wheel to the edge of the road resulting in a passenger’s cardiac somersault and sudden religiousity.

With relief goods that weighed half of all our weights combined, the thought of the vehicle veering down the ravine if and when the brake malfunctions, was paralyzing. We gratefully arrived at the mining community of Purok 1, Loacan Proper where the elementary school is located. No one would think a catastrophe hit this place, with the usual activities of people by the road. The heat was quite oppressive and gradually, one sensed THE gloom.

They seemed like other ordinary children with their playful, even impish behaviour, spontaneous smiles, restlessness and banter. They knew we were coming and were expecting an activity. While the rest of the public focused on news and regular updates on the extent of damages and casualties, rare, if not absent, was focus on the situation of the children in the affected communities.

Except for Grade I students who were unable to join us since their teachers were away on a seminar, students from Grade II to Grade VI were to undergo a psychosocial processing through visual arts and creative writing.

These are avenues for creative expression of the children recovering from distress and anxiety, or exhibiting abnormal behaviour as a result of trauma. Two weeks after Typhoon Ompong’s rampage caused massive landslides that buried more than a hundred residents who were mostly families of small scale miners, both teachers and students, at close range are still in shock and mourning. To go about the daily routine is almost a burden as uncertainty pervades the air with kin and friends missing beneath the killer mudslide.

The children were asked to describe what they saw and heard, what they felt, how they are presently coping, and what they are looking forward to. The illustrations are telling of the myriad of emotions of the children who witnessed and actually heard nature gone berserk. The common theme and images were of the physical deluge, of relentless rain battering their puny shelter, of earth slithering down to conquer humans, of deforested mountains and rainwater coming together, rushing down to obliterate hapless victims and burying them in mounds of mud, of rescuers shovelling, of relief workers coming to their aid.

The fear, helplessness and grief showed in the lines and colors executed by the students. Always, always, the reminder and question gaping through the images, “What have you done to our home?”

The literary outputs were explicit with raw emotions and had the common tone of sadness and defeat, of being powerless against the rage of nature. In detailing the chronology of events, they wrote of the impending storm, of the actual lashes that battered their walls and roofs, and of the sound of rushing water and grumbling earth. The children recaptured their moment of agony upon hearing their parents talk and weep about those who died in their attempt to help their relatives and neighbors. Many wrote about mourning for the dead, sympathy for the bereaved, and grasping at threads of hope for bodies still unretrieved. ”Sana mahanap pa nila sina Uncle…” was a repetitive plaint of tragic innocence.

Having been traumatized by Ompong, they expressed fear of the reported approaching typhoon Paeng. Aware that they cannot redirect its course, they wrote a plea for it not to take lives again or destroy their houses. There were those who were ambivalent about the role of mining in the disaster. “Dahil sa pagmimina kaya naglandslide. Kung mawawala na ang pagmimina, paano na ang trabaho ng magulang namin?” When asked to verbally share their insights about the tragedy, a cheerful boy volunteered, “Kung mawawala na ang pagmimina, pwede na tayong magtanim, para meron tayong makakain.”

Children being children, they have dreams for Loacan and the days ahead. They wrote of wisdom that we can learn from.

“Ang gusto kong mangyari dito sa Loacan ay sana maayos na yong mga bahay na nasira,maging alerto kapag may susunod na bagyo, maging maayos ang kapaligiran, magtipid na dahil wala na ang pagtratrabahohan dahil inestop mona ang pagmimina pansamantala at sa kapayapaan, sana mahanapan nila yong pinsan ng aking nanay. Sana mawalan na ng takot o lungkot ang aking mga magulang.” (Klouie, 10 yrs. old)

Time and attention must be given the children. Though distraught, they are coping with the huge changes in their homes. Their parents, teachers and community officials must heed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that may manifest in various ways. There are continuing nightmares they have to grapple with caused by external causes they were not responsible nor accountable for. Their teachers who are in daily engagement with them have to be equipped with basic psychosocial skills to deal with these manifestations. Most importantly, this is the time to listen to the children’s plea: to get the community on its feet again, for the Loacan residents to be more nurturing of their environment, and to be prepared and alert for any impending disaster.

The usual road to Loakan may take long to recover or may even be totally diverted or rerouted, the children know this. But what they look forward to is a way out of the devastation, a restoration of normalcy and a sense of security.#

(In coordination with the Serve the People Brigade, the facilitators of the psychosocial workshop and art therapy conducted in Loacan Elementary School last Sept. 27, 2018, were staff of the Cordillera Women’s Education, Action and Research Center (CWEARC), the St. Louis University School of Nursing, and members of Tuklas Innovation Project and Sulong Likha of the Dap-ayan ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (DKK).

Defending the Rights of the People, Women and Children

“If we stop defending our rights because of fear from the harassments and intimidation being perpetrated by state security forces upon us then we might as well be dead.” This was a statement by one of the women leaders who attended the Women Human Rights Defenders training workshop for Cordillera women held on September 9 to 10 in Diliman, Quezon City.

Spearheaded by Cordillera Womens Education Action Research Center (CWEARC) and Innabuyog, 60 women leaders and organizers from the six Cordillera provinces gathered together in the training workshop who vowed to safeguard and protect their rights as a people and as women against state perpetrated violence and violations of their rights. National minority women from other regions of the Philippines from places as far as Mindanao and Palawan were also present during the activity. While they were there mainly as observers, they also ended up sharing their own accounts and experiences in defending and protecting their rights as they similarly encountered the same or even graver human rights situation than their counterparts in the Cordillera.

The activity in the main provided a framework for understanding human rights that could further build the capacity of women leaders and organizers in addressing the human rights situation in their localities. The main input was given by the Cordillera Human Right Alliance Vice Chairperson Audrey Beltran. She provided the basics on documentation which can be used as a guide whenever women are confronted with cases of human rights violations. She also discussed how they can assert their rights through para-legal means even without the benefit of lawyers around. The activity also provided a venue for sharing of experiences by the women on the human rights situation in their villages underscoring the situation of women and children. They also exchanged accounts on how they confronted the numerous cases of state perpetrated violations in their communities from past to present.

The women expressed that violations of their rights are common whenever projects or programs are brought in by the government or when big companies enter into their localities where there is opposition from the people because of the possible adverse or negative impacts. Some destructive programs and projects opposed by the people were mining ventures of big companies such as Golden Lake and Olympus in Lacub & Baay-Licuan in Abra, Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company operations in Mankayan, Benguet, the construction of the Alimit Dam in Ifugao and Chevron-PRC Magma’s Geothermal Power Plant in Kalinga. Women of Sagada, Mountain Province reported the Peace and Development Team (PDT) of the AFP program supposed to maintain the peace and order in the locality has allowed state troops to occupy the Dap-ay, an indigenous socio-political structure where elders meet.

The women recall of their experiences on the militarization of their villages which had debilitating and even long lasting effects. Farmers are not allowed to tend their fields disrupting economic activities in the communities (Kalinga, Ifugao and Abra). Military troops encamp in schools, health centers or even houses making them their temporary detachments or quarters endangering the lives of civilians like in the cases of Lacub in Abra and Balbalan in Kalinga. Aerial bombings have left many, especially children traumatized (Malibcong, Abra). Many had been suspected of being members and supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA) making them vulnerable to harassments and intimidations and where some have been summarily killed. Women organizers of Innabuyog, and women development workers of other NGO’s have been tagged by the military as members of the said armed revolutionary organization.

In addition, women in the communities have suffered from particular forms of violence by state security forces. Sexual harassment and abuse had been common. Soldiers also court the women, even a number who are married, impregnate some and abandon them after they leave the area. Children have become vulnerable where they are made to act as spies.

The abovementioned problems faced by the women have not cowed them into fear or submission. Despite what they reported as the difficulties they suffered from the militarization of their villages, they still persist. In fact the women expressed becoming emboldened and more determined to act upon their situation after they heard stories of courage from women in other regions who dealt with state sanctioned atrocities and violence. They also remembered how their elders and their ancestors steadfastly fought to protect their lands and resources so that they and the next generations could still enjoy the natural wealth of their ancestral lands. These became their source of inspiration.

The participants were jubilant over the success of the training workshop since they said it gave them encouragement having established reciprocal and mutual support in facing their common situation. It reaffirmed their commitment of working together starting at the level of their communities and in unity with other women in the regional and national levels in defending and protecting their rights, resources and lands.

The training workshop ended through the drafting and signing of a unity declaration which defines the program of action that will be carried out by the women in the continuing struggle to defend and safeguard their rights especially that under the present administration of Duterte, human rights violations has not stopped and is in fact escalating.