Sigay: Shining on women’s lives and communities

Photo: Vina Salazar/Oxfam Pilipinas

Sigay is a Maguindanaon word which translates to “light” or “liwanag” in Tagalog, and this is exactly what the Sigay Women’s Association, Inc. radiates in their enterprise and their community in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. 

The Sigay Women’s Association was formed through the Women’s Empowerment for Leadership and Development and Peace (WELD Peace) Phase 1 project implemented by the United Youth of the Philippines – Women (UnYPhil-Women) and Oxfam in the Philippines (now Oxfam Pilipinas)  in the Bangsamoro region  in 2019 supported by the Australian Government. 

Mellan Sayutin, President of Sigay, an internally displaced person (IDP) and full-time housewife at the time, didn’t anticipate how much their organization would grow and brighten their lives. 

“Noong una, nagdadalawang isip ako. Kasi hindi naman talaga ako marunong mag-manage ng isang organisasyon lalo na kailangang humarap sa mga tao at makipag-usap kung may mga meetings.” 

(At first, I was really hesitant. I didn’t know the first thing about managing an organization, especially it would require me to speak in front of and to people, for instance, during meetings.”)

In the end, Sayutin among 25 other women in their community, decided to try organizing themselves into a group that advocates for women’s rights, gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment, and peace. 

Once they selected their set of officers, UnYPhil-Women conducted capacity-building activities for the Sigay women’s association to develop their organizational and leadership capabilities and learn about  parliamentary procedures, political awareness,  gender equality  and women’s economic empowerment. 

Sigay currently produces various local products and goods such as bayong, banana chips, and their self-grown oyster mushrooms which they process into chips, tea, bola-bola, and tipas. They sell the products through their store in Datu Saudi Ampatuan and through their Facebook page. 

“Napakahalaga ng karunungan para sa mga kababaihan. Kung dati, puro gawaing bahay ang pinagkakaabalahan, ngayon pwede na kaming kumita ng pera na makakatulong sa aming pamilya.” 

(Knowledge is very important to women. A housewife whose sole purpose is to work on domestic tasks, can now earn at help her family even more.)

“Yung mga kababaihan, alam na namin ngayon na mayroon pala kaming boses at kailangan naming magsalita tungkol sa mga isyu na nararanasan namin. Alam na rin ng mga kababaihan ngayon kung saan sila magsusumbong kung nakakaranas sila ng karahasan.” 

(For us women, we now know that we have a voice and that we should speak about issues that we experience. We also know now where we can report cases of violence.)

Furthermore, they echoed the learnings from the seminars they have attended to other women in their barangays. During ‘Ummahat,’ an afternoon learning gathering for Muslim women every Friday or Saturday, they would ask women to discuss issues concerning their welfare and their rights.

Photo: Vina Salazar/Oxfam Pilipinas

A persisting darkness

“Noong 2008, mga IDPs kami dahil sa armed conflict kung saan nasunog lahat ng mga kabahayan sa komunidad namin sa Sitio Gadong,” Mellan recalls how different their lives were.

(In 2018, we were IDPs when all of our homes burned down because of the armed conflict in Sitio Gadung.)

Hundreds of families including Mellan’s were forced to evacuate due to the conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. 

They spent two years in an evacuation center in Datu Odin Sinsuat with no means of livelihood or education for their children. 

“Naghihintay lang kami araw-araw ng mga darating na relief goods mula sa kung sinong gustong tumulong.”

(Every day, we would wait for relief goods from anyone who wanted to help us.)

At present, the armed conflict in the region continues to disrupt the daily lives of people in several towns in Maguindanao including Datu Saudi Ampatuan. According to Sayutin, due to the active threat, their operations in production of goods they sell would sometimes be put on hold because it would not be safe to go to their training center. Some of their members would also be displaced in different nearby areas in the municipality where they evacuated. This means a lower income or disruption of economic activities for these women. 

However, Sigay continues to advocate for peace and women’s rights during armed conflict. Through the WELD Peace project, they were able to actively participate in the development of the Provincial Action Plan in Maguindanao and Regional Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security in BARMM. As peace advocates, they voiced out concerns and experiences during the consultations for the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. 

“Mahalaga po na makaupo ang mga kababaihan sa usapin ng peacebuilding at normalization at pagbuo ng mga hakbang upang hindi maisantabi ang aming mga karapatan at hindi mapag-iwanan ang aming mga pangangailangan.”

(It’s important for women to be part of consultations and conversations on peacebuilding and normalization to ensure that the welfare, experiences, and rights of women are not left out.)
Photo: Vina Salazar/Oxfam Pilipinas

Working with local governments and ministries

Through the help of UnYPhil-Women, they were able to engage with local government units and BARMM ministries to address the concerns of their organization. 

The Sigay Women Association has been registered and recognized as an enterprise by BARMM’s Ministry of Labor and Employment (MOLE) as Sigay nu mga Babay in  December 2021, and certified with the Securities and Exchange Commission in November 2022. Sigay also secured accreditation with the Cooperative and Social Enterprise Authority (CSEA) in 2019.

Since their recognition and accreditation from local governments and ministries, they have received various support and donations to further enrich their livelihood and advocacy. The Ministry of Science and Technology also donated machineries to support them in their banana chips production.

Through the capacity gained from proposal-making training provided by the WELD-PEACE project, Sigay was able to develop their own proposal and was  granted support to fund their mushroom production from the New Zealand Embassy in the Philippines. 

Currently, the group has a training center, which they use as an office and store for selling their products, donated by the Bangsamoro Transition Authority Member of the Parliament Mudjib Abu.

Sigay has conducted dialogues and leverage their organization to negotiate with BARMM government ministries such as the Bangsamoro Women Commission, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Agrarian Reform, Ministry of Trade, Investments, and Tourism and continues to work with UnYPhil-Women and Oxfam Pilipinas. 

With all the engagements that they have done since their inception, Sigay emphasizes the importance of  working with the government and non-government organizations who are all advocating for peace, women’s rights, and empowerment in the region. 

Photo: Vina Salazar/Oxfam Pilipinas

Towards a safe and brighter future

Since its foundation, the women-led enterprise has grown to 52 members from 5 barangays in Datu Saudi Ampatuan. According to Sayutin, they plan to continue highlighting local products that women in their communities produced. They are also encouraging younger women to join their organization.

“Yung ibang mga anak ng miyembro namin, hinihikayat namin na sumali. Karamihan sa amin ay may edad na kaya gusto namin na may mga kabataan na magtuloy ng nasimulan namin sa Sigay.”

(We also encourage our daughters to become members of the organizations since most of are of old age now. We want the younger women in our communities to continue what we have started in Sigay.)

Mellan Sayutin encourages other women to organize themselves and to do everything they can to improve their lives. 

“Para sa mga kababaihan, ‘wag na ‘wag tayong susuko. Napakaraming challenges ang haharapin kung magbubuo tayo ng organization pero hangga’t may pinanghahawakan tayong vision, kumapit lang tayo doon. Sa Sigay Women’s Association, may tatlong letrang T kaming pinanghahawakan: transparency, trust, at teamwork.” 

(To other women, do not ever give up. There are so many challenges that you will face when you are forming an organization but as long as you have a vision, hold onto it. In Sigay, we have three letter T that we hold onto: transparency, trust, and teamwork.)