Women Advocating Women and Peace

Melan Sayutin, Sigay Nu Babay organization president, conducts a weekly meeting with fellow women in Sitio Gadong, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. (Photo: Princess Taroza/Oxfam)

When the 2008 conflict between Armed Forces of the Philippines and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters broke out, Melan’s family and other hundred families were forced to evacuate to a safer place in Datu Odin Sinsuat. Their temporary shelters had no decent comfort rooms, and access to safe water is scarce.

After two years, they evacuated again, situated in between military detachments at Datu Saudi Ampatuan (DSA). Until now, Melan and her neighbors are still living in the DSA evacuation area.

Because of these experiences, Melan was encouraged to participate in advocacy campaigns that promote peace in her community. She is currently the president of the Sigay nu mga Babai in DSA, Maguindanao. Sigay is an organization for internally displaced women of DSA. Currently, members of Sigay are active in the advocacy work to combat gender-based violence and promote women’s empowerment and security.

The support of Women’s Economic Empowerment in Leadership and Development in the Bangsamoro Area (WELD Peace) strengthens women caught in between war to participate in governance. The project focal points are empowering Bangsamoro women, such as advancing women’s economic status and fostering gender and diversity in the region.

“We, the bakwit (internally displaced persons) women participated in campaigns, even speaking in the Congress for the passing of the Bangsamoro Basic Law to Bangsamoro Organic Law and then the creation of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). However, we never experienced the support the BARMM government promised and the peace we hoped to achieve,” Melan said.

Every day, for more than a decade, women are providing for the basic needs of their families while facing the recurring armed conflict resulting in prolonged displacements. They are experiencing three crises in their current location – conflict, flooding, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Women and children are most affected since we are unemployed and have no permanent homes. As much as we want to send our children to schools, we do not have the money for their fare. We even work extra hard to provide clean water and milk for our children.”.

“These military detachments, where armed groups exchange fires, last for days and even a week. We are not allowed to go outside. We are uncertain as to when bazookas and mortars will fall in our area. When the firing is not yet over by morning, we women will shout asking for it to end because we do not have enough water and food to survive for the day.”

Melan mentioned that with the support of the United Youth of the Philippines-Women (UnYPhil-Women) and Oxfam, women in the community are not afraid to express their realities and peace security to the military, BARMM government, and even in the Philippine Congress.

The WELD-Peace Project has conducted series of capacity-building trainings such as parliamentary procedures, political awareness, and peace dialogues that helped women build their confidence. A notable activity was campaigning to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), including provisions on the women’s agenda.

“Before the projects of UnYPhil-Women and Oxfam, we only wait for relief goods. We were shy to engage in talks because we believe that our role is only to take care of the family. I saw the change to us women when these organizations raised our awareness of our human rights and provided small livelihood projects.”

The Sigay organization has conducted dialogues with BARMM-Bangsamoro Women Commission to raise their issues and concerns to the Bangsamoro government. Collaboration between BARMM’s Ministry of Social Welfare and Services, UnYPhil-Women, and Sigay contributed to easy access to government programs and services for women, girls, and children.

“All our efforts are useless if we do not achieve peace. Even if organizations are kind-hearted to give us livelihoods, we will leave it all behind if we need to evacuate. We have supported and rallied to create BARMM that we think is the road for genuine peace. Yet, we do not experience it. I hope our leaders in the region realize that BARMM was made possible with our efforts too. We hope that they go here on the ground and see our situation because right now, we feel left behind,” emphasized Melan.

Melan Sayutin sits on the stairs outside her house in the flooded Sitio Gadong, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. (Photo: Princess Taroza/Oxfam)

In the middle of a conflict zone, the residents of Sitio Gadong, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, are also confronted with flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Princess Taroza/Oxfam)