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Three Women Pave the Way for Peace

Portraits from the Philippines

The island of Mindanao in the Philippines is known for its rich cultures and abundant natural resources. However, it is continuously beset by decades of conflicts putting many lives at risk. Three women in three different regions of Mindanao are currently at the forefront of trailblazing efforts to pave the way for peace.
Group Picture Non-Violent Conflict Transformation Training
© forumZFD

Bae Becky Barrios
Agusan del Sur Province

In the ancestral lands of the Agusanon Manobo, only the moon and stars provide light after the sun hides under the horizon. This is where 57-year-old Bae Becky Barrios has spent most of her childhood. The indigenous community of La Paz is situated in the Agusan del Sur Province, deep inside the island of Mindanao. Rich in culture and history, the Agusanon Manobo are indigenous people inhabiting the hills, rivers and lakes around the Agusan Marsh. This Wildlife Sanctuary with its vast wetlands is home to many endangered animals and plants.

Bae Becky remembers growing up in this region: “Our grandparents would use wood in a fire pit during the evening. Before we sleep, they would bury sweet potato in the ashes which would be served for breakfast along with brewed rice coffee.”

Indigenous communities face many threats

The land of the Manobo is synonymous with abundance. And while her grandparents’ generation has already established farms, the indigenous community is still dependent on what nature has to offer through hunting and gathering. The rivers are brimming with fish and the forests are teeming with root crops, fruits, and other wildlife. Everything they gather is equally divided and distributed to the community. Bae Becky was always fascinated with the mystical rituals performed by her grandfather. These rituals, she says, are important for the community in connecting with their ancestors and nature. When an unexplainable illness afflicted the tribe, the elders performed a ritual requesting the spirits heal them.

A male youth assists in the ritual invoking the ancestors led by a traditional leader before conducting major PASAKK activities.

These experiences have motivated Bae Becky to advocate the preservation of their culture and protection of their ancestral land from exploitation. Indigenous peoples in the Philippines continue to face the threat of losing their ancestral lands due to land grabbing, the expansion of monocultures such as banana and pineapple plantations, and extractive economic activities such as logging and mining. Another problem is climate change, which endangers the natural abundance that the people in the area rely on. Moreover, many indigenous communities are also affected by the conflict between the government and communists. Human rights violations were reported including intimidation, enforced evacuations, bombings, assaults, and killings.

“Literacy is important”

In 1992, the Agusanon Manobo community established PASAKK (short for: “Panaghiusa Alang sa Kaugalingnan ug Kalingkawasan Inc”, which can be translated as “Unity for Self-Determination and Liberation”). This civil society organization aims to uphold the rights and pursue the interests of the indigenous community. Today, PASAKK is a close partner of forumZFD. The organization currently runs several programs including schools of living traditions for indigenous children, education campaigns on indigenous peoples’ rights, protection of women and children, sustainable agriculture, and preservation of the Agusan Marsh. These programs are being implemented by PASAKK using conflict transformation as its guiding framework.

Bae Becky Barrios is one of the co-founders of PASAKK and has been leading the organization since 1997. She says: “We realized that if we will not work for our community no one will.” Her leadership story is a long journey which began in the 1980s. At that time the Agusanon Manobo were often marginalized and deprived of social services. Living isolated from bigger cities they had nearly no access to education. The opportunity for them to study ironically turned up only after beastly machines rolled into their ancestral lands for timber. The logging company, with hundreds of workers that it brought from other places, built mini-towns in the jungle including schools for the employees’ children.

It was in this jungle town where Bae Becky had the chance to complete a two-year diploma course on Agriculture. However, she was not able to receive her diploma after the logging company laid off at least 3,000 workers and closed several schools. “This is where I was exposed to volunteering after the church decided to support the workers who were laid off without benefits. I was really worried about their welfare because how could the workers and their families survive in the middle of the forest.”

Bae Becky put aside her agriculture career and became a volunteer teacher where she led 3-hour classes that covered reading, writing, and math. Between 1984 and 1990 at least ten schools were created in the province with the help of the Society of Divine Word missionaries. Bae Becky explains: “Literacy is important as a defense for our tribe from being hoodwinked. We need the capacity to read and write especially in our fight for greater participation in democratic processes such as elections.”

forumZFD supports PASAKK

After PASAKK was established in 1992, Bae Becky was selected as a member of the council of leaders. The first secretary general unfortunately died five years later and Bae Becky assumed the leadership up to the present. However, leading as a woman has been an uphill battle especially in the dominant patriarchal culture in the country.

Bae Becky Barrios speaks at a forumZFD project activity.

Traditionally it was expected of women to behave in a subservient manner and almost every action had to be approved by males. Even Bae Becky used to be such a ‘yes woman’ to her husband, and she admits that there were times that she doubted herself. But she insisted in the active role of women in the community, and one of the biggest wins by PASAKK is the liberation of the women from these traditional roles. “We were able to free ourselves from that practice. Even the elders appreciated the empowerment of women in our community”, Bae Becky says.

As a result of gender empowerment, PASAKK as an organization became more inclusive as well with women occupying half of its 10-member council of leaders. The most significant victory however was the observable decline of abuse against women and children in their community. As Bae Becky puts it: “We cannot truly attain peace in our community and country if there are abuses within our families.”

And now with its aging leaders, PASAKK is deliberate in involving the youth in its activities and decision-making because the organization puts its entire trust on their capacity to preserve the culture and lead the community in the future. forumZFD started its Community of Practitioners project in 2013. The aim of the project was to provide a space for civil society organizations to learn about Non-Violent Conflict Transformation and jointly strengthen their practice. As part of this project, forumZFD embarked on its accompaniment of PASAKK in 2017 by providing support such as coaching and strategizing with the objective of making the organization and its communities experts on Non-Violent Conflict Transformation, mediation, negotiation, and dialogue. The next milestone will be to transfer this knowledge to the younger generation.

Jehan Usop
Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindano

Change of scene. In southwestern Mindanao, another woman has grown into a leading figure in her community. 42-year-old Jehan Usop has witnessed a seemingly endless cycle of violence and displacement when growing up. Today, the mother of four describes herself as a person who was made strong and resilient by decades of facing the daily realities of war.

Jehan Usop: "I was told to hold my tongue."

The violent conflict fought in what is known today as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao goes back centuries. Bangsamoro can be translated as “Nation of the Moros” with “Moro” being the term for the Muslim population in Southern Philippines that the Spanish colonizers introduced upon their arrival in the 16th century. Since colonial time, the Moro people has fought for autonomy and self-determination. The bitter and violent conflict persisted even after the Philippines gained its independence in 1946. The resistance of Muslim groups then turned against the government of the Philippines. Since 1969, the Bangsamoro conflict has resulted in the deaths of over 120,000 people and the displacement of millions of civilians.

A glimmer of hope

When forumZFD started working in Mindanao in 2008, prospects of an end to the hostilities between the government and the armed groups were as uncertain as ever. Thus, the successful plebiscite and subsequent establishment of the “Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao” in 2019 were significant milestones celebrated not only by forumZFD and its partners but also within the wider population. The new autonomous region is the result of a long peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that was supported by civil society organizations in the region.

Like millions of children in the Bangsamoro, Jehan had her own share of scarring experiences. She recounts one fateful evening in 1982 when she was sleeping in her grandparents’ house. The family was sharing a simple hut and Jehan’s spot was right next to the main door. “Soldiers suddenly barged in. They were shouting and accused us of being rebels. Because I was right next to the door, a soldier kicked me with so much force that I flew towards a wall. I was four years old.”

Jehan explains that these kinds of experiences drove many Moro to take up arms –including her parents. For Jehan and her six siblings these were difficult times. The children had to live with their relatives and move houses from time to time. Today Jehan says: “I understood the struggle of our parents. They had no choice that time. I also saw the need to continue it but this time I have other options. I decided to become a peacebuilder.”

Radio for peace

Jehan became involved in local peacebuilding organizations and is currently one of the prime movers of the Kutawato Multimedia Network (KuMuNet) in Cotabato City, where the administrative center of the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region is located. The local office of forumZFD facilitated the establishment of KuMuNet in 2009. The network brings together more than a dozen civil society organizations. The goal: Improve the media coverage of the Bangsamoro conflict and support the peace process.

Jehan Usop speaks in a panel debate at the 2020 conference "On Conflict Sensitive Journalism".

In the Philippines’ media landscape, the issues of the Moro people are often underreported or misreported. Many people do not have access to reliable information at all. This is why KuMuNet wants to provide a platform to improve peace advocacy, communications, and media engagement in the Bangsamoro.

The network launched the radio program “Bangsamoro Today: The Voice of Peace”. Once a week a one-hour program informs listeners about the peace process and includes perspectives from all sides. The accessible and easy-to-understand reporting seeks to empower as many people as possible to participate in the peace process. The program reaches even listeners in isolated rural areas, Jehan explains: “With no electricity or internet, radio is their only means to get information.”

“I was told to hold my tongue”

Leading an organization that works in an active warzone, Jehan had to hurdle numerous challenges especially as a woman and mother. Similar to Bae Becky Barrios, she was facing a male-dominated society. Jehan remembers the doubts that accompanied her on the way: “I even had to struggle with myself because I felt I was contradicting my own culture and society. There were moments where even my presence and ideas were not acknowledged. I was told to hold my tongue. Their reason? Because I’m a woman.”

Jehan, however, persevered in confronting this challenge with the dream of upholding women’s rights and inspiring other women to be part of the efforts for peace in the Bangsamoro.

Christina Faith Avila
Davao City

Paving the way for peace is also a special concern for Christine Faith Avila, nicknamed “Tinay”. She lives and works in Davao City, the largest city in Mindanao, where she trains a new generation of peace communicators.

Christina Faith Avila: "Media can tell of peace."

Being an educator was not her first career choice, although Tinay grew up in a family of teachers including her mom and aunties. She appreciated how her mother’s efforts were celebrated by students and parents but she also saw the hard work behind the scene. “I witnessed the daily pains of a teacher through my mom. She brought work home to check her students’ papers. She was always tired,” Tinay said.

Apart from the strenuous work, Tinay also thought that there were already too many teachers in the family. That is why she decided to take a different path: She studied Communications and worked in the field of marketing for a while. However, she had to change directions due to health considerations and was surprised: She discovered her love for teaching. Today, Tinay is the chair of Ateneo de Davao University’s Communications Program. “I realized that I am wired for teaching. This was not planned but God placed me here for a purpose.”

Telling stories about peace

In 2013, Tinay along with other college and senior high teachers convened to establish the Media Educators of Mindanao (MEM), which is a space to collaborate and improve their practice. The initiatives were supported by a series of capacity building trainings on Conflict Sensitive Journalism with the help of forumZFD and other partners.

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Conflict Sensitive Journalism strives for a media coverage that gives room to all sides of a story, particularly in situations of conflict. This approach enables journalists to critically reflect on their own role as well as on dominant narratives in society, which may be prejudiced. Instead of deepening social division through one-sided or sensationalized reporting, conflict sensitive media coverage strives to mitigate tensions. The goal is to shed light rather than heat.

Tinay explains: “We are used to seeing news from the mainstream media that focuses on the number of casualties. Because of MEM and our trainings I learned that there are also those who report narratives about peace.” The Media Educators of Mindanao pass on the tools of Conflict Sensitive Journalism to Communication students – hoping that they will apply these skills once they work in the media themselves.

Supported by forumZFD, MEM also produced a teaching guide, offers training for educators, and advocates for Conflict Sensitive Journalism to become an integral part of the curricula. The efforts have been successful: Teachers from more than a dozen colleges have already completed trainings in Conflict Sensitive Journalism and some of them have already integrated their new skills in their teaching. And in 2020, shortly before the outbreak of the Covid19-pandemic, the first international conference on Conflict Sensitive Journalism took place in Davao City, organized by MEM, forumZFD and other partners and hosted by Tinay’s institution, the Ateneo de Davao University.

The Media Educators of Mindanao work towards integrating Conflict Sensitive Journalism in Communications teaching.

Expand across the country – and the globe?

These breakthrough efforts and initiatives were exciting for Tinay. She appreciates how MEM provides a space for media educators to repudiate the perceived competition between schools, and work together in improving the profession. Even with the limitations currently brought by the pandemic, MEM is determined to continue growing with the dream of expanding its network across the country – and one day maybe even the globe.

As women in Mindanao like Bae Becky and Jehan continue to face violent conflicts, there is a necessity to make the narratives more inclusive. There is a need to unload and break down the complex dynamics and to have it discussed across the country. Hopes are high that students that were inspired by teachers like Tinay will use the lens of peace as they pursue their own careers.

Three women, three locations, three similarities. All of them are strong personalities. They all had to put up with a male-dominated environment. And all three pave the way for peace in Mindanao – each in her own way.


The author of this article, Karlos Manlupig, is a Filipino journalist and peacebuilder.

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