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What it Takes to be an Indigenous Woman Leader

Strong women in the Philippines

Bae Becky Barrios is a Manobo woman leader from the municipality of Bunawan, Agusan del Sur, one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines. Despite having grown up believing that women cannot be leaders, Bae Becky emancipated herself, discovered her own potential to lead, and inspired others in the process. By Lena Muhs, Venus Betita and Ambrosio Amper Jr.
Bae Becky Barrios
© forumZFD

As soon as a rooster crows, Bae Becky is up and starts her normal, busy day. She makes the bed and a few minutes later one can hear the clanging of pots where Bae Becky cooks rice for her husband, her three adult children, and one grandchild. After finishing other household chores, Bae Becky hurriedly walks to her family’s organic rice farm to pull out weeds for another two hours. When the sun becomes strong, she goes home and prepares to leave for the office a few kilometers away.

Bae Becky in front of the PASAKK office in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur.

Since 1997, Bae Becky has been leading the indigenous people’s organization Panaghiusa Alang sa Kaugalingnan ug Kalingkawasan, Inc. (PASAKK), translated as Unity for Self-Determination and Liberation. Her path to becoming an indigenous leader started as Manobo youth leader during her high school years giving religious trainings to parents and youth groups. She earned a diploma in Agriculture but was unable to claim it due to the sudden closure of her school. Unfazed, she became an organizer and a teacher in remote areas and schools of Agusan del Sur run by the Society of Divine Word (SVD) missionaries. She met her husband, also an SVD volunteer, and settled in Bunawan.  

Due to the change of priority areas, SVD left Agusan del Sur. Bae Becky and three other volunteers thought of continuing its services and worked for the creation of PASAKK. With no office, limited budget and human resources, Bae Becky assumed multiple roles, finally being able to register PASAKK and start their operations in 1992. Currently, PASAKK runs an indigenous school, ventured into sustainable farming focusing on the livelihood of women, runs a program for sexually abused women and children, and implements a conflict transformation program, all with the aim of asserting their self-determination as indigenous people.

Bae Becky (white shirt) and other PASAKK leaders visit their organic rice field, under their sustainable agriculture program.

Indigenous Women in the Margins

As in other parts of the world, indigenous women in the Philippines face multiple and mutually reinforcing forms of discrimination (HRC, 2015). Historical and present-day forms of marginalization of indigenous peoples are manifested in lack of representation, lack of access to services, higher instances of poverty, and widespread displacement from ancestral territories. Despite progressive legislation protecting indigenous peoples’ inherent cultural, political and territorial rights, indigenous peoples in Mindanao and the Philippines are frequent victims of human rights violations and armed conflict.

Additional to these forms of violence, indigenous women experience discrimination based on their gender both from outside and from within their indigenous communities (Tauli-Corpuz, 2018). Many indigenous communities globally saw a shift to or solidification of patriarchal power structures with transition to a cash-based economy and the introduction of modern state governance (UNPFII, 2010). The thus marginalized position of indigenous women intersects with other, related forms of exclusion based on poverty or lack of education (Camaya & Tamayo, 2018). As an indigenous woman from one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines and without a college degree, Bae Becky sometimes wonders why she has been looked down upon in a specific instance: “Is it because I have no college education? I am indigenous? I am lowly?”.

Tales of Manobo Women Leadership

In the Manobo community of Agusan del Sur, indigenous women traditionally had important political and spiritual roles. Female traditional healers, called ‘Baylans’ in Manobo culture, performed a range of essential functions in the community including assisting in child birth. However, recent state policies have deemed traditional ways of giving birth unsafe and have banned ‘Traditional Birth Attendants’ – a term in itself obscuring the profound role of a ‘Baylan’. Bae Becky shares that these policies have undermined the credibility of ‘Baylans’ in the community, led to a decrease in their numbers, and contributes to the diminishing of indigenous healing culture.

There is a perception in the Philippines that the precolonial role of women was limited to the one of ‘Baylan’ while the political leadership was performed by men traditionally referred to as ‘Datu’. Even though there are indeed no tales of female ‘Datus’ in Agusan Manobo tradition, Bae Becky reminisces that the wives of ‘Datus’ would take on leadership roles in their husband’s absence. The ‘Datus’ would often leave for several days to attend to issues in remote areas of the ancestral domain. During these times, the wives were left in charge of leading the community including managing the land, attending to the community’s needs, and resolving conflicts. In fact, it is for this reason – to help lead the community – that men could have several wives. “Women were back then able to maintain peace and order”, Bae Becky shares.

Nowadays, Manobo men can only have one wife but indigenous women leaders, so-called ‘Baes’, continue to take on leadership functions. However, their role and authority in the community is undermined by discriminatory state policies. Despite national legislation allowing both men and women to be indigenous people’s representatives to the local government, the local guidelines in Bunawan and surrounding municipalities only allow for men to fulfil this position. In fact, a Bae in an adjacent community has been forbidden from running for the position despite the support of male leaders in the community. Bae Becky laments that “these discriminatory policies favor men in leadership positions and contribute to the loss of narratives of women leaders”.

Bae Becky leads the discussion with the council of leaders of PASAKK.

Discovering the Leader Within

In fact, Bae Becky did not know of women leaders herself when she grew up. As a typical indigenous woman, she never thought she would become a leader. Comparing her life from before, she sees past her wrinkles a totally different person. With the help of her environment and the opportunities it brought, she emancipated herself and began influencing her community. Bae Becky believes that the serious work of women empowerment should start with women and be expanded to the men surrounding her and the rest of the community.

As a teenager, Becky had to allow herself to be honed. She started off as a youth leader, receiving learning and passing the same to other youth from neighboring chapels. Her understanding of the world expanded when she became a volunteer teacher in far-flung indigenous communities. She learned that there had been a perennial disconnect between the government services and the indigenous communities’ expressed needs. Little did she know that her life would be devoted to leading an NGO that would fill these gaps.

Having founded PASAKK and proven her capacity to lead, Bae Becky became the next in rank, after the death of PASAKK’s first General Secretary in 1997. Considering her advantage of deeply knowing the work, Bae Becky accepted the nomination: “if not I, who else will help the indigenous community?”.

As she took over more leadership roles, Bae Becky’s family had to transition also. Although her husband was considerate of her previous assistive role in the inception of PASAKK, her succession to its top executive position baffled him. Adjustments had to be made. In the past, Bae Becky had to make sure that her travels would be discussed with her husband at least a week prior to the actual travel. However, with time she would return from a trip only to greet her husband with a list of already scheduled trips. Through spousal dialogues, Bae Becky and her husband agreed that she could ask for his permission right before a new travel with her newly packed luggage already in hand. To compensate time away from the family, however, Bae Becky must spend the time she does not spend with PASAKK to be with him in the farm or at home.

‘More than Homemakers’

It took time for Bae Becky and the less represented women leaders to gain acceptance from their community, which had consistently preferred men when selecting leaders. The downside of electing mostly men was later realized when men were robbed off from the meetings and all other functions due to their traditional roles of providing for the family. They especially could not focus on leadership roles during land preparation including planting season, maintenance of farms and during harvesting seasons. Nevertheless, a sheer inclination to masculinity prevailed over practicality.

This inclination was also shared among the women who apparently lacked the courage to take on these roles. When nominated for a leadership position, women would refuse reasoning out that household chores and taking care of children are already overwhelming. Women would remark, “I could not decide just yet. I need to consult my husband.” Women sought first the ideas and approval of men who would most often emphasize women’s existing burdens at home leading to turning down of potential crucial community engagements. Bae Becky believes that even if the surrounding environment may help women, the courage to lead should start by overcoming self-doubt.

Bae Becky performs a dance routine with another woman NGO leader of Agusan del Sur.

Women Empowerment as Community Endeavor

While one could be enough to prove that women can, Bae Becky thinks she needs a cohort. With the example of Bae Becky, the community appreciated that women, too, can lead. It was notably this year that women representation in PASAKK’s council of elders reached its highest peak. Six of the twelve PASAKK council of elders, including Bae Becky’s position are occupied by women. Previously, this was maintained at three or less. When asked whether that was a planned arrangement, Bae Becky resounded “no, it was the community’s choice.” IP communities, under PASAKK’s coverage, have learned their lessons.  

However, Bae Becky believes that women participation should not only be based on the number of women welcomed at the decision table. This would encourage a token representation just so gender parity would be addressed in the most literal and superficial sense. Within PASAKK, Bae Becky shares that they cultivate diversity of ideas, substance of the argument and community’s common good. Men, in such an atmosphere are challenged: they must straighten up. Women need to be equally critical and assertive. Decisions are arrived at based on the community’s welfare irrespective of the source of idea such that women have the chance to exchange with men on an equal footing.

In all these, Bae Becky is surprised how she was able to be a better version of herself. In the process of leading, Bae Becky realized that her voice is important. While she would be intimidated by people in uniform and with higher educational degrees in government and other NGOs, she came to realize that her presence is founded in the legitimacy of the indigenous community’s issues: she is a living witness and fully equipped to represent marginalized segments of the population. Bae Becky realized that she matters and so do the other capable women from her community.

Looking Back to Move Forward

Bae Becky’s story is just one of many that must be told. She wishes that empowering women will become a culture in other communities and institutions surrounding PASAKK and beyond. In order to pave the way for other indigenous women’s empowerment, Bae Becky strives to document and memorialize the leadership roles Manobo women have traditionally held and are currently holding. By remembering previous women leaders and advocating for policy changes to remove barriers to women empowerment, Bae Becky not only exercises her own leadership but also empowers other Manobo women to follow her lead.


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