MILF women brigade cry for gender equality in post-conflict Mindanao – study

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 27 October) – The women support brigade of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are not being treated equally unlike their male cohorts in terms of the ability to earn a living to help in the economic empowerment of their families or communities in post-conflict Mindanao, the British global charity organization Oxfam said.

Women in the MILF. MindaNews file photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

The Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB), an all-female unit, provides support to the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the MILF that is now undergoing a decommissioning process. The women were not allowed in the firing line but were considered the reserve force during the decades-long conflict between the government and the MILF.

The plight of the BIWAB members and the Bangsamoro women were contained in a report released Wednesday entitled “Women Journeying Towards Peace: Ensuring Meaningful Participation and Economic Empowerment of the Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB) and Bangsamoro Women.”

The report showed that traditional gender expectations still prevail in the region, resulting for example in women bearing the brunt of care work responsibilities at home on top of earning a living and serving as BIWAB members, Oxfam Philippines said in a statement.

Commenting on the report, which was supported by the Australian government, Noraida Abo, executive director of the United Youth of the Philippines-Women (UnYPhil-Women), said the narratives of BIWAB members and civilian Bangsamoro women point to glaring realities in post-conflict Mindanao.

“They shine the light on the intricate links between the capacity of women to participate in economic activities and their ability to contribute meaningfully to rebuilding a war-torn community. Their stories tell us there is much left to be done if peace and development are to truly benefit Bangsamoro women,” she said.

The qualitative study, which involved focus group discussions with 58 Bangsamoro women, mostly BIWAB members, aims to draw insights from their experiences as part of the normalization process in BARMM.

It was jointly conducted by Oxfam Pilipinas, Al-Mujadilah Women’s Association, Inc. (AMWA), Tarbilang Foundation, Inc., UnYPhil-Women, Women Engaged in Action on UNSCR 1325 (WE Act 1325), and Community Organizers Multiversity (COM).

According to the research, many of the respondents who earn from farming also face the compounding effects of climate change and conflict, which force them to abandon their farms or businesses.

Abo also pointed out that the support provided for decommissioned combatants and civilians in the region do not distinguish between the needs of women and men.

“Women have distinct needs, especially since they play multiple roles at home and in their community. Many lack time to undergo trainings or pursue work and some do not even have control over their income because of their responsibility to their family,” Abo said.

Some participants in the study noted that aside from skills training, there are no other opportunities specifically made available for BIWAB members.

“Ever since, BIAF and BIWAB have been working together already. But with BARMM, we feel like we are being left behind in terms of opportunities,” one respondent said. She was referring to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which was established in 2019 in line with the provisions of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the final peace deal between the government and the MILF signed in 2014 after 17 years of negotiations.

Many of the study participants said they lacked access to capital and resources such as equipment. A respondent said that while they were trained to do agri-farming, not all of the graduates had access to equipment and tools to actually pursue farming. In one instance, the participants were taught how to make bread and pastries and were given electric ovens. However, many of them lived in areas without electricity.

Some complained about corruption in the barangay or municipality level while others lamented the slow and tedious process of accessing support from national agencies.

“The sense of mistrust towards the government is more evident among BIWAB officers and can hinder them from engaging with the State for possible economic development and women’s empowerment programs,” said Oxfam Pilipinas Gender Justice Advisor Jeanette Dulawan.

Dulawan said that the way forward now is for BARMM policy makers to reaffirm the importance of women leaders and their equal participation in the peace process, including humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction. She pointed out that there should be more dialogue between program planners and Bangsamoro women to ensure that their specific and practical needs are met. “Such consultations will help identify skills they want to improve on rather than providing skills training that are irrelevant or that perpetuate gender stereotypes,” she added.

Oxfam Pilipinas and partner organizations also recommend a more in-depth study on motivations, diverse backgrounds, contexts and intersecting needs of Bangsamoro women. Further studies may help better address causes of inequality and strengthen women’s influence and leadership as part of long-term and sustainable peace efforts.

“The Bangsamoro women are effective agents for change so they really should be encouraged to have active involvement and leadership in their communities,” Dulawan said. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)