By Yna Masilungan , Womens Feature Service
A woman’s place is at the negotiating table, especially when the issue at hand is about winning lasting peace that has eluded the community for decades. This view was strongly expressed by Laisa Alamiya, a lawyer and member of Nisa Ul Haqq Fi, a Muslim women’s group; and Teresita Quintos-Deles, former presidential advisor on the peace process, during recent discussions held as part of the National Women’s Summit held in Quezon City.
While Alamiya focused on a local conflict – she spoke from the perspective of the Bangsa Moro women, who are languishing in evacuation centres to escape the fighting between Bangsa Moro insurgents and the military – Deles presented the bigger picture. She highlighted the contributions women make to a peace process, which is now “in shambles”, and how they can help “put the peace process back on track”.
Describing the plight of Bangsa Moro women, Alamiya remarked that they “have not even tasted this elusive concept called peace” and that their lives have been spent at evacuation centres, which are anything but places of safety. “There is anarchy in the evacuation centres. There is no rule of law and government is absent there. Women who get raped in these centres generally do not get justice for the violence done to them,” she said. Alamiya also termed the situation in these centres as not favorable to one’s peace of mind or sense of dignity. “When you live in an evacuation centre, however temporary that stay may be, your family does not have access to food, safe shelter, education for the children, and income. This weighs heavily on the women, who constantly worry about their families’ well-being and safety,” she added.
Alamiya asserted that if only to ensure the welfare of such families, women must be involved in negotiations for peace. “Negotiations and peace building must include those affected by war and not just those with guns. Those who are fighting the war are not the best qualified to make peace, which is what happens during political negotiations,” she said.
Deles echoed this view, citing the “increased recognition of the key roles of local stakeholders, communities and civil society” in the peace process. “Governments recognise that the process cannot be just between the government and the armed non-state actors but should include the other stakeholders, especially the local people who bear no arms but bear the heaviest costs of war,” Deles said.
According to Deles, in the Philippines today, various peace processes on many different fronts are completely off track. “It is hard to see the way forward clearly toward putting things back on track, towards rebuilding people’s faith and trust and ensuring an enduring environment for making and keeping the peace,” she observed.
Deles saw a unique role for women in such a situation. “It is in such periods of great challenge that we must stand up and insist on staying the course, persist in drawing lessons, in affirming capacities and hopes, in celebrating faith and fortitude. That has been our way as women: Staying the course and persevering with a readiness to engage for the long haul, knowing that short-cuts and quick fixes – whether in baking bread, darning socks, accounting for our expenses, or disciplining the kids; whether managing households, offices, or communities; whether in keeping and building the peace in our personal relationships or in the nation,” she said.
Unfortunately, Bangsa Moro women have largely been denied the peace-keeper’s role. As Alamiya said, “Warlords and ‘imams’ (religious head) exclude women from peace negotiations and peace building. They do not believe women should be part of these processes. This stems from the patriarchal ideology that has been reigning in the region for generations where women are considered inferior to men and that they only must concern themselves with matters involving the family and the home.”
She went on to explain that, in theory, women’s position in Islam, as espoused by the Qur’an, differs vastly from Islam as it is practiced in Bangsa Moro. The Qur’an teaches that there is no superiority of one sex over another, that men and women are equal. However, much of the practices and laws considered as Islamic are unrelated to their Islamic origin or have actually deviated from it and are instead based on cultural and traditional customs. These cultural and traditional customs are largely anchored on patriarchy and are legislated and enforced by men.
“The Islamic culture being practiced in Bangsa Moro has to be reformed, especially when it comes to women’s participation in decision making that governs security concerns. Women bring concerns to the negotiating table that are often forgotten or ignored, such as the need for health and education among the affected populace, the healing of victims from the trauma of war, and the rehabilitation of communities,” Alamiya asserted.
While hostilities and war affect both women and men, women’s experience of them is different from men. Women, according to Deles, “know that there are wounds that are invisible to the eye, and so we insist on programmes for reconciliation and healing.”
Deles concluded on an emphatic note, observing that women’s courage knows no limits. As she put it, “Families, especially women and children, suffer every day, experiencing very real conditions of hunger and want in communities affected by armed conflict. So we will insist that these needs be taken cared of now and any agreement to be signed must contain provisions to address the welfare of women and children in post-conflict situations. We are brave and our courage knows no limits, whether we are monitoring or restoring a cease fire, assisting displaced families, or negotiating terms of identity and entitlement because, in our hearts, we are fighting for the future of our children and generations yet unborn.”