In late May, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Jennifer Freeman were in the Philippines for the second Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network summit. The 10-day gathering coincided with the international launch of the first All-Women Contingent in the International Monitoring Team, which monitors the cease-fire in Mindanao between the army and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The women peacekeeping force is organized by the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, headed by IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Mary Ann Arnado.
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Large colorful billboards whizzed by in a blur amidst the lively streets and encroaching emerald backdrop of thick palm fronds and broad banana leaves. The main roads snaking through the mountains and valleys of Mindanao presented a typical Filipino scene: tropical island villages bustling with the eclectic daily weave of the intricate social fabric that holds communities together.
But as our car slowed entering the small community of Pagatin, the early morning light exposed Mindanao’s worn, war-torn edges. The concrete shells of homes stood jagged, tarps strung between rebar providing threadbare patches of shade. The charred remnants of window frames attested to the buildings’ fire-ravaged past – as did the voices of the families forced to flee. Our team of Asian Women PeaceMakers (WPM) Thavory Huot and Bae Liza Saway, local hosts from the Mindanao People’s Caucus (MPC) and IPJ staff members Dee Aker and I sat under morning light slanting through the tarps and listened to their stories.
Thirty-five women from Pagatin had gathered to share their experiences of displacement and return. They began with stories of loss – of loved ones, their homes and their dignity. But mingled in the loss were examples of strength, unity and resilience. Counted among their greatest successes was filing an official complaint to the ombudsperson charging the Philippine Army with the razing of their village during the 2008 war. But ongoing challenges remained: How to leverage meager economic assistance to pay the coming year’s school fees? How to find justice and hope for a widow still grieving the murder of her husband and the destitution that she and her children now suffer without his wages?
For the Women PeaceMakers these stories echo with the familiarity of loss, recovery and resilience experienced by war-affected communities throughout Asia. Speaking with compassion and conviction, WPM Thavory Huot from Cambodia told the Pagatin women how women survivors of her country’s genocide began sewing pillows from spare scraps of cloth to sell at the market – and eventually lobbied the U.N. to sell them as a fundraising project for 10 times the profit. Her stories of community-led innovation and entrepreneurship created a fervor of ideas and inspiration in the small gathering of displaced women.
The power of exchanging experiences and successful strategies was demonstrated throughout the 10-day summit of the Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network. Women PeaceMakers shared their experiences with indigenous community members, Philippine Army commanders, civilian peacekeepers, representatives of the Presidential Advisor to the Peace Process and the International Monitoring Team. But one of the most profound exchanges was after the international launch of the all-women’s cease-fire monitoring unit (see previous blog post). Our WPM team, including WPM Milet Mendoza and Mary Ann Arnado, helped celebrate the launch in Manila and listened as local Christian, Muslim and Indigenous women – proudly united by lilac polo shirts emblazoned with the Mindanao Peoples Caucus logo and “CPC Women” – told courageous stories of facing family protests and overcoming their own fears to document and publicize cease-fire violations by the army, MILF or local armed groups.
For stakeholders in Mindanao, the four international Women PeaceMakers alumnae, Dee and I, opportunities for learning and partnership were built in Manila and Mindanao throughout the 10-day summit. Bilateral partnerships, strategies to reduce violence and promote justice and reconciliation, and models for inspiration and replication filled every conversation. The Women PeaceMakers returned home tired but energized by the new peacebuilding tools they had both collected and imparted to help address the many challenges still facing their region.
The next Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network summit is being planned for December 2011.