This is a modified version of a presentation delivered at the College of Social Sciences - UP Baguio Lecture Series entitled IPRA @24: Charting Developments in Philippine Indigenous Peoples Rights in October 2021.
After I graduated from the University of the Philippines - Diliman, I went straight to work with the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), a legal and policy research and advocacy organization primarily working with indigenous peoples. Atty. Marvic Leonen is one of its founding members who also served as dean of the UP College of Law. It wasn’t Larry Gadon as claimed by social media posts circulating on Bongbong Marcos’ supporters’ pages (Read: FACT CHECK False claims by supporters of Atty. Larry Gadon).
At that time, I was part of the LRC team who went to Cordillera in the early 1990s for the discussions on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Administrative Order No. 2 (DAO2), series of 1993, which provided for the issuance of the Certificate of Ancestral Land Claims (CALCs), and Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADCs) as one of the land tenure instruments for Indigenous Peoples. This was a precursor to the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) or R.A. 8371.
There were three remarkable instances that I would like to share.
First, when I went to Sagada, Mt. Province. It was a crisp morning, and I was with Atty. Leonen to meet with the elders. The meeting was held in a dap-ay. As the only woman, a young one at that, I was literally out of the circle. It was both a humbling and a disempowering experience. Later, I would be traveling alone to follow up on a case and campaign, and I would always be meeting with men leaders. It was only later that I would meet Kankanaey women from Sagada who are leaders of progressive organizations in Baguio.
Second, when I went to Bontoc, Mt. Province. It was my first time in Bontoc then. One evening, while I sat with the women in the house I was staying in, our conversation took us to stories of ulog. We started talking about sexuality, women’s bodies, and eventually, discussing rape and if women or wives can say no to their husbands. The women were engaged and talking animatedly. The next morning, while waiting for a meeting to start in the municipal town hall, I was asked by one of the women, “Why were you discussing these things with the women? Were you not there to talk about land problems and DAO2?”
And third, the time I went to Tinglayan, Kalinga. This time it was with a big group from Baguio and Manila. We were there to witness the inauguration of a micro-hydropower dam meant to run a small mechanical knife sharpener, to run a radio transistor, and to light the bulbs for the residents. Lights out were practiced around 6 to 7 PM. Later in the evening, one of the women told me that it would have been better if the lights could stay longer for them to do more chores. The children could also have more time to study. And so, I ask, why not? They just shrugged their shoulders.
These experiences made me think about indigenous women and their voices. If we were to sit together in a circle like dap-ay or meet in the meeting hall, what would they be thinking about? What would they say?
Through the years, these were the questions that nagged and went with me as I worked with other indigenous communities from other parts of Luzon to Mindanao. I met and worked with Timuays, Datus, Bong F’long, and male leaders as we talked about land issues – against logging legalized by the different forest management instruments by the DENR, the Mt. Apo geothermal project, the Environment Impact Assessment, the lack of consultations with communities, and mining.
Where are the indigenous women? I carried this question with me, and it eventually became an institutional question. As I would look for the women in the communities, I often find them early in the morning or in the evenings. I asked them what they think about these issues. Some would have a lot to say, but others would be quiet and opted to agree with their husbands or their fathers.
LRC proactively sought out the voices of women. We saw that in strengthening the communities, we should also contribute to the empowerment of indigenous women in the communities. We started to request the attendance and participation of women in meetings, training, and discussions that we organized. At first, it was difficult. The leaders and local organizers usually forget or take our requests for granted. The meetings were still dominated by men. With persistence, the wives of the Datus came and eventually more women attended our activities. However, they didn’t speak or participate in the discussions.
One of the events that LRC organized was the State of Indigenous Peoples Address (SIPA). The main objective of the event was to have a parallel State of the Nation Address (SONA), as indigenous peoples’ issues have always been absent, if not misrepresented, in the chief executive reports. For SIPA 2011, the third convening, we decided to organize a 2-day preliminary gathering for indigenous women. It was held in Koronadal and was attended by 40 indigenous women from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. It was in this activity that we heard women speak out on various issues. They spoke about the issue of land, deforestation, and militarization. We also heard their stories about discrimination, malnutrition, and other health issues brought about by deforestation. They shared stories of how they are losing their indigenous ways of healing as they lose their forest. Some shared stories of difficulties as food gatherers, lack of education, and land grabbing. We heard everyday stories of domestic violence, discrimination, and struggles of being a woman.
We heard the indigenous women. And we saw them too. Coming together as women and hearing each other’s voices boosted their confidence. As they joined the main SIPA 2011 event, they were very active. Nanay Remedios, an Ati-Bukidnon from Negros, stood up, spoke, and confidently told the men and women of SIPA, “Let’s go to Malacañang and demand that they speak to us so they will know our real situation.”
After the gathering, the indigenous women who participated came to us and said, “We need that space. We need that kind of space where we can think and speak on our own, together, and as women. We need the space to have a better understanding of our situation, attend meetings, and perhaps make an actual contribution to the discussions.” Thus, the birth of LILAK Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights.
PHOTO. Indigenous women join a multi-sectoral protest action on Human Rights Day 2018. On the banner, it says, "Indigenous women are against violence! [Indigenous women] are standing up for the environment! [Indigenous women] are protecting rights!" December 10, 2018. Photo by Judy Pasimio.
After many years with LRC, I left together with Den Ismael and organized the first National Indigenous Women Gathering (NIWG) in 2012. This was participated by 40 indigenous women from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao in a place in Quezon City. This time, we went to Malacañang bringing with them the issues of discrimination, violence, land grabbing, and government neglect. The indigenous women left with the commitment to keep organizing, learning, and taking actions within and outside their communities. A steering committee of indigenous women was created.
Through these experiences, I draw my points of reflection:
There is a need to create safe spaces for indigenous women where they can think, learn new things, and reflect based on their own experiences.
For someone who had never been asked for an opinion beyond childcare and domestic work, this is significant in building their confidence to speak and act as women and as a collective of women within their communities and beyond. For that reason, LILAK continues to conduct community learning sessions on human rights, women's rights, indigenous peoples' rights, and other critical issues such as mining and extractive industries in the context of corporate-led development, and climate change among others.
LILAK has also pursued convening the NIWG as well as other regional gatherings. In the time of the pandemic, we pushed through by holding it online. In 2021, the national gathering was participated by more than a hundred indigenous women from 29 different indigenous communities throughout the Philippines. In each of the national gatherings that are convened, an Indigenous Women Agenda is developed, and an Indigenous Women Steering Committee is formed. The Steering Committee has the primary tasks to plan and act on the agenda. They would have dialogues with relevant national agencies such as DENR, the Department of Social Work and Development, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, the Commission on Human Rights, and members of the senate and congress. These experiences, though still limited, have contributed to their knowledge-building and skills development. Furthermore, the sisterhood that was formed among the indigenous women has inspired them.
Indigenous women are slowly occupying spaces within the indigenous people’s organizations and in the Indigenous Political Structures (IPS) such as the Timuay Justice and Governance (TJG) of the Teduray and Lambangian peoples. In Higaonon, the Lipendagan IPS used to be dominated by men. But with the assertion of women, their leadership has been recognized by the communities, especially in their ancestral domains covering Calveria, Gingoog at Malitbog in Misamis Oriental, and Bukidnon. Bae Rose Undag, a woman, has been appointed as one of the BABAEYON (a member of the council). Bae Rose also serves as the current Vice-Chairperson of LILAK.
It must be clearly stated here that I am in no way attributing these developments to the work of LILAK. I am providing these examples to prove that with assertion and persistence, women can occupy spaces of leadership within their indigenous political structures.
PHOTO: LILAK holds the National Indigenous Women Gathering participated by indigenous women from various communities in the country. July 2017. Photo by Susan Corpuz.
Indigenous women’s rights must be advocated within IP communities, within families, and within the women’s movements.
Part of the spaces that are being carved out for indigenous women is the IP representations in different social movements, formations, and campaigns. Sometimes, we still need to remind the male leaders to extend the invitation to the women. But indigenous women now consciously claim their spaces in the representation. However, while the presence and participation of indigenous women in these spaces is a step forward, influencing these broader movements and formations to take on the indigenous women issues is another struggle.
Let me talk about the indigenous peoples’ advocacies first.
Genuine implementation of the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) has been a collective call among indigenous peoples. And yet, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) guidelines identify traditional leaders as the main party of this process. The NCIP and the corporations upheld this guideline and in effect neglecting women’s participation in the process. Hence, it became one of the advocacies of the Indigenous Women Steering Committee.
In 2016, the NCIP under the leadership of Comm. Leonora Quintayo, an en banc resolution was passed recognizing the contribution and leadership role of indigenous women in their communities. The resolution directs the regional offices to ensure indigenous women’s participation in all levels of decision-making. It was a win for indigenous women. However, it must be noted that it was a pre-Duterte NCIP commission, and the current one is for another story.
The indigenous peoples also share a collective call for the implementation of the Indigenous People Mandatory Representative (IPMR) according to the customary practices of the communities. However, most of the customary practices are not “encouraging” for indigenous women to participate. In the 2015 data of NCIP, there were only 17% or 467 women out of 2,782 IPMRs.
The Bangsamoro Transition Authority which governs the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has 75 seats in the parliament. Out of the current composition, there are only 12 women who have been appointed. None of them is a non-Moro indigenous woman. There is a seat reserved for non-Moro IP and this was given to a male Teduray leader.
PHOTO: An indigenous women speak at a gathering of Moro and non-Moro indigenous women in Cotabato City. The banner behind her says, "Indigenous women: one power and voice in BARMM". February 16, 2019. Photo by Judy Pasimio.
While there is recognition of indigenous women’s contribution and leadership within the
community, to be part of the decision-making structures continues to be a struggle. Women
play an important role in mediation, peacebuilding, health, protection of the environment, and food production but have very limited space in the official decision-making processes.
Within the broader women’s movement, there is also a need to highlight the different contexts and realities of indigenous women. Women after all are not homogenous.
Common advocacy of women activists is the sexual and reproductive health and rights
(SRHR). One of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG3) of the United Nations focuses on
ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all. Its target by 2030 aims to reduce the
global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.
As a response, the local government units have issued no-home-birth ordinances and imposed penalties on those who will be caught violating them. The women’s advocacy then is for the government to ensure that women have more access to and capacity for facility-based deliveries. However, indigenous women find the no-home-birth policy discriminatory. They have very strong practices and beliefs on home births such as giving birth alone like the Alangan Mangyan and B’laan women, or with a paltera (indigenous birth attendants). The paltera’s tasks start by taking care of the pregnant woman during the pregnancy, birthing, healing, and caring for the newborn. This is the whole package of care using traditional methods and herbs from their land and forest.
For others who opted to give birth at government facilities, they lamented how costly it was for them. The transportation that would take them out of their village costs a lot. In Brgy.
Andap, Compostela Valley, a Mandaya woman must walk 75 km. to go to the birthing center. They can take a habal-habal at some point, but this will cost P750 for one way. In sitio Magbok in Saranggani, B’laan women must walk 50 km. or ride a horse. In Brgy. Lublub
in Antique, Iraynon Bukidnon women must walk 7 km and cross a river (from the proceedings of the 2016 National Paltera Gathering, organized by LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women's Rights). Unpublished). Also, since they do not know exactly the time that they would give birth, this means that they must stay in the town until the time of their birthing. This means they need to spend on food and accommodation in town not just for themselves, but for their husbands and perhaps children who would go with them.
Given the circumstances, the indigenous women have practically no choice but to give birth in their homes. More importantly, the state should be supporting the health of indigenous
mothers and newborns, by recognizing the indigenous knowledge systems and practices of
indigenous women. Furthermore, a facility-based birthing center integrating the indigenous
knowledge and practices of home birth into the medical practice should be provided and
become accessible. This will make the birthing experience more culturally appropriate for the
mother, the newborn, and the entire community.
Patriarchy in our societies has rendered indigenous women vulnerable to multiple layers of violence and discrimination.
As part of communities that are constant targets of corporate-led development,
Indigenous women suffer multiple layers of violence and discrimination. They are always
confronted with displacement, increasing poverty, and hunger. Consequently, sexual violence has been a component of these issues. In a recent incident, Inged Fintailan (an indigenous women group) documented rape cases within evacuation centers among the Teduray and Lambangian communities who were violently displaced by armed Moro groups.
In the time of the pandemic, violence against women has increased. Teenage pregnancy is on
the rise as well as girl-child marriages. Our partners in Bukidnon belonging to the Kirinteken
Erumanen Menuvu tell us that cases of rape and incest rapes are increasing in their communities.
As indigenous women have become actively involved in their community issues, there is also
an increase in the number of Indigenous Women Human Rights Defenders. Even young
indigenous women are organizing themselves. However, this active involvement has also posed challenges in their lives primarily because they are women. In their families and communities, they receive criticisms ranging from neglect of their duties as wives and mothers, to being promiscuous which is why they leave the house and go to places. These accusations would sometimes lead to domestic violence.
During the six-year term of Rodrigo Duterte, women and indigenous peoples have been
constant victims of relentless vilification and attacks. Their assertion and involvement in
various formations have also made them targets of threats from corporations. According to the 2020 annual report released by Global Witness, the Philippines ranked as the most dangerous country for environmental defenders and IP leaders defending their ancestral domains. In the same way, violence against indigenous women happens in shadows and far-flung areas. This isolation limits the documentation and reporting. Thus, the culture of impunity is perpetuated.
The struggle for self-determination of indigenous peoples must include the self-determination of women.
Women’s issues, including gender violence, are seen as secondary to the overall struggle for the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples. For self-determination to be truly
meaningful and liberating, indigenous women’s right to self-determination should be recognized and made integral to the overall struggle of the indigenous peoples.
There is a need, even among indigenous women themselves, and among us as advocates, to recognize the intersectionality of our identities and our struggles.
In the NIWG 2021, we focused on the different identities of indigenous women - as farmers, as migrant workers, as senior citizens, as youth, as indigenous women with disabilities, as part of the informal sector, and as indigenous women human rights defenders. This allowed us to look closely into the particularities of the issues that they experience. This has also allowed us to celebrate the intersections with other members of the basic sectors. The gathering emphasized the intense need for solidarity across and within communities, among women, and the basic sectors.
And finally, there is a need for a sustained web of connections and sisterhood among indigenous women and among our people to push for more dialogues and discourses on indigenous women’s rights.
- Dap-ay - The dap-ay has multiple functions: it is a stone-paved platform used for ceremonial purposes, a lounging place for men during 'rest' days or ceremonial occasions, and serves as a sleeping hut for boys, bachelors, and widowed men. It is also an important socio-religious and political institution (Brett 1975, 1977).
- Ulog - Ulog is a part of the Bontoc culture; "a low, stone-walled cogon-thatched house, often an abandoned house, or houses of windows, that young women occupy "in twosomes or at the most in groups of eight. This is where young men come to pay court" (June Prill-Brett, "Fiipino Heritage: The Making of a Nation).
- Habal-habal - A motorcycle with an extension at the back to carry more passengers that is common in some provinces in the Philippines