Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had just delivered his first State of the Nation Address (SONA). In his hour-long speech, he laid out his plans for the Philippines - economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning into renewable sources of energy, and continuing Duterte’s Build, Build, Build, among others. In no part of his speech did he mention indigenous peoples, even though they comprise 10% to 20% of the country’s population, or around 10 to 20 million (although this number may be far from the real one, as no official census has been done to accurately count how many indigenous peoples there are in the Philippines) [Source: IWGIA]. There was no mention of IPs even though many of Marcos Jr.’s plans pose risks to indigenous peoples and their rights.
As indigenous peoples are continuously made invisible, LILAK took it upon herself to highlight their stories and contributions, from marching at the forefront of struggles to making a dent in herstory in their active participation in the 2022 elections. This article looks back on indigenous women and their part in the ‘Pink Movement’, a testament to their determination, power, and collective action, and why they should not be ignored.
Where are the indigenous women? This question founded LILAK as an organization and continued to guide everything that we do. Where are they in their communities? Where are they in government? Where are they in the social movements?
Over the years, we learned that the question is asked not necessarily because indigenous women are nowhere to be found. They’ve always been productive members, changemakers even, of society. They’ve always been their communities’ food providers, healers, environment protectors and defenders, and peacemakers. But more often, indigenous women’s efforts are diminished, their opinions ignored, and their roles in society disparaged. Indigenous women’s herstories are buried and they continue to be made invisible.
Two months have passed since the 2022 elections. The son of the late dictator Marcos Sr., Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is now the Philippine president. The Marcoses, once driven away from the country by the People Power revolt, have triumphantly returned to Malacañang. Self-proclaimed anti-human rights and former president Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, is now vice-president.
As for the former opposition stars - Leni Robredo, Kiko Pangilinan, and their Tropang Angat slate, including indigenous senatorial candidate Teddy Baguilat - all, but one, lost the race. Former senatorial candidate Risa Hontiveros seats as the lone opposition in the Senate. Leni has decided to shift her entire focus and energy to her newly launched NGO and decided to veer away from politics. The pink movement, or the massive, organic mobilization of the people in support of Leni Robredo’s presidential campaign, which historically united political blocks, activists, and advocates against Marcos-Duterte, is now without a leader. Only recollections and thousands of pink memorabilia remain.
This year’s election saga seems to have ended. The main characters seem to have reached an ending and are all ready to move on to different stories.
So, in all of this, where were the indigenous women?
Where were the indigenous women during this year’s election?
Indigenous women have always participated in local and national elections - from voting, volunteering as poll watchers, and assistors*, to campaigning for local candidates. Even when the electoral process in the country - from registering to actual voting - is bureaucratic and unfairly challenging for indigenous peoples, they’ve continued to take part in the democratic process of choosing their leaders.
In this year’s election, indigenous women’s participation was even more vibrant. Not only did they vote and volunteer, but they also organized and led electoral activities in their communities. In this 2022 election, indigenous women were organizers, speakers, campaigners, and discussants - front and center.
Bae Kalalagan, a Talaandig woman from Agusan del Sur, said she’s always joined activities during elections, but this year, she was the one who led them. In their town, she organized election discussions and house-to-house campaigns together with her young daughter Cleo. COVID-19 protocols restricted campaigns in many areas in the country, and so Bae Kalalagan and Cleo organized a rekorida, rented a small truck, speakers, and a microphone, and went around town to campaign for their candidates.
PHOTO: Bae Kalalagan, also known as Manang Zeny, a Talaandig woman from Agusan del Sur, campaigns for Leni Robredo, Kiko Pangilinan, and Teddy Baguilat in their rekorida. April 17, 2022. Photo courtesy of Zenaida Mansiliohan.
Jen and Rizell, Teduray women from South Upi, Maguindanao, rode a boat in treacherous waves, carrying with them election materials and information about the election and this year’s candidates, all to reach one of the farthest and most isolated barangay in their small town.
Tuwali women traveled from barangay to barangay in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, to post posters of candidates. Up in the mountains, in areas where there are no houses, you would see posters of Teddy Baguilat tied in trees, and you would know it was them who put them there.
Tarsela, a T’boli woman living in South Cotabato has once again failed to see her name in their precinct on election day. “It’s always in another barangay,” she told us right after the May 9 voting day, “Even though we checked before, and it was right; On election day, it’s wrong.” And because barangays in their town were far from one another, she could no longer vote. It would have taken too much time and too much money for transport. But she was not discouraged, and instead continued helping members of her community, volunteering as an assistor for those who couldn’t read and write, and promising that in the next election, she will get to vote.
Historical as it is sacred - indigenous women’s participation in the pink movement
COVER PHOTO: Teduray and Lambangian indigenous women perform a ritual or Kanduli for the protection and guidance of former electoral candidates, Leni Robredo, Kiko Pangilinan, and Teddy Baguilat. South Upi, Maguindanao. February 12, 2022. Photo by Lenylyn Bello.
In February 2022, while candidates were kickstarting their campaigns, indigenous women were organizing simultaneous rituals throughout the country. The rituals were meant to protect, guide, and bless the candidates of their choosing, Leni Robredo, Kiko Pangilinan, and Teddy Baguilat. Rituals were sacred for indigenous peoples which made their participation in this year’s election sacred, and according to Jen, historical, as it was the first time they united to support national candidates.
Months before the elections, indigenous women had already decided they needed to take action. In the six years of Duterte, they experienced state-sponsored violence, corporate land-grabbing, misogyny, and poverty in many forms. The failure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic took thousands of lives, hiked the prices of commodities, worsened hunger, and even worsened violence against women and children. For indigenous women, this election meant life or death. And they decided that for genuine change to happen, a regime change was necessary. Dynasties must end. No Duterte and no Marcos should ever sit in government again.
This year, indigenous women also decided to flip the way the election is done. They reminded the country that the elections should not be about those who run for office. It should be about the people and their welfare, needs, rights, interests, and demands.
Together, they created an Indigenous Women Electoral Agenda where demands and conditions for candidates vying for government positions are listed one by one. Some of the most important demands are for the government to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and end the violence in indigenous communities. Indigenous women also organized themselves into a collective named K Kay Leni-Kiko (Katutubong Kababaihan para kay Leni-Kiko) [Indigenous women for Leni-Kiko] and took part in the most-observed phenomenon in this year’s election - the pink movement [Read: Why are indigenous women taking a stand for Leni-Kiko?].
Their participation in the movement reignited hope for genuine and holistic change. The future under a Leni and Kiko government seemed bright and seemed promising. Governance without an iota of corruption no longer seemed wishful thinking. A future where indigenous women are no longer invisible seemed within reach.
No matter the doubts of even members of their communities, indigenous women’s support for Leni never faltered. “They didn’t like her because she was a woman,” Bae Tata of Agusan del Sur said of her tribe, “They said women were weak. But I explained to them, that women are powerful. No matter what hardship life throws at women, we face them headstrong.”
Juliana, a Hanunuo Mangyan in Oriental Mindoro, said it was her first time campaigning the way she did for Leni and Kiko. She poured her heart into it. Juliana likened it to first love. And it tragically ended - as many first loves do- in heartbreak.
Losing an uphill battle
Dismay and anger. This is how Elmalyn, Erumanen Menuvu living in North Cotabato, described what she felt when the results of the election came in. "Many supported Leni," now that she looked back, "But when the election came, they changed their minds. They were paid to do so."
Sadness, confusion, tears, and disappointment. This is how Myrna described her reaction to the results. Depression and hopelessness were Zenaida’s. And other indigenous women we talked to said the results were hurtful and painful. It felt heavy in their chest.
“Whenever I remember the election, I close my eyes and shake my head to rid of the memory,” said Wilma, Subanen, from Zamboanga del Sur. “‘Til now, I still can’t watch or listen to the news. I haven’t moved on even when everyone is telling me to move on already.”
“Paano na kaming katutubo? [What will happen to us now?]” was the first thing Juliana thought of after seeing the results on her neighbor’s TV. “[The Marcoses and Dutertes] may have money. But what of our dreams? Our dreams can’t be paid for by money. We dream of our ancestral lands. What will happen to us now?”
Like Juliana, Tarsela was also full of questions, “Mapansin pa kaya kami?” [Will we remain invisible to them?]” She thought of Martial Law and lamented over how it seemed to never have ended for indigenous peoples. “Often the victims of Martial Law are those with a lot to say. And those who live in far-flung places. They always accuse indigenous peoples of being rebels. And I fear they’ll let foreigners enter our ancestral lands,” she told us thinking of years of land-grabbing and displacement indigenous peoples suffered under Marcos Sr.’s and Duterte’s presidencies.
The 2022 election was far from the sacred choosing of leaders indigenous wanted it to be. Reports of vote-buying flooded COMELEC from almost every province in the country, yet no official investigation has been announced by the agency. The pink movement was pulsating, historical, and a real testament to unity. But this new version of people power failed against decades of preparation by the Marcos family and the oligarchy, against powerful and expensive machinery spreading disinformation and revising history with outright lies. Social media was one of the battlegrounds for this year's election. And indigenous women took part in it, no matter how difficult it was for them with the lack of technology and poor signals in their communities. They guarded against disinformation and demanded regulations for lies that trampled on the truth.
What will happen to indigenous women now?
In his first SONA, Marcos Jr. concluded that “The state of the nation is sound,” but we, he, can make it better. There were nearly 8,000 words in his hour-long speech, but not a single mention of indigenous peoples. Worse, his economic plans seem to be heavily reliant on corporate investment. And from decades of struggles, indigenous women know very well how corporate and foreign investments, had harmed indigenous peoples, led to their killings and violence against them, and trampled on their right to ancestral domains and right to self-determination [Read: No Mention of Indigenous Peoples in Marcos Jr.'s SONA].
When we asked what indigenous women think of the future under a Marcos-Duterte government, many saw a dark one where indigenous peoples are made poorer, made to suffer, and made even more invisible.
“Their hearts are far from indigenous peoples. That’s why I’m sure we will only suffer more,” said Bae Tata. Others worried over the fact that indigenous peoples were not part of any platforms or promises by Marcos and Duterte. “During their campaign, they didn’t mention indigenous peoples. They don’t seem to have plans for us,” said Cleo. “I’m scared we will only get poorer.”
Indigenous women also worry about what the state of the pandemic will be. “We hear rumors that the pandemic will worsen along with the cruelties of lockdown. That they won’t let us leave our community again. I worry for the children who are in school,” said Tarsela.
Cherry Ann, from a mining-affected town in Nueva Vizcaya, worries that mining will only worsen under the new government. “We indigenous peoples will continue to suffer. Marcos supports mining. Mining will only continue to ruin our livelihood, dry up our waters, and make indigenous farmers poorer.” [Read: Side with the people, end mining in our community]
Others look back on the horrors of Martial Law and fear that this will happen again. “My father was a victim of Martial Law,” said Bae Tata. “I don’t think the way they treated indigenous peoples will change. The future I see is black.”
Even young indigenous women who did not live to see the atrocities of Martial Law fear the worst and feel heavily for older women in their community. “You can see the fear in those who lived through Martial Law. They see that there’s no hope. That this will only be a continuation of Duterte,” said Rizell. Jen said she felt for the victims of Martial Law. “Their deaths were not given justice. They must be suffering.” Juliana fears that the dark and cruel part of history will repeat itself, “During Martial Law, many were killed even those who did nothing wrong. Maybe this will happen again.”
Indigenous women also fear that they will only be made even more invisible. “Will our dreams as indigenous women have a chance of ever becoming reality? Will our voices be listened to?” asked Rizell. “There’re so many questions. So many question marks.”
The continuation of the story
Indigenous women have always participated in elections, valuing the freedom to choose and elect their leaders, likening it to a sacred process, but that has become corrupted, infested with illegal buying of votes, widespread and aggressive disinformation, and deliberate isolating of indigenous communities and poor sectors.
In the next six years, we might go through another socio-political darkness akin to the Marcos Martial Law and the Duterte War on Drugs. While the Marcoses and Dutertes bathe in their triumph, while Leni-Kiko supporters continue what they started and now turn to volunteerism and service for the people, indigenous women remain where they’ve always been – at the forefront of struggles, defending their rights as indigenous and as women, protecting their ancestral domains and environment, taking care of their families and communities, leading, persevering, and thriving.
Indigenous women are committed to continue telling/retelling the truth and to never forget the painful past that continues to haunt our present. They are committed to never forget the families that are still longing for justice. The pink movement sparked hope and brought out the best in many people. This hope and the people’s success in uniting for genuine change will never be forgotten.
Indigenous women may have lost in the counting of votes together with millions who hoped, but they succeeded in being heard and making the country know that their votes count. It always has.
Where are they now? What do they plan to do now?
Even when their spirits are still weary, indigenous women chose to continue. “Magpapatuloy lang,” is what they told us they will do.
They will continue to defend the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of women. Continue to protect the environment. Continue to seek accountability and justice. Continue to tell the truth, retell it, and remind the people to never forget.
More importantly, indigenous women will continue to hope. This is how their story continues.
*Assistor - Assistors help voters who are illiterate or with a disability that hinders them to vote. Assistors must be of voting age and are only allowed to assist not more than three times.