Sectoral Monitoring on the Situation of Indigenous Women and Girls during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Sectoral Monitoring on the Situation of Indigenous Women and Girls during the COVID-19 Pandemic
This is an excerpt of the Sectoral Monitoring of Indigenous Women and Girls in the time of COVID-19 Pandemic, a research project jointly conducted by the Center for Gender Equality and Women Human Rights of the Commission on Human Rights and LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights) beginning April 11, 2021 to November 29, 2021. Download the full report below.
On March 16, 2020, the Duterte government imposed a lockdown as it determined the presence of the highly infectious COVID- 19 in the country. In an attempt to control the spread of the virus, the entire Luzon and other major cities were immediately placed under the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), a strict stay-at-home policy to limit movement, and impose stringent physical distancing measures. Only essential travels were allowed such as individuals considered as frontliners, and quarantine passes issued by Local Government Units (LGUs) are required for people to get groceries, and medicine. Transportation and other establishments considered as non-essentials were not allowed to operate. These lockdown policies have great impacts on the Filipino families who suddenly had to stop working, stop going to school, and stay at home while worrying about their safety, their health, but more urgently, about their food on the table. This is the case with indigenous women and their families.
Third week into the lockdown, LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights) reached out to its partners to ask how they were. According to a Higaonon woman leader, “The drought brought in poor harvest. That’s why many of us in our community worked as farm workers, construction workers, and domestic helpers. But because of the lockdown, many of us were forced to stop working – by our employers to avoid transmitting the virus or because there was no more transportation that could take us to our jobs.” This was echoed by several others. Indigenous communities that were able to produce good crops, on the other hand, were then unable to sell them due to the quarantine. Earlier on, they were living on vegetables and root crops from their gardens. But they could not afford to buy rice, and anything else.
In some areas, the quarantine restrictions prohibited them from going into their own collective farms by the Barangay or local government units. This was the case for the T’boli-Manobo in Brgy. Ned, Lake Sebu. Furthermore, they were prevented from harvesting the vegetables and corn in their collective farm, by the presence of armed groups surrounding their farm. We see this as something beyond the COVID-19 issue. This was a sinister way of taking advantage of the medical emergency as a way to ease them out of their ancestral domain, given the expansion of the coffee plantation of the DMCI corporation.
Over the months, we saw the government creating a military-led COVID 19 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), implementing guidelines which seemed to be oblivious to the realities of the indigenous women on the ground - one of which is imposition of face masks and shields, with harsh penalties for people caught without them; wash hands with soap; social distancing. The realities then - because of the lockdown, indigenous women were finding it very difficult to put food on the table. The common sentiment among our partners was “sa gutom kami mamatay, hindi sa COVID- 19”. (We will not die of COVID 19, but of hunger.”) How can they even afford face masks and shields? The government was not supporting them with these. When we spoke to the women in Marawi, who were still in the evacuation centers, they had no regular access to drinking water, let alone water for washing their hands and soap. Social distancing was an impossible measure to take for Teduray and Lambangian peoples who have been forced to abandon their communities as they were being fired at, houses burned, because of land conflict. As early as the first quarter of 2020, thousands have been displaced, and have set up their own makeshift evacuation centers - cramped, with no regular access to water, and lacking food.
These are the harsh realities of indigenous women and their families in the different parts of Mindanao, and Luzon. And how are these known, or considered by the IATF?
Most of the indigenous communities, accurate and timely information on COVID 19 was hard to come by - what is COVID 19, what is pandemic, how do we properly protect ourselves; also, information on ayuda (relief) - where to get this, how, who are eligible? This situation was not a priority of IATF response.
When ayuda was first rolled out, it was chaotic - no clear information was reaching the indigenous women - confusion on 4Ps or the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, benefits for senior citizens, and the lockdown ayuda. There was one experience, shared by an Erumanen Menuvu from Cotabato - that the ayuda from the local government was raffled off by the barangay.
Then there is the information on vaccine - what are these? why? how? Again, no systematic and culturally appropriate information campaign was done by the government. This has a significant impact on the vaccination hesitancy among the indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, as the indigenous women were finding ways to cope with the lack of food, and income, the military was making it more difficult for them. The militarist response of the Duterte government has paved the way for more human rights violations in the guise of health protocols. In one instance, the Mamanwa woman leader, who was distributing relief packs from LILAK to the families in her community, was harassed by the military, accusing her of distributing goods to rebels. In another province in Southern Tagalog, the indigenous woman leader who was also distributing relief packs, was visited by the military in her home. Out of fear, she then decided to stop receiving relief packs from LILAK, even, as she said, they badly needed these.
Two years into the pandemic, how are these issues being addressed by the government? How are the realities of indigenous women being taken into account by the IATF, by the agencies, and local government units?
As COVID-19 and its variants are reaching the indigenous communities, indigenous women are worried, and burdened with the increase in their care work. Their food security is deeply threatened, as well as their livelihood which are mostly based on natural resources. The climate crisis that we are in now, as well as the corporate activities within their ancestral domain have exacerbated the impacts of the lockdown. The lack of nutritious food, and poor health service of the government, as well as the threat of COVID-19 are increasing the vulnerabilities of the indigenous families. The lack of educational support, as well as inferior internet and communications infrastructure, have made schooling more challenging than it ever was, for the indigenous children. All these are shouldered primarily by the women - as mothers, older sisters, and grandmothers. Their worries, anxieties and actual care work increased, compromising their own health - both physical and mental.
It is the obligation of the government to provide timely and appropriate support, that indigenous women can avail through non-discriminatory and empowering processes, and in a non-hostile environment. However, the government has failed to do so as seen in the experiences of the women from the indigenous communities in the participating provinces.
This documentation has proven that the stories and anecdotes we have been hearing from indigenous women - of hunger, of difficulties, particularly experienced by women and their families; and the lack of support from the government in this time of pandemic, are not isolated cases. There is a pattern of state neglect - a clear reneging of the state obligations to its constituency, especially to those who lie in the margins of our society. The Magna Carta of Women or Rep. Act 9710 has identified indigenous women and girls as part of the marginalized sectors or groups of women whose rights need to be protected, fulfilled, and promoted in order to eliminate discrimination against them. However, the situation of the indigenous women and girls, especially in the time of pandemic, has shown that despite the law that directs more focused attention on them, the government has failed to do so.
This research jointly done by the Center for Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights of the Commission on Human Rights and LILAK tried to get the response to these questions from the indigenous women participants coming from communities from Region X, XII, CAR and CARAGA.
In the focused group discussions, the indigenous women articulated recommendations that are sound, feasible and most of all, grounded on their realities. This research intends to forward them to different relevant government agencies who are responsible for direct services, policy makers, as well as civil society organizations which are doing policy and advocacy work. The insights of indigenous women and their experiences will also inform submissions to human rights treaty bodies and inputs to reports of human rights mandate holders.
As COVID-19 peaks, and plateaus, what is constant, is the woman’s role - to take care of the family, in different ways. She does it out of love, or obligation, or fear that her family will suffer. She braves being exposed to COVID, just so she can earn for the family, or bring relief to the community. She puts herself last. She shares whatever little she has to her neighbor. She braves the red-tagging from the military as she asks difficult questions about government’s support; and asserts their rights over it. Indeed, to love is difficult in the time of COVID-19, and more difficult to live in the time of an authoritarian regime.
But she persists.
The Sectoral Monitoring of Indigenous Women and Girls in the time of COVID-19 Pandemic was jointly conducted by the Center for Gender Equality and Women Human Rights of the Commission on Human Rights and LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights).
This commenced on April 11 and concluded on November 29, 2021.
The research employed a mixed-method approach using quantitative and qualitative methods of gathering data. The respondents, composed of indigenous women and girls, participated in a hybrid session of semi-structured interviews and focused group discussion (FGD). The discussion was led by a facilitator, and the respondents’ answers to the survey questions. The responses were noted by surveyors. The methods of analysis used in the survey are quantitative and qualitative data analyses. The quantitative analysis was supported by KoBo Toolbox, an open-source data collection, management, and analysis tool. The data gathered was also analyzed through thematic and content analyses.
Scope And Limitations of The Study
The survey was participated by 54 indigenous women and girls from the provinces of Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon of Region X, Trento and Agusan del Sur from CARAGA Region, South Cotabato from Region XII, and Cordillera. Due to lockdown policies and COVID-19 travel restrictions, LILAK had to conduct the interview and FGDs using the video conferencing platform Zoom. The CHR regional teams were able to go on field for data gathering.
The respondents were disaggregated but were only limited from ages 15 to 65. This may imply for example that health needs and health service preferences will vary based on multiple structural inequalities within each of the social groups that they occupy. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are also factors that affect the health care needs, the livelihood opportunities, the participation in political processes of indigenous women. Therefore, further studies should be done to carefully consider these variables.
Summary of Findings
In the time of pandemic, there is a significant increase in the number of indigenous women and girls who are hungrier, have no capacity to stock up food, and experience food insecurity. It was during the lockdown that the communities felt more than ever the impacts of climate change on their food production, and how corporate control over their land and natural resources within their ancestral domain diminished their food sources. It was during the lockdown that they felt more than ever state neglect. While there is a significant number of indigenous women who said that they have received support from the local government unit, most of them responded that they received support only once, or that the support they got was not enough.
Through all these difficulties, it is the women - in their role as mothers, older sister, or grandmother- who are considered the primary responsible for putting food on the table.
The COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines highlighted the structural and historical inequalities experienced by the indigenous peoples and made even worse for indigenous women and girls who are most at risk due to the particular conditions in areas in which they live. Results of this survey has shown that the pandemic has increased the multiple inequalities that were already affecting the indigenous women and girls in terms of limited access to health services, continuous discrimination against them through disregard of their traditional health knowledge and practices, and lack of fact-based information about COVID-19 and vaccination.
The workload of the indigenous women increased during lockdown due to family care and other tasks as they are considered the primary responsible in caring and maintaining the health of the family. Such pressure, as well as social disruptions that have left indigenous women to struggle with feelings of uncertainty, stress and worries about economic well-being, including job loss, have effects on their mental health.
While free public education is purported to be available for everyone, the realities of the indigenous women and girls make it very difficult for them to enjoy this right. There is the issue of distance - students had to walk for hours to get to school. For those who have passable roads, they have to pay big amounts for habal-habal or local transportation. Other expenses incurred for meal allowances, and payment for boarding house rentals is another challenge. These challenges did not disappear, however, with the shift to online and module-based learning during the COVID-19 lockdown. In fact, the new challenges made it more difficult for the indigenous children. The families could not afford the requirements needed for online schooling such as laptop and smartphones, stable internet connection, and electricity. For the module-based learning, it puts extra work and pressure on mothers who are expected to assist their children. This role is expected for a significant number of indigenous mothers, and parents in general, despite the fact that they have not gone to school themselves.
The survey results have shown the inability of the educational system of the country to seriously consider and integrate in its planning a more responsive program to the realities of indigenous families and communities.
Indigenous women and their families rely heavily on farming and agricultural work for their income and livelihood. The respondents are cultivating land for rice, corn, root crops and vegetables for their own consumption with an intended surplus harvests to sell for non-food needs of their families. However, indigenous farming practices way before COVID-19 came already faced numerous challenges. Such challenges include the encroachment of large corporations into the ancestral domains, and the climate crisis. The insufficiency of income from farming have pushed indigenous women to look for other means to earn income such as handicraft making, weaving and becoming a household help or farm laborers specially for those who don’t have their own land to cultivate. With COVID-19 lockdown and strict quarantine protocols, indigenous women were confronted with even graver challenges on how they will make ends meet. Farming has become the only source of livelihood for many indigenous women and their families as other work was no longer available. Furthermore, the lockdowns posed difficulties in selling their farm products due to costly travel requirements. This has caused a significant decrease in the income of the indigenous women and their families.
Indigenous Women Human Rights Defenders Work
Before and during the pandemic, there was a significant number of indigenous women that identified themselves as indigenous women human rights defenders (IWHRD). A significant number of them point out gender-based violence as the primary issue within their communities. Land conflict and harassment comes second. Issues of harassment and red-tagging that are related to on-going land conflict and protection of ancestral domains were particularly high before the pandemic. However, it relatively decreased during the pandemic. This can be attributed to the mobility restrictions that came with lockdowns. Many of the respondents claim that their focus shifted to economic survival and health during the time of lockdown.
Majority of the respondents put high regard to their role as indigenous women human rights defenders in forwarding their agenda and cause. Indigenous women take pride in the leadership positions they occupy in their community. This however is not always explicitly articulated. Rather, it is often expressed through actions. Hence, the common perception is that an IWHRD is respected and admired in their communities. Meanwhile, confronted with threats and harassment, it is their tribal leaders and non-government organizations that they depend on to support and help them.
There is a huge gap in political participation and representation between indigenous women and men. While most of the indigenous women who participated in the survey believe that women are also capable and should be allowed to lead, those who are able to secure leadership positions are still mostly men. Most indigenous women do not want to run as candidates in the elections because they lack the resources to do so; they are busy with taking care of their families; it is viewed negatively when women take on leadership roles; or their families do not allow them to do so.
During the pandemic, indigenous women experience compounded multiple burdens, but it is also this time that their leadership has been made evident. Indigenous women step up to care for, not just their families, but also their communities during emergencies - including during COVID-19 lockdowns, natural disasters, and continuing armed conflict over land. Indigenous women’s actions exemplify the traits they value in leaders - caring, smart, brave, articulate, and familiar with the issues and situations of their communities. More discussions may be conducted to further understand how indigenous women see themselves as leaders or why they do not see themselves as leaders.
The indigenous women themselves articulated specific recommendations which are feasible and grounded on their realities. Below are some of the common recommendations that cuts across the thematic issues:
- Provide accurate, relevant and timely information on COVID-19 and government services to the indigenous communities;
- Institutionalize support for direct access to markets for indigenous products;
- There should be more intense discussion on impacts of climate change on food production with the indigenous communities; and how they can adapt;
- Provide more technical and financial support for combatting the impacts of climate change;
- The Philippine government must prioritize and include as part of their COVID-19 responses - access to maternity care, pre- and post-natal health care, availability of an accessible health care facility within their community and a free and easy-to-access healthcare procedures that are culturally sensitive and non-discriminatory and that also recognizes indigenous medicine and health practices;
- Include mental health support programs in the health services for the communities;
- Utilize government resources to support indigenous women in their leadership roles such as mediating peace and facilitating humanitarian response;
- Install local disaster-emergency response mechanisms that encourage and strengthen community participation, particularly that of indigenous women and girls;
- Ensure the meaningful participation of indigenous women at all levels and include them in planning, consultation, implementation, and monitoring;
- Indigenous agricultural practices and knowledge must be recognized and provided with technical and financial support;
- Institutionalize inter-agency collaboration between the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and other relevant agencies to provide appropriate, relevant support for indigenous women and girls (i.e. with the Department of Education, or with Department of Agriculture, or Department of Health);
- Government offices, especially those whose mandates have specific interests to protect, promote and fulfill indigenous women’s rights (i.e., NCIP, PCW, DILG, LGUs), should exercise such mandate with urgency and with constancy;
- Conduct dialogues and consultations with indigenous women to collaboratively determine solutions and responses to the challenges they face, especially amidst the pandemic and in the upcoming elections;
- Regular monitoring and documentation of the situation of IP communities particularly of women and children;
- Develop and implement policies that strengthen and institutionalize support for access and control of women over their land and natural resources;
- Implement R.A. 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act fully; RA 9710 or Magna Carta of Women; and R.A. 10068 or the Philippine Organic Agriculture Act;
- Review and repeal laws that institutionalize red tagging or criminalization of human rights defense work, such as R.A. 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Law;
- Pass laws that would protect our environment and promote sustainable, nurturing management of our lands and natural resources such as Alternative Minerals Management Bill, National Land Use Act, Forestry Resource Bill;
- Stop the discrimination against young indigenous women who are being critical and assertive of their rights;
- Raise awareness on unpaid care work as a development and poverty issue;
- Promote stories of indigenous women leaders to counter the narrative against human rights and human rights defenders as being anti-government, or as being part of rebel groups; and
- Build capacities of public servants on gender and cultural sensitivity towards eliminating all forms of discrimination against indigenous women and recognition of their leadership.
Writers: Judy Pasimio, Deniza Ismael, Jayneca Reyes, Cheryl Polutan, Abbygail Dupale, and Katrina Marie Magtoto
Editors: Sharlaine Balagtas and Jayneca Reyes
Proofreaders: Nadine Ismael, Kristine Kyale Reyes, and Abbygail Dupale