In our mythology and legends, in the stories passed down from one generation to another in the old territories, the women—mother, daughter, descendant—are always an indispensable half of the narrative. Yet the women in the far-flung areas of the country are now perhaps the most in danger of being marginalized even among the marginalized. But they are neither cowed by the oppression and their circumstance, nor do their struggles go unrecognized.
That is thanks to the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition (ARWC), an international group founded in 2007 that champions women’s battle against the forces of globalization and helps them fight for equality on every front. On the fifth International Day of Rural Women on Oct. 15, the ARWC recognized 100 women who have exemplified the steadfast stand made by women in the region. Six of the 100 honored are Filipinos. Of those six, four are from the Cordillera. And on Oct. 16, they were feted by the Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center, which had nominated three of them.
Hailing from Besao, Mountain Province, Endena Cogasi, 88, was honored for her peace advocacy and refusal to bend to military harassment; she is now an important figure in the Cordillera indigenous people’s struggle. Leticia Bula-at is from Tabuk, Kalinga, and is a tireless campaigner against the displacement of residents by big business in the name of development. A native of Conner, Kalinga-Apayao, Maria Galong, 58, is a backyard farmer who defends our natural resources as well as our ancestral lands. Known as “Mother Petra,” 83-year-old Petra Macli-ing comes from Bontoc, Mountain Province, and has been fighting all her life for both women and the land they stand on.
The two other honorees come from Mindanao and represent the same strong values. Based in Camiguin, Sr. Mary Francis Añover of the Religious Sisters of Mercy works as the national coordinator for the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. Her advocacies include human rights, protection of children, and the uplift of the poorest in the rural areas. Bae Magdalena Suhat-Herbilla, 56, is from Bukidnon, and is a dedicated tribal leader who has fought to have indigenous people’s claims to their ancestral land validated. Her campaign has had some success: In 2003, an ancestral domain title was granted the Matigsalug-Manobo tribe.
At the Cordillera ceremony, the honorees reminded everyone of what they stood for. Said Bula-at: “We want to offer this award to our community. Our work is for the indigenous people of the Cordillera.” Declared Macli-ing: “The land that we defended is for [the future generation]. Land is precious to us who did not go to school. Our lands are wrapped around our very hearts. We did not have money, but we are still alive and we continue to live because of our lands.”
Apart from their being a great honor for those recognized, the ARWC awards once more highlight the primary role of women in upholding human rights, this time focusing on ancestral land rights and indigenous people’s rights. These rural women fight for the seemingly forgotten causes that remain integral to the dignity of both women and men who live beyond the bright lights of urban centers.
The honorees also represent yet another marginalized group. That they are no longer in the flush of youth clearly shows that old age is not a hindrance to the struggle but serves to deepen it by their experience and wisdom.
The ARWC states that it honors “rural women and advocates from all countries across Asia who continuously fight for survival, justice and freedom.” It “celebrates the leadership, strength, creativity, and commitment in pushing for gender equality while improving the lives of the general rural populace.” It “draws its attention both to the contribution that rural women make in their homes, workplaces, communities and societies and to the many challenges that they face.”
These six Filipino women are empowering examples of what it means to be committed and courageous in the far-flung areas of the country, away from the centers of power. They should be emulated for their fearless advocacies and boundless generosity of spirit. They are women worthy of story and song—one more indelible illustration of how our women continue to hold up half of that vast, endless sky.