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Women’s voices and ‘dignity kits’

Men’s voices overwhelm in all the talk around conflict and peace in Mindanao—the passage (or nonpassage) of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), who is to blame for the Mamasapano incident, the trustworthiness of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, even the various arms available for use by both military and rebels (a subject that Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Vicente Sotto devoted many energetic minutes to during an exchange on the Senate floor).

But visit any devastated village, or an evacuation center, and you will find it overwhelmed by women and children, as well as the elderly—refugees from the fighting and vulnerable to disease, illness and hunger prevalent in these dense, crowded and squalid conditions.

Indeed, as a study conducted by the Asia Foundation states, “women and girls are disproportionately represented and affected in situations of conflict.” Amid the fighting, when any male is viewed as a rebel, spy or conspirator, men are often forced to stay home or hide deep in the forests, the same study finds. As one farmer remarked: they feel like they’re walking around “with a target on our backs.” So the task of looking for sources of food or income falls on the women, exacerbating their already onerous double burden.

And yet, with so much at stake, the voices of women and children are seldom heard, their sentiments unacknowledged. There seems little official interest in harvesting insights and observations from their experience so officials and policy-makers can adjust their policies and practices in relief and rehabilitation efforts, not to mention in the conduct of peacekeeping operations or the calibration of armed responses.

A partial explanation, as a Mindanao-based journalist informed me during a workshop on “peace journalism” conducted by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), is that culturally, among Moro communities, women themselves are loath to speak up and air their views. The “datu system,” still prevalent among many traditional villages, imposes strict cultural norms on the members, with only the village head or “datu” allowed to speak up and express communal sentiments.

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But there is a way to get around such a system. Various groups, especially the academe, have convened women’s assemblies and gatherings of young women students, to share their experiences and come up with steps necessary to empower their community members.

Collective voices have a way of expressing the sentiments of women and girls without leaving any one woman or girl vulnerable to criticism or censure. A common voice also allows women in conflict-affected areas to embark on actions, confident that they have the mandate of their peers and neighbors.

The media, too, have a role to play in bringing the voices of women and girls to national attention. Reporters, for one, could consciously go beyond their traditional sources of military officials, government officials or spokespersons of combatant groups and seek out women and girls wherever they can be found—in villages, schools, evacuation centers, mosques. They, too have something important to say. And because they are seldom heard, what they have to say will still have a certain novelty factor, a unique point of view that will add to the common perspectives of traditional reportage.

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Years of advocacy by women, women’s groups and relief organizations have also given rise to changes in relief operations, particularly in the contents of relief packs targeted for women and girls.

Now called “dignity kits,” these packs arose from the observations of women relief workers as well as interviews with women evacuees, that they had needs other than food, water or medicine that are just as crucial for sense of dignity and comfort even in times of emergency.

Reporters at the CMFR workshop reported women in evacuation centers sidling up to them and shyly whispering in their ears of their need for fresh underwear and even sanitary pads—items that most relief organizations overlook when they put together emergency packs, but still a necessity to women and girls.

A dignity kit, even in non-Muslim areas, also includes a malong, a tube of cloth that has proven its versatility, used as a “changing room,” a blanket, a hood, a towel, even a robe to be used while bathing.

In addition, other items in the dignity kits include soap and shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, a comb, a tabo or dipper, and maybe even deodorant. After all, looking presentable and being comfortable in one’s own skin is as much of a morale booster as a hot bowl of instant mami or lugaw.

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One other concern is that of lactating mothers caught in a disaster or war. Relief agencies have made it a policy not to include infant formula in their relief goods, arguing that it is far better to encourage and assist mothers to breastfeed their babies rather than leave them dependent on infant formula, which could pose real health hazards in the rough conditions of evacuation centers: the lack of potable water, the need to boil bottles and nipples, the need to protect the nipples from flies and other insects.

And yet, say the mothers, given the tension and uncertainty they face, they most often lose their breast milk supply, and in the conditions of evacuation centers, the lack of privacy is enough to deter them from resuming or starting breastfeeding.

This is all of a piece with women’s concerns about safety and security in evacuation centers: unlit bathrooms and shower rooms, dark hallways and paths, the lack of privacy and protection.

It’s telling that such concerns remain unaddressed despite decades of disasters and conflict. What if women had a bigger and louder voice in planning and implementing?

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