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Philippines : Rural Struggles and Women’s Movements

Interview by Cédric Leterme (CETRI) with Sindy Soler, Director of the rural women’s rights organization Mindanao Tri-People Women Resource Center (MTWRC), on the island of Mindanao, Philippines.

Cédric Leterme : When was your organization created ?

Sindy Soler : In 2000, at the request of women’s organizations in the region. At that time we were in the middle of open warfare, there were many conflict situations in Mindanao [1]. So we organized a consultation to find out how women were affected by this crisis situation. And based on this consultation, it was decided to create a women’s center to maintain and develop solidarity and to defend their rights and interests. We therefore work mainly with organizations or women directly on the ground, women from the three main communities of Mindanao [2], mainly in rural areas.

Cédric Leterme : What types of actions do you undertake ?

Sindy Soler  : We do community organizing at the village level. Facilities are also provided for meetings and other forms of solidarity between women and women’s organizations. We also have a health program, where we mainly offer alternative forms of medicine. We have a documentary and research component and we also do capacity building, awareness raising, advocacy, etc., but mostly at the local level, in the villages.

Cédric Leterme : What is the current situation of women in the Philippines ? The country is often cited as a model in this regard. Do you agree with that ?

Sindy Soler : It is true that the discussion on gender issues started a long time ago in the Philippines, and the country is indeed among the leaders in the world in terms of gender equality, women’s political participation, education and so on. However, if we look at the situation on the ground, there are still issues that need to be discussed and addressed.
With regard to gender-based violence, for example. We have national laws, we are signatories to international conventions on the issue, but such violence is still very much present, especially domestic violence. In Mindanao, we have a diversity of cultures, and in some of them there is still a strong culture of silence where women should not speak out on these issues.
There are also still many cases of early pregnancies and early marriages, especially in indigenous and Muslim communities where it is permitted to marry as early as 14 years of age, with many alarming situations.
Another problem concerns trafficking in women. This is an extremely critical issue at the present time, especially with the lack of economic opportunities in many rural communities. Indeed, it is often women who leave the village to work in the city or abroad when there is not enough work on the farm. These women then find themselves more easily recruited by traffickers. They go to work as domestic workers, for example, because they have no choice, to support their families. And they face very harsh working conditions, acts of violence, and so on. In addition, their husbands stay on the farm to take care of the household and this can create problems for the children’s education, which can lead to juvenile delinquency or arguments and domestic violence, all of which are related to the fact that they have to be away for long periods of time.
Finally, from a more political and institutional point of view, there is also the issue of misogyny. Our organization and our networks are really disappointed from this point of view by the statements and comments made by some prominent leaders, starting with the President himself, which are degrading to women. It is really discouraging.

Cédric Leterme : On the more specific issue of access to land, do women face particular difficulties ?

Sindy Soler : From a legal point of view, women have the right to own land in the Philippines. But in practice, there is still the macho perspective that men are the heads of the family. Therefore, it is men who have control over property and especially over land, which is a crucial asset for rural families. Often it is men who automatically find themselves the owners of the land, whereas women could also claim it. There is always this idea that land belongs to men. But this is obviously a disadvantage for women when their name does not appear on the title deed, since they have no control over the land and they do not have access to a whole range of services for which it is necessary to be able to show a title deed (e.g. credits).
Sometimes, thanks in part to our awareness-raising programs and activities, men are more aware of these gender issues, they talk about them in their communities, they talk about them with their wives, but they still have the last word.

Cédric Leterme : What demands do you still have, knowing that the legal framework for gender equality is already among the most progressive in the Philippines ?

Sindy Soler : There is still room for legal improvement. For example, to increase government awareness and inform farmers that women also have the right to own land. Some government officials, especially in the agencies in charge of land titling, also lack sensitivity on these issues. They often automatically ask the name of the man when indicating the head of the family, for example, and they really insist that it should be a man, even when they are dealing with a widow. So we also need to work on making these government officials aware of gender issues.

Cédric Leterme : Are gender awareness programs already in place, including in schools ?

Sindy Soler : Yes, gender mainstreaming is already compulsory in our institutions, including in schools, but there are still textbooks where women are systematically represented doing housework... The situation is more positive at the higher levels, especially at university, but in primary and secondary schools not much effort has been made yet. This is a legal and even constitutional obligation, but in practice it does not really follow. Much more needs to be done, especially to make government officials and agents more aware of these issues.

Cédric Leterme : Do women in Mindanao face any special problems compared to the rest of the Philippines ?

Sindy Soler : Yes, first of all because of the conflict situations that continue to exist here. We are very concerned about how they affect women’s rights. The many conflicts we experience tend to place women in even more marginalized positions. Especially because the communities in conflict are already poor communities. Women therefore have to bear several burdens : the burden of conflict, with threats to security, threats of harassment, etc., but also the economic burden of poverty and the survival of their households, or the burden of discrimination experienced by indigenous or Muslim women in particular. Thus, there are often several layers of marginalization and exclusion for women in Mindanao.

Cédric Leterme : Is the situation of women comparable among the three major communities that make up Mindanao ?

Sindy Soler : There are common elements, such as poverty, for example, but also issues specific to each community. Indigenous or Muslim women face particular discrimination, for example. Their identity and their right to self-determination are less well guaranteed than those of Catholic women. This is why it is really a challenge for an organization like ours to strengthen solidarity among women from all communities. We can work on common issues, but we are aware that there are issues specific to each community. But it can also be an asset to get help and support from women from different communities. So we must work to create this solidarity.

Cédric Leterme : Can you tell us about the division of labor between men and women in the rural communities you work with ?

Sindy Soler : The tasks are not the same in terms of productive work, but women’s contribution and participation are still important on the farms, even if it is not monetized. For example, making food for the household or feeding the chickens are tasks that are not monetized (and therefore counted), but are very important. The problem is that despite all the time women spend on the farm, they have to bear the additional burden of domestic work. They remain in charge of most domestic work. Again, because it is in the mentality and traditions. However, this does not prevent them from being actively involved in public activities such as being part of an organisation like ours. In most rural organisations, women are very present and often in the majority. And it’s the same in environmental struggles where many women are on the front lines.

Cédric Leterme : What about food safety ?

Sindy Soler : Most of the subsidies or aids available to farmers benefit first and foremost men. Because they target tractors or large implements, for example. Women are also eligible for some aid, but that brings us back to cultural barriers. In terms of food security, the « Magna Carta of Women » [3] places great emphasis on the importance of equality in access to land ownership, financing, etc. But as with agrarian reform [4], the problem is not so much in the law as in its implementation. In fact, we know of cases of women who applied for redistribution in the context of agrarian reform and were asked by the officers where their husbands were... If you don’t insist, you end up being deprived of your rights.
In other cases, it is the husbands who end up opposing their wives when the wives start to claim their rights. We know of many cases where women have faced marital disputes or even separations when they started to assert their rights to land. In fact, when we started, we focused mainly on awareness raising and empowerment work for women. But after several years, in talking with these women, we realized that they were still suffering from domestic violence. And the reason was simple. It was because their husbands had not been made aware in the same way. And so they would end up arguing if the women insisted on their rights and their demands for equality. So it’s not enough to target women, you also need an awareness program that targets men so that awareness is mutual and they can work together. It is a real challenge because it is very difficult to talk about domestic violence with men, but little by little, we can make things change.

Cédric Leterme : What is your relationship with other women’s movements outside rural communities ?

Sindy Soler : Women’s movements in cities have other priorities, other agendas. They talk more about political issues, for example, or reproductive rights, which are not necessarily priorities for women in rural areas, where socio-economic issues or access to food may be more important. It is more difficult for rural women, especially those from Mindanao, to make their voices heard at the political level because women’s organizations based in Manila, for example, can directly question those in charge, whereas for us, it is much more difficult, if only to get to Manila, to find the resources, the contacts, and so on. So these are different contexts. But it is important to make connections, because there are also many common issues.

Télécharger Luttes rurales et mouvements de femmes PDF - 226.1 ko


[1The island of Mindanao is the second largest island in the Philippine archipelago and the second largest in terms of population. It is also the country’s food basket with a number of key crops and resources concentrated there. Situated in the south of the country, it remained for a long time apart from Spanish and then American colonization, with a predominantly indigenous and Muslim population (the Moros, from the Spanish term « Moors »). However, the situation changed in the aftermath of the Second World War, with a massive internal migration of Catholic « settlers » favored by the central government to reduce pressure on the land in the northern islands. This situation led to an armed conflict that is still ongoing today between Moros independence fighters and the central government. In addition, the island is also the last bastion of the communist guerrillas created throughout the country in the 1970s to demand more social justice and land reform.

[2« Tri-People » refers to the three major communities that make up the population of Mindanao : the indigenous communities, the Moros (of Muslim origin) and the Catholics.

[3Law adopted in 2009 to mainstream gender equality in a wide range of areas.

[4Reform adopted in 1988 to (re)distribute public and private land to the country’s many landless peasants, whose record is disputed.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.