11:16 pm | Monday, March 18th, 2013
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Baileng Mantawil heads a nongovernment organization called Bangsamoro Women Action for Development Initiatives or Bwadi. She is also, she says, a 'child of war.'

Her father is a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and as a child she lived with her family in an MILF camp in Maguindanao. When the government launched a major offensive against the MILF, she and other women members of the family had to disguise themselves and flee the camp, crossing a river and trudging through marsh lands. I think I changed schools about four times during my elementary years, she recalls. But the onset of peace negotiations put an end to her wanderings, enabling her to finish a Computer Science course from the Mindanao State University in Marawi.

Today, her father heads the secretariat of the MILF peace panel, helping forge a final peace agreement that could finally silence the guns of conflict in Mindanao. I am very optimistic, she says of this transition period, after four decades of conflict, we might finally see a lasting peace.

When I ask her about Sabah and the incursion of a brother of the Sultan of Sulu and members of the royal army into that territory, Baileng expresses concern that what is happening in a small town like Lahad Datu, might have a huge impact on the economic and political life of the Bangsamoro. But she shrugs off speculation, aired by some commentators, that the Sabah issue could derail the peace negotiations and lead to a wider conflict not just in Mindanao, but even involving Malaysia.

This is not all about tribal loyalties, or favoring the interests of a chosen few, declares Baileng. Should the conflict in Sabah grow wider, she observes, maraming iiyak (many will end up weeping). And judging from her own experiences, she says the time has come for a new paradigm, from the battlefield to a new arena.

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Baileng was part of a workshop called Weaving Women's Participation from the Ground: Possibility for Social Engagement in the Bangsamoro Democratic Transition held at the British Embassy (which funded the event) and facilitated by the NGO Sulong Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the Philippines, which promotes peace and humanitarian law in conflict areas.

Four Bangsamoro organizations took part in the workshop. Aside from Bwadi, there was the Mindanao Women's Advocacy for Good Governance, Niga Ul Haqq a Bangsamoro, and the United Youth of the Philippines.

The workshop, as planned, was meant to give women's groups in the Bangsamoro the chance to explore ways of working together, to develop common and shared understanding on the Bangsamoro women's concept of meaningful participation and engagement in the period leading to democratic transition.

Taking part in the workshop were women from various ethnic and tribal groupings, including Tausug women who, in theory, fall under the authority of the Sultanate of Sulu. But, say the women, not once did the topic of the Sabah claim even come up for discussion.

To a woman, they declared that durable peace and development is necessary to address the issues and causes of armed conflict, to which they trace the poverty that haunts the people of Mindanao. Basic social services like maternal health care and education are still inaccessible while social opportunities for development are still lacking.

Poverty and inequality are exacerbated by ignorance. The women pointed out that non-Muslim people still have little understanding of the Islam religion, culture and tradition, resulting in biases, prejudice and judgments that cause more misunderstanding and (widen the) rift that could eventually lead to more conflict.

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At the same time, say the women, representation/participation of Bangsamoro women in politics and governance is gaining space, yet voices of women and their issues are still neglected.

Referring to women's unique experiences and social needs, they assert that only through active and meaningful participation could the voices and aspirations of women in the community be accurately reflected, and that active participation could enable women leaders to assert gender responsive measures that can aid them in their daily plight.

Thus they called for a meaningful representation of women in the transition and in community development, asserting their role as partners for development. In particular, the participants called for the active support of all Bangsamoro women for the transition commission, especially the women members, to assert equitable opportunities to serve as advisers, strategists, consultants, organizers as well as technocrats by lending their expertise to the formulation of a basic law.

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At the same time, addressing the undeniable biases and discrimination against Bangsamoro women not just from the Christian majority but even from within the Bangsamoro leadership and membership, the participants said promoting Muslim women advocates as models of Bangsamoro communities could be a good first step toward asserting women's leadership roles.

Meanwhile the conduct of interfaith dialogues to overcome stereotypes and wrong connotations against Bangsamoro women and for Bangsamoro women to understand others' belief could go a long way toward eliminating hostility and discrimination, the women said.

It seems obvious, then, that ending the conflict and embarking on a new regime of democratic governance and equitable development, while respecting the traditions and history of the Bangsamoro, is a shared goal of both or all people on all sides.

"What I am most afraid of at this moment, said Baileng, is that, given this chance to govern ourselves and look after our own people's development, we might prove ourselves a failure."

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