At a small hotel in Tagaytay, Philippines, a diverse group of women gathered to talk, dance, and share their stories of peace building in their communities.
Some were indigenous, others, Moro (indigenous Islamic people in the southern Philippines). They came from nearby areas of Luzon, and from as far away as the southern reaches of Mindanao. Some were in their twenties, just beginning to shape their identities as defenders of human rights; others were in their fifties, looking back on decades of peace building, while looking forward to the years to come. They identified as NGO workers, community organisers, social workers, teachers, and peace activists. Some were very familiar with ideas of feminism, while others were newcomers. What they shared was a commitment to human rights and social justice.
In this way, the Isis Activist School created bridges—among diverse groups of women, between practical strategies and personal reflection, and sometimes, between poetic representations and complex understandings of their worlds.
Framed around feminist approaches to the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, the School would provide a safe space for these women to learn their rights, strategise their advocacies, and imagine their communities’ futures. The Activist School posed the question: “Can the concept of Human Rights Defenders, which originated in the UN, help women on the ground in their human rights work?”
In journaling sessions, peer groups, and even dance and relaxation, the women learned how to address this question in ways specific to their own experiences and communities. At the same time, they forged a bond through their shared commitment to justice.
The women described the Isis Activist School as a safe space, removed from their usual routine, yet connected to the tasks that drive their daily lives. Shaima A. Angsa, a young woman from Zamboanga City, is a member of Pinay Kilos (PINK), a group working in reproductive health, women's rights and peace. At the Activist School, Shaima was confident and outgoing, a ready dancer and a talkative participant. However, she explained that this wasn’t her usual manner—this particular group of women made her feel “at home.”
A part of this atmosphere of openness was forged in the Activist School’s introductions, which asked the women to create representations of themselves in their communities.
Therese "Grail" C. Lawagan, an outspoken woman from Kalinga, kept the women laughing throughout the training. She saw her jovial nature as an asset to her work, explaining, “I have a big mouth, so I can speak for those who can't speak for themselves.”
Other women linked their personal experience to larger, shared struggles. Beatriz “Beting” Colmo, an indigenous woman from the Bagobo Tribe and a member of the Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Forum, described, “My eyes, ears, nose and mouth are hearts. I want to see love, smell love, hear love and speak love. I can't separate myself from loving nature and peace. I can't separate peace and justice from my land and the rights of my people.”
Beatriz had once lost the journal she used to document human rights violations, but explained that she had devoted herself to documenting them again. She shared an excerpt with the group: “There is war. There is injustice. But there is also hope and love. No matter what it is, it is the only way I have.”
The love Beatriz portrayed also appeared in other women’s descriptions of their work. Mirma Tica, a young woman of the Philippine Action Network to Control Arms and the WeAct1325 secretariat, explained her self-portrait saying, “In my picture I'm wearing a ribbon like a present. We are all gifts to the world because we are empowered and have the capacity to give to the world.” Similarly, Carmen Lauzon Gatmaytan of Asian Circle 1325 links her advocacies to personal ties: “The butterfly earrings represent my two children who are my inspiration. I know that I am fighting for a better future for them.”
These more poetic representations were balanced with concrete discussions of human rights organising. In another session, Isis Activist School facilitators asked, “What, if any, are your rights as an activist who is working for peace? In what way, if any, do you value these rights in your life?”
The women’s responses reflected their lives as peace defenders—filled with risks, yet tirelessly committed to non-violence:
“I have the right to vote without being dictated to by guns or money.”
“I have the right for protection and security as a peace advocate.”
“I have the right to organise.”
“I have the right not to be tortured.”
“I have the right to know the truth and be heard by my country.”
“I have the right to wellness and well being.”
“I have the right to speak.”
Over the course of the session, they developed two criteria for human rights defenders: first, universal respect for human rights, and second, non-violence. This latter tenet was easier to adhere to in theory than in practice, as public opinion sometimes favours the use of brute force. As the women described, those bearing arms and using violence are often viewed as “defenders” by their communities. This commitment to peace and non-violence is even more complicated, as fear can silence those whose rights are violated. As one woman noted, “Protecting human rights defenders is important, because when their rights aren't protected, others are afraid to speak out.”
This was of particular importance when the women became targets of the government and military. As another participant shared, “We were conducting a human rights training with youth, when we were approached by soldiers who suspected us of being NPA” (New People’s Army – outlawed armed branch of the Communist Party). In cases such as these, the women’s commitment to nonviolence was of the utmost importance.
When the Isis Activist School on Women Human Rights Defenders closed, the participants sat in a circle and said good-bye. Therese sang her farewell through a traditional song in her native tongue. Bridges had been built and new connections forged. Women from different backgrounds had come together for a few precious days and created a new, feminist community, committed to peace, in the mountains overlooking Lake Taal.
The Isis Activist School for Women Human Rights Defenders for members of Women Engaged in Action on 1325 was conducted on 19-22 November 2013.