MANILA, Oct 13 (IPS) - For Father Eduardo Vasquez, setting up 'Bahay Kalinga’ (House of Care) in the province of Maguindanao is one way of deepening his mission.
The centre specifically caters to women and children who were displaced by the ongoing conflict between government troops and Muslim rebels in Mindanao, southern Philippines. He has described it as "a shelter and safe place where pregnant women and children can get medical attention."
Long before the centre was built in June, Vasquez, popularly known as Father ‘Ponpon’, had been tending to hundreds of displaced families who were forced to flee their homes, caught in the middle of a long, drawn-out war that destroyed their homes and livelihood.
While the church can provide temporary abode to these internally displaced people (IDPs), Vasquez, who belongs to the order of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), said that they do not have the resources to extend basic services such as food, education and health care to women and children.
He has witnessed pregnant women dying, infants being fed with nothing more than water and sugar, and women abandoning their children because they can no longer take care of them. This spurred Vasquez to look for private funding and volunteer doctors and nurses to build and staff Bahay Kalinga.
"It's the women who are most affected by the conflict in Mindanao," Vasquez said. In an article posted on the OMI website, he said that about 90 percent of those he has helped are either children as young as four and their mothers.
The necessity of setting up a shelter like Bahay Kalinga illustrates that it is the women who have suffered most in the decades-long unrest in the south, he said.
Other sources said that the conflict puts additional burden on women as they are the ones who are expected to provide for their families – despite the limited opportunities and resources available to them in evacuation centres.
"It's the culture of Muslim society. The women must solve all domestic problems," said Samira Ali Gutoc, founder of the Young Moro Professionals Network, in an interview with IPS. "When the men leave — either to join the Muslim rebellion or to find jobs in Manila or overseas — they leave the women behind. Women tend to a clan."
The 40-year armed struggle broke out in the seventies with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighting for a separate homeland for Filipino Muslims. Several Philippine Presidents — with the help of the international Islamic community — have attempted to resolve the unrest in Mindanao.
But even after numerous peace talks and the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the problem remains unresolved and even led to the outbreak of conflict with other Muslim groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway faction of the MNLF.
Hostilities intensified in August 2008, after the Philippine Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which would have given broader political and economic powers to the Muslim leadership and widened the territories of the existing ARMM. The MOA-AD was a product of the peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government.
The breakdown of the peace process in mid-2008 and the ensuing intensification of hostilities between government troops and alleged MILF renegade commanders and their followers, resulted in the displacement of over 750,000 civilians, according to data culled by Amnesty International, an independent human rights group. Of these, about 240,000 civilians remain in evacuation centres, living in makeshift shelters and depending on food donations for their survival.
"You can just imagine what it is to be a mother with several of her children living in a makeshift tent for more than a year," said Kim Bagundang, the executive director of the Mindanao-based Liguasan Youth Association for Sustainable Development, an environmental group that has had to focus on helping the victims of the conflict-affected areas of the region.
Bagundang said most evacuation centres are congested, with limited water supply and poor sanitation. The hostilities have temporarily ceased on back of a possible resumption of the peace process. But Bagundang said most women are hesitant to return to their homes, fearing that they will be caught in the crossfire.
It is especially difficult for women to live in such congested and unsanitary areas, sources said. Being the head of a large clan (most Muslim families have at least six children, noted Samira), women are expected to ensure that they have enough resources to shelter, feed and educate the children and even some of their kin.
Losing their homes and farms, depending on food aid and living in makeshift tents make it nearly impossible for most of these mothers (and grandmothers as well) to keep their children alive, much less well-nourished.
"This creates food insecurity," said anthropologist Soledad Dalisay of the University of the Philippines. She explained that these women were tasked — by tradition — to provide food. And whereas before, they could rely on some livelihood or on their gardens for food, now they just wait for food donations from the social welfare department and humanitarian agencies such as the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross.
These donations are barely enough to reduce the prevalent hunger and malnutrition in these evacuation centres. In its report, ‘Shattered Lives: Beyond the 2008-2009 Mindanao Armed Conflict’, published in August, Amnesty International said that the IDPs they had interviewed claimed the food rations they were receiving — consisting of rice, mung beans, instant noodles and sardines — were "insufficient to meet the nutritional needs of [their] families."
A joint study undertaken in July by the Philippine health department, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the U.N. World Food Programme revealed the prevalence of stunting and malnutrition among the displaced children.
In light of these findings, the joint assessment team from the three agencies recommended that food assistance include essential food items — rice, pulses, oils, and sugar — to ensure adequate caloric intake and nutritional balance." Amnesty International is also urging both the government and the MILF to ensure the safety and well-being of all civilians.
Samira, whose network promotes a peaceful resolution of the plight of the Bangsamoro people, or the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao, believes these are just palliative measures, saying these could help IDPs and lessen the heavy burden of women evacuees, but not for long. "The people depend on relief, [which] will end one day. You have to end this war to end dependency," Samira said.
It is only when peace finally descends on Mindanao that the IDPs can return home and rebuild their lives. Until then, they only have makeshift tents (or other temporary structures such as multipurpose halls) to call their home — where food supplies are perennially scarce alongside other basic amenities of life.
Until then, there is no easing the heavy burden of women in Mindanao’s protracted war.