How Gabriela confronts heightening political persecution

The continuing imposition of martial law in the Philippine island of Mindanao has heightened political persecution of organizations critical of President Duterte's rule.

For many years, the Gabriela Crisis Center in General Santos City in Mindanao has been a constant refuge of women who have suffered violence not only from their spouses but also from the state. 

For this reason, the center has become a persistent target of military intelligence surveillance even as the persecution and attacks against progressive organizations like Gabriela have intensified, especially under the existing martial law in Mindanao.

It will be recalled that President Duterte last year declared martial law in Mindanao amid the ongoing clashes between government troops and ISIS-inspired group in Marawi City. Then, through the president’s request, Congress extended the imposition of martial until the end of this year. Progressive groups have raised concern that the extension of the military rule may be a prelude to an authoritarian rule.

Since the declaration of martial law, Gabriela members have frequently observed suspected state intelligence agents monitoring the activities being held inside the center. 

“While Gabriela members are confronting vilification and military harassments on a daily basis, our center is not spared of the red-tagging (classifying government critics and activists as state enemies) and surveillance,” said Gina, a member of Gabriela-General Santos chapter. 

Amidst political persecution, Gabriela members, however, have not wavered in their commitment to fight for their rights. Through the Viva Salud’s capacity building program, Gabriela has continued to resist the Duterte administration’s attempt to stifle legitimate dissent and the women’s struggle for land, livelihood, and democratic rights. 

How are they countering the pestering surveillance and harassment? Besides the regular mobilizations and protest actions, they are continuously engaging government agencies and local officials to meet their obligations to the people. 

Just recently, the women have formed the Mabuhay Agricultural Workers and Farmers Association (MAWFA) and availed the Department of Agriculture’s assistance program for farm workers and small farmers.

“By this, we just want to assert that we are not state enemies as claimed by the president and the military,“ said Myra, a member of the association.

What is noteworthy is that it is the women who initiated the formation of MAWFA, and convinced their husbands later to join them. In that respect, the women handle leadership roles in the organization thereby building their capacity to deal with their practical needs while fighting for the realization of their strategic needs. Gabriela subscribes to rights-based approach in improving the livelihood of women while asserting their rights and demanding services from the government.

What is MAWFA’s livelihood project? The association was able to acquire chipping and grinding machines for the processing of “rejected” bananas for livestock feeding. In banana-exporting countries such as the Philippines, bananas that do not meet the standard size and quality for export are rejected. These “rejects” constitute a good source of carbohydrates for livestock. 

The association purchases the rejected bananas from several packing plants in areas of commercial banana production. The process of turning the bananas into livestock feed is not simple, and collective actions play an important role. Before the bananas are fed into the machines for chipping and grinding, tons of them need to be manually sliced into small pieces first and left to dry in the sun for several days. 

“We need to plan and work together in order for us to complete the task. The process will not be completed without coordination and cooperation,” said Gina.

The new project validates the importance of organizing to give women a better control over their lives. But more than that, by leading their communities, women are challenging the patriarchal gender stereotypes and redefining their roles in their communities. 

This project proves that women can form associations and lead. Our husbands do not only approve of this project but also join and are willing to be led by us,” said Maria.

Most of the men here have no lands to till and are working as seasonal farm workers; that is why they did not think twice about joining the association formed by their wives.   This is quite uncommon since, in many farming areas where feudal relations still persist, it is common for men to question women’s political participation and leadership capabilities and accuse them of neglecting domestic responsibilities.

Where do they carry out the production?  The wide front yard of the crisis center and the surrounding vacant lots have become the association’s processing and production area.

We really intended to make the crisis center as our production area to belie the military’s malicious claim that the center is being used by groups that are plotting to overthrow the government. If we saw them surveilling the center again, we will ask them to help us instead” said Gina in jest.

It is clear that the goal of Gabriela’s income-generating project is women empowerment. It is always the goal of Gabriela to continue to help build women’s collective capacity to defend their rights, especially in this time that sexism and misogyny have become a norm under a President who does not hide his low regard and hatred of women.#