By Shalom Tillah Allian

There are factors that affect women’s ability to stay healthy and well during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. This challenge is doubly difficult for bakwits, the local term for evacuees particularly displaced by armed conflicts.

There are 1,362 bakwit families, or 6,810 individuals, living in five areas in Zamboanga City. They are part of some 199,000 persons who fled their homes during the heavy fighting between the government troops and insurgents from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in September 2013.

Some armed Moro insurgents are demanding for either an independent or autonomous Bangsamoro state but in this particular siege  in Zamboanga, the rebels’ demands were unclear. The fighting lasted for 19 days around the city, which is a vital economic hub in southern Philippines. While many of those displaced were able to return home, there still remain families who await the government’s promise for housing, seven years after the siege.

In June 2020, after the end of the hard lockdown in the Philippines, the women bakwits had dialogues with representatives of the Gaston Zavalla Ortigas Peace Institute (GZO) and Nisa Ul Haqq fi Bangsamoro (Women for Justice in the Bangsamoro) with funds from the TPMT (Third Party Monitoring Team) of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF.

The dialogues sought to find out the impact of COVID-19 among bakwits, called internally displaced persons (IDPs) and locally stranded individuals (LSIs) who couldn’t go home because of the lockdown. Their statements are carried here but their real names are concealed.

If not for the dialogues, the conditions of women bakwits in Zamboanga would have remained unknown. The survival stories of babuhs (Tausug term for older women or aunties) and indahs (young girls) from Moro communities in the city would have been unheard.  So too, would the stories of LSIs from neighboring Bangsamoro island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.

Food insecurity

The restricted movements bore down on the food needs of bakwits. “Economically, it really affected us because we have no more livelihood and sources of income,said Jurmiya.When the city was put on a lockdown in March 20 to prevent community transmission of COVID-19, the bakwits, already facing the lack of livelihood opportunities, had limited access to food supply. Those into buying and selling experienced a slowdown in their business because many city residents had suddenly stopped working and had no more income.  

To cope, some bakwits and LSIs turned to selling food. Fatima said they sold, “boiled eggs, pancakes, ice candy, iced water and local delicacies like  pastil, junay, bihun, and turon” in their  neighborhood to earn. She said, while the neighborhood have poor families, and not many can afford to buy everyday, the money earned from selling the food items was enough to buy rice and soy sauce.

Tausug pastil is a popular dish that is similar to empanada but with spicy sauce mixed in. Junay is rice mixed with burnt coconut meat and mashed turmeric, chillies and other condiments wrapped in banana leaves.  Bihun is a noodle dish while turon is a fried snack of bananas in spring roll wrapper.

Prior to the pandemic, some resourceful bakwits have invested in small scale businesses. One couple bought a bike paying daily installments of 100 pesos for two months. The family rented out ten pushcarts in the market to transport vegetables, fruits and fish to vendors.  With the quarantine though, “only a few of the push carts are rented daily” according to Nahla whose  husband’s daily income of 200 pesos was split into paying for the bike and buying food.  “Imagine  having 100 pesos daily for a family of five? How can we survive?” she said.

 Another bakwit, Jessica, said that she has not paid her water and electricity bills on time. She is worried that these will be cut off.

The civil status of women bakwits rendered them vulnerable. “Widows like myself have the hardest time coping with this situation. You are alone dealing with food, money, medicine and bills to pay. You have no one to depend on but yourself,”said Jasmin. Travel restrictions during the quarantine period, from March 20 to May 31, prevented her from visiting her family and friends. “It makes me think about how sad my situation is. If only there was no quarantine, I could have visited family and friends and asked for help,” Jasmin said.

Raissa, a single parent wished that she has someone who can support her  financially and provide for the needs of her two children, especially food and milk. “I’m only a housewife. My husband died last March due to (complications from) high blood (pressure),”she said.

Family members who experienced being separated by the 2013 fighting also experienced a similar separation during the pandemic. Grandparents took care of children whose parents were stranded or on quarantine. Alnahar recalled, “My grandson had dengue and I took care of him because his parents are not at home because of the quarantine. He was admitted to the hospital.”

Gender-based violence

The stress due to the lack of food, jobs and income contributed to tensions in some households, with some experiencing gender-based violence. “There are times (when) we argue with our husbands about hardship in providing daily meals for the family, said Almaida.

Sor said that while she has not experienced violence from her husband, she heard her neighbors fighting and shouting.

In many Moro communities, talking about what is happening in the privacy of homes is taboo. In many instances, the women simply kept quiet so as not to stain the honor of their families. The most extreme form of silencing is when families resort to honor killings such as pagbanta or rido (clan war).  Clan killing is especially problematic for women because they are the ones targeted for retaliation by the other clans involved in the conflict. If a woman is harmed or killed, her clan will avenge her and target another female family member or relative. Rido also targets women who dishonor their family.

For younger Moro women like Nhor whose family’s income depends on their work at the fast food chains in the city, safety is a concern.  She said, “I am always afraid to go to work and go home during early morning and at night. But because of the quarantine and lockdown, there are no jeepneys and tricyles available.”

Yasmin said walking home alone exposed her to catcalling which is a form of harassment. “There are men who whistle every time I pass by. I get so nervous every time I go to work or when I go home after my shift,” said Yasmin.

Education

When schools reopened in September and teaching and learning shifted to non face-to-face methods, some bakwit children were left behind. Children with no cellphones could not attend online classes while those who have cellphones could not afford to buy load or internet credits,” said Junainah. “I would rather spend the money for food of our family,” she added.

The bakwit children’s physical and social activities were disrupted. They were used to “the daily routine of going to school and for some, madrasah on weekends” Limpa said. Not allowed to go out, conflicts among siblings have erupted, causing anxiety among family members. “Quarrels among children in the neighborhood also took place,“  she added.

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, information is vital. Yet, bakwit families felt they have little access to accurate medical information. Many do not fully understand what the COVID-19 symptoms are, and what is meant by being asymptomatic, among other critical information.

Bakwit families said they felt abandoned, not only by the government but also by some humanitarian organizations during the pandemic. Thus the dialogues were vital for women bakwits because it assured them that they are not locked out from political and humanitarian lifelines.

NGOs helping the bakwits are hopeful that key players from the government, development workers and bakwits themselves would revive camp coordination and camp management. This will reopen communication lines between service providers and bakwits so that they can coordinate and monitor responses at the national and local levels. They should be part not only in the conversations but also the planning and monitoring process.

As Bangsamoro women bakwits have shown resilience, courage and wisdom before the pandemic, they have to be given support to demonstrate the same during the pandemic.  WWWs

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Shalom Tillah Allian, a Tausug-Sama, is the Program Manager of Nisa Ul Haqq fi Bangsamoro (Women for Justice in the Bangsamoro). The group conducts participatory action research through community dialogues and consultations, and advocates for women’s rights, gender in Islam, peacebuilding through transitional justice and intra and interfaith dialogues. The group also responds to emergency humanitarian situations during conflicts and disasters in some Moro communities in the Philippines.