Tell us about yourself
I’m a journalist. I’ve been with Al Jazeera for almost 12 years. I am the correspondent of Al Jazeera English in the Philippines and I also do work in the region. I’m also the President of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. And I co-founded an NGO a few years ago, called Sinagtala Center for Women and Children in Conflict. Sinagtala means star light. It’s an organization that aims to provide safe spaces for women and children in conflict zones.
What inspires you to get up in the morning? What drives you?
My child. You know, I’ve been a journalist for a long time. I was doing television already in 2002. I started as a sports reporter. I guess what inspires you to get up in the morning changes as you get older. The more you do, the purpose changes and evolves. Before I had a child, it was always about work. And now it becomes about what kind of world will I leave to my child, and the kind of example I will be to my children.
I have a 4-year old boy who we all adore. I get up every morning to become the kind of person he wants to be. I want him to learn to do the work that needs to be done, work that would be of service to others. I think that’s the core of what I do on a daily basis.
What set you on this path?
It all came in phases. I started as a journalist. I wanted to become a human rights lawyer. When I became a journalist, I was exposed to the issues being faced by so many civilians. I mainly work in conflict zones. When I say conflict zones, I mean war zones, I mean places where there is an absence of peace and there is armed conflict, displacement, and killings in general. I was exposed to that and after having been a journalist for a long time, when I became a mom, it became a kind of an internal battle. Leaving home means always dealing with guilt, leaving your child behind to go to a conflict zone to work.
Sinagtala, for me, provided that sense of balance, that sense of proportion to deal with that guilt. You know, parenthood is about guilt. It compensated my own internal battles. I don’t just leave a person, a woman behind after taking their stories. It’s also when I felt that sometimes journalism is not enough and when I realized that I can actually use my contacts, resources, even my voice to do more.
After doing a story about child soldiers who were being recruited to become Abu Sayyaf (a jihadist group in the Philippines), I realized that these children never held toys in their hand. That is exactly what the issue is in those areas. There’s really an absence of space where children can grow up with a sense of normalcy. So, we started to open the first toy libraries in Ungkaya Pukan, Basilan in 2015. We started to establish these things and work with military and local NGOs. We did it in Tawi-Tawi and we sent aid to Jolo. When I go there, I think to myself as a journalist, “What can I do after?” Connecting people to those who are also willing to help. I realize that there are so many people willing to help in Manila, but they just don’t know how to do it. I think that Sinagtala provides that space.
How did you get other women to help you start Sinagtala?
Getting women to work together is very easy. It’s actually about convincing those who are in conflict zones to believe that this is a process that can help them. When you deal with women who have lost everything, for example, Soraya Bato, one of our weavers. I met her when I was doing a story and I realized in one day, after going to four different evacuation centers, I encountered two displaced weavers. That came into my head, ok, apart from the toy library which we already set up in Marawi, why don’t we open a weaving center? The weaving center is basically a safe space where they can learn how to weave. So I bought the looms. We put it there, but then there was no space to weave. I called the military and asked them to provide the space for about five months until after the conflict is over. Then I met some of the women weavers. We provided training.
I met Soraya at an evacuation center, in a basement where she was staring at the wall. I said, “You know, we have a weaving center on the first floor. There’s food, there’s music. Just come.” She asked me, “Why are you helping me?” She couldn’t even believe that someone was willing to help her. She was an Arabic teacher and she had breast cancer. She’s one of our community weavers now. She still has cancer, but she’s getting her medication sorted out.
When they were learning how to weave, somebody came to me and said, “We don’t want to weave black because it reminds us of the Maute.” ISIS is the color of black. We told them, “Do not allow them to control your story. Do not allow them to define your story. It’s not your fault. Weave black. Take back that narrative from them.” Now they weave black colors into their patterns. It may sound very petty, but it meant a lot to these women. It’s those kinds of stories that stick.
For two years, from 2017 until now, we kept doing the training. We trained 30 women to weave, twelve ended up weaving full time. But we continue to do psychosocial intervention with them even after they seemed ok. Now, we started this new program where they are training other women, and they’re the ones conducting the training.
There was a picture that was sent to me yesterday by our volunteer. It summed up how we imagined Sinagtala to be. A girl is sleeping at our center while her mother is learning how to weave—they're all displaced. I thought, this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be providing this safe space where no one can come in to be hostile, no arms, no weapons. She sleeps there, while the mother weaves.
I think weaving is a really therapeutic process because, first, it’s very personal. It’s wrapped around a woman’s waist. We thought it was a livelihood program and at the same time, a very effective psychosocial intervention and very dignified temporary work because it’s not cash for work where they’re made to clear debris. This is what we have to understand about Marawi. It had never been involved in armed conflict. It’s the very first time that they had been at war. Marawi was a place of refuge. It was a place where people escaped to when there’s a conflict in different areas. It was the cultural and trading hub, because the Maranawis are known to be traders, and it was the Sharia city, but despite being a Sharia city, it was also very open, very culturally diverse. If you see the destruction, it really shocked me.
We’re talking about a very highly educated population—teachers, doctors, who are now living in tents. They didn’t know cash for work or picking up debris.
You need to make sure that they are able to take back that sense of dignity. When you provide a livelihood, it’s not that they feel mendicant, but that they’re actually in control of their story. Marawi does not define who they are. They weave their story from here on. They define how it will end.
What advice do you have for young women who want to take a similar path?
When you want to help, don’t think of the magnitude of the work that is out there. Look at what you can do because it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. It doesn’t have to be like what I do in conflict zones. Using your voice is number one. Working within your own sphere of influence, within your community, your university, your workplace.
Take for instance, this month, we will hold a women’s session where we will pack women’s essentials or what we call dignity kits in malongs (traditional tube skirts) for the women of Marawi. A malong represents everything for a Bakwit, for a mother and child. When you have to escape violence, you put everything that you can in a malong, sling it over your shoulder, and run away. In an evacuation center, it serves as a mat, a baby carrier. It serves as a blanket, a cover for when you bathe. It serves as your piece of clothing.
Think about it. What if you have your period and you live in a tent or in an evacuation center where there is no bathroom, right? These dignity kits will contain feminine wash, sanitary napkins, which are essentials for women that are often forgotten. We will also be including things like lotion and lipstick—things that may seem petty, but these actually help restore women’s sense of dignity.
Be realistic about the help that you can give and know that nothing is too small when it comes to helping someone else. Whatever you do will have an impact. When you send that message of kindness, that reverberates to so many people there, especially when it is so common for the displaced to feel forgotten.
Do you have a favorite quote or saying?
First, live your life with substance and truth. It cannot just be merely living for yourself anymore. It is required for us ordinary citizens to go beyond the usual and do a bit more.
Another one is from Mr. Sunshine, a South Korean TV series, “You can take back what’s been taken away from you in a time of war, but not those you willingly gave away.” Do not give away things like your liberty and your identity—not without a fight.
What are the biggest issues in the Philippines right now and how can they be addressed?
I think the biggest fight is apathy. You may have all these democracy campaigns, but if it doesn’t resonate to average people, I think that’s going to be very hard. And it’s very hard to make people understand the concept of democracy, the concept of liberty, the concept of press freedom, and dignity, because these are abstract concepts when you’re very much focused on putting food on the table. We need to address that apathy amongst the general public.
Why is it that so many people feel that the issues that Filipinos are facing in Sabah, in Mindanao are at the back burner, why they don’t feel connected? I think the biggest is making people care and making them understand that they can do something.
Where do you see the Philippines in 25 years?
I hope we learn our history. I hope that, as a people, we come to a collective consciousness that we are all Filipinos and that the pain of another is our pain. When we call another person a terrorist, a fellow Filipino, we forget that he’s a Filipino and that he is a product of our own failure. That a child becomes an Abu Sayyaf is not the child’s fault, but it’s a product of an intergenerational poverty and crisis. I think we need to understand that we need to learn from history.
What change would you like to see that could bring greater equality in the Philippines?
I think we’re moving there, little by little, despite things seeming hopeless in many aspects. The fact that the expanded maternity health law has been passed is a great leap forward for women. That they are able to get 105 days of paid leave and can extend another 30 days of unpaid leave is a great move forward because we need to go back to nurturing that family structure that’s being broken by, number 1, Philippine divorce of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) that have to leave, we’re talking about 10 million Filipinos leaving the country. These things might seem like they only benefit the mothers, but it benefits everyone. It’s been said that when you support women, you support half the world’s population. I think I see that there are moves. I would like to see the divorce bill passed, finally allowing women to have a say on who they want to be with at any time in their lives, that girls will understand that everything is their choice—not their parents’, not their school’s. Somehow, all of these misogynistic issues facing us have also sparked a debate and forced women to stand for women.
If you could use one word to describe women in East Asia Pacific what would it be?
Women in the region are leaders in their communities. I’m not talking about elected positions. I’m talking about in villages, in homes. They’re like chieftains in many cases. They are the neck to the head of communities.
Women have always been the force of radical change. How many female governors have ruled Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte? Many! The women take on a very strong role.
That quiet strength, that is the driving force. They don’t speak before a pulpit and declare this and that. They don’t declare themselves dictators. They just do.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.