When we think of Islam, oftentimes we think of the Middle East or countries like Algeria or Pakistan. But there are 2.2 billion Muslims in the world, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, and the faith is widespread in Southeast Asia.
In the Philippines, a primarily Christian country, there has been a decades-long violent conflict between the government and Muslim rebels fighting for recognition and governance of their homeland on the island of Mindanao, the second largest island in the country. For just as long, there have been countless women — Muslims, Christians and indigenous — fighting to create peace. Their faces never grab the world’s attention unless the bombs are exploding around them or they are being forced out of their homes and off their land because of the violence.
One of these women is Mary Ann Arnado, the head of an organization known as the Mindanao Peoples Caucus. She came of age under martial law imposed by the repressive and corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos, but growing up in a sheltered Catholic household she didn’t know of the Muslim and communist insurgencies until she entered college.
The five-foot tall Filipina — five feet of playful gumption and well-worn wisdom — dedicates her life to bringing the voices of women together to create a dialogue for peace and justice. But she doesn’t speak on behalf of others either. Asked once what her young daughters thought of her work, she replied with an infectious smile, “You should ask them.”
Mary Ann’s insistence on letting women speak for themselves stems from a story. In the early 2000s, during a brutal battle in Mindanao, Mary Ann came across a mother whose child had been killed. Passing through a village to offer help to those who had lost their homes, she spotted the woman, expressionless, sitting next to something covered by a sheet on the ground. It was the woman’s baby boy.
But the mother showed no emotion. “I cried and cried until I realized that no one else was crying. The mother was just sitting there,” Mary Ann recalls,. “I realized the situation was really like that. Women could not cry anymore — they had just lost that kind of spontaneity.” After years of experiencing the trauma of losing their loved ones and being repeatedly forced out of their homes, the women couldn’t express their feelings.
“At that moment,” Mary Ann asserts, “I encountered the violence and the impositions made on the lives of women. I mean that as women we are just at the receiving end of what men are doing to the world.” Mary Ann resolved then to make people in power hear the voices that you could no longer hear on the ground. They needed to know what violent conflict means in the day-to-day of holding families and communities together. And what peace looks like when women are listened to.In Mindanao, this is a challenging calling. The island is home to several armed conflicts, including the dominant one between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is fighting for the recognition of a Muslim homeland on the island. They have been in conflict for decades.
They have also been, simultaneously, in a peace process for years. In 2001, a ceasefire was agreed to by both sides, which called for teams to monitor the ceasefire. Mary Ann saw an opening. “Who better to be a ceasefire monitor than someone who is going to be directly affected by a violation of it?”
As a lawyer and peace activist since university, she had been working primarily with women from the three major communities on the island — Muslims, indigenous people and Christians — in the Mindanao Peoples Caucus (MPC). “We wanted to participate in the ceasefire committee to help ensure that the ceasefire agreement would be implemented on the ground, right into our own communities.”
But the officials — all men — in the ceasefire committee simply laughed: You do not know anything about what we are discussing here. We are talking about military terms, military language, and situations which are far beyond your comprehension as women. This is not your place.
Mary Ann was used to such excuses — ones that had no basis in the reality that Muslim, Christian and indigenous women had been suffering over the long decades of the conflict. They did not need a military lexicon to understand the bombardments that shook their villages. They did not need to be able to recite the chain of command in order to see how commanders allowed their soldiers to rape them, burn their homes, kill their family members. Mindanaoan women had just as much right, if not more, to be part of the solution.
So despite the committee’s refusal, Mary Ann and the MPC created Bantay Ceasefire (Ceasefire Watch), a community-based monitoring group that would remain independent and impartial between the warring sides. The few members conducted their first investigative mission in 2003 in the conflict-ridden province of Maguindanao.
When they shared their findings with army commanders, the reaction was lukewarm but not quite hostile — almost as if this small group of ordinary and, to this point, voiceless citizens were just a passing fad, nothing to be taken seriously.
But Bantay Ceasefire proved them wrong, expanding from that small but determined team of civilians to nearly 1,000 volunteers — men and women, Christians, Muslims and indigenous people — covering seven provinces in Mindanao. One volunteer, Brenda Alvarico, told the news network Al-Jazeera in 2008. “I am going into this danger zone, entering the jaws of death, because it is my only hope to highlight what is happening on the ground. … I do this because poor people like us mean nothing to those in power.”
Four years after Bantay Ceasefire’s first mission, representatives, including Mary Ann, were asked to join an independent fact-finding committee after a particularly brutal incident where 14 army soldiers were killed, including 11 who were beheaded and 2 castrated. The army blamed the MILF and the area was on the brink of war. While the other members of the investigative committee concerned themselves with traditional security matters — the positions of the armed groups and the weapons used — Mary Ann and the Bantay Ceasefire members turned their attention to human security, namely sexual violence. That approach led to the proper identification of the perpetrators: It was the ruthless and extreme Abu Sayyaf Group that killed the soldiers, in revenge for the rape of a young woman in their community.
Well-respected by the military and rebel groups alike for its record of impartiality and expertise, Bantay Ceasefire was invited to be part of the formal International Monitoring Team (IMT) of the ceasefire — the outgrowth of the official monitoring bodies that Mary Ann and the MPC were initially laughed out of and denied access to. “… [I]n terms of engagement, participation, recognition of our efforts, and the opportunity to be able to directly engage those who are having control over combatants … that’s a big victory.”
Mary Ann and the MPC then established an All-Women Contingent of peacekeepers as part of the IMT — unprecedented in the Philippines and rare in the world. When skeptics ask if it will make a difference, Mary Ann answered: “Why is it that women should prove they could make a difference, while the men have long been making a total mess of our security situation?”
In the years since her encounter with the expressionless woman, Mary Ann has been lauded around the world for bringing the voices of grassroots women to the halls of power, the tables of negotiation and the lines of ceasefire. She won the first International Peace Prize given by the humanitarian and development organization World Vision, and the U.S. Embassy — with former Philippine President Corazon Aquino — recognized her public service through the Benigno S. Aquino Fellowship.
When she received the World Vision award, the press interviewed her oldest daughter, Ihip, but not Isa, the youngest. “Why was I not interviewed?” the latter asked. “I am also her daughter. I also have something to say!” Clearly, Mary Ann is grooming another generation of women to assert their voices in a transformed Mindanao.