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Autonomy: The Precious Resource for Filipino Women

The mining industry is having dire consequences for women in the Philippines, encroaching on their land and causing domestic conflict. Filipina activist Judith Pasimio is encouraging indigenous women to stand up for their natural resources and human rights.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Women leaders from the Manobo ethnic group, from Agusan del Sur on the island of Mindanao.LILAK

In the Philippines, indigenous women are often pushed to the sidelines in conversations surrounding development, especially when it comes to mining on their ancestral lands. Most of the nation’s indigenous people live on the southern island of Mindanao, where mining operations have encroached upon precious resources and, in some cases, even led to harassment and murders of tribal leaders.

This harms women the most. They lose their jobs and livelihoods when mining tears apart close-knit communities that depend on their land for farming. It also shifts family dynamics as tribal men often have to rely on precarious seasonal jobs to support the area’s mining industry, leading to family conflict and even domestic violence.

Judith Pasimio has worked for years to defend indigenous women’s land rights and access to natural resources in the Philippines. She has overseen regional and national indigenous women’s gatherings and helped build solidarity. She got her start at the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, part of the Friends of the Earth Philippines network, and went on to work with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development on the Task Force on Rural Indigenous Women.

Now the coordinator for LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights), which supports the struggles of indigenous women, Pasimio spoke with Women & Girls Hub about the great toll mining takes on women’s lives:

Women & Girls Hub: What are the biggest environmental issues that indigenous women face in the Philippines?

Judith Pasimio: It’s basically the depletion of most of their natural resources – water, timber and minerals – from their ancestral domain, due to development. These are the biggest threats now.

In the 1990s, it was logging. And then, starting in 1995 onwards, it became mining. It’s commercial, large-scale mining, from gold to nickel to copper, in open-pit mines. This affects everything from the forests to access to clean water, because they just damage all the water systems.

In the Philippines, the minerals are mostly where the indigenous peoples are. Fifty-two percent of the ancestral domains overlap with mining. Also, the government has historically neglected these areas. So, when you have big companies coming in, promising and providing you with basic social services, from health to education to infrastructure, and then they come and say, “Oh, by the way, we’re putting up mines – do you want us or not?” that automatically binds the community to say yes.

And, because they want to observe and respect customary norms, they go through the tribal leaders, who are mostly men. The indigenous women say, “We know what’s going to happen, we know that it’s going to affect our water system, we know that we won’t be able to access our food sources and livelihood in the forests.” But they’re not being heard. It’s the men who are consulted and wooed by the corporations. So women’s voices are not heard.

Women & Girls Hub: What happens when the development finally comes?

Pasimio: The companies offer most of the jobs to men. And, by the way, the jobs are not even secure. These are seasonal jobs, like clearing the roads and carrying boulders.

The work they give to women includes laundry and kitchen-based work. So basically, it’s taking the domestic work of women to the mines. They want them to take care of the miners. So there’s no development, no progress.

Because of such poverty and the influx of men from outside, there is a need for entertainment. Women are being brought in for prostitution and as servers. This is not the kind of work that would provide dignity for the women. Either you perpetuate domesticity, or you introduce them to prostitution.

And in some cases that we’ve looked into, they simply just have to migrate. Because there are no vegetable farms, no gardens and no jobs being offered, they have to migrate as household help or for masseuse jobs.

Judith Pasimio (middle) with Kakay Tolentino (left), an indigenous woman from the Dumagat community, as she delivers a statement during the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which runs in Geneva from July 4 to July 22. (WLB)
Judith Pasimio (middle) with Kakay Tolentino (left), an indigenous woman from the Dumagat community, as she delivers a statement during the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which runs in Geneva from July 4 to July 22. (WLB)

Women & Girls Hub: How does this affect the family structure?

Pasimio: Because there are differences of opinion between men and women, whether they want the mining or not, there’s a division in families. There’s documentation showing this has been the cause of violence within the home.

One story that really hit me was this: on an island in the Visayas [archipelago in the western Philippines], women were working in the farms, they had a source of income, and they were contributing to the family. But then mining came, and there was nothing to farm. They couldn’t grow vegetables. So the men as seasonal workers would have the jobs and the money. And the women there were so disempowered. Suddenly, they were not contributing anything. That changed the dynamics between the husbands and the wives, which caused domestic violence as well.

Women & Girls Hub: What can be done to make the situation better for women?

Pasimio: It’s really assertion of your rights. Assertion of your right to say no. A lot of communities don’t realize that they actually can say no. That’s one of the first things we really need to impress upon people – that you have the right to say no.

It’s also to create a network that would make them not feel intimidated by all of this. We’re doing that, but it has to scale up. For example, we held regional gatherings of indigenous women. After that, they felt emboldened and had policy dialogues in the provinces. Some of them said it’s the first time that someone outside of their community actually talked to them. But we can’t sustain this because of the lack of resources. If we can keep doing this kind of negotiation, that would be a really big step.

Women & Girls Hub: How do you help women do this negotiation?

Pasimio: We go to the communities and talk about big laws in ways that make it easy for people who do not speak the legal language to understand. Also, because the laws in the Philippines are in English, they’re not really that vigilant in translating them, even if it’s required. So, one of our latest projects is the translation of the Magna Carta of Women and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, to make them more understandable. But more than the laws, it’s actually sharing the concept of human rights and rights assertion.

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