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From Combatant to Champion for Women and Girls

Through Australia’s support, female ex-combatants in conflict areas in Mindanao find a new purpose

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Head held high. Norkisa is proud to empower other women despite the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. © UNFPA Philippines

“Before the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), the purpose of my life was mainly to support the combatants. Now, it is different,” says Norkisa Mangaho, a 48-year-old former member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB).

BIWAB was an all-female supplementary force that constituted a part of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  Their main mission was to ensure the safety of the combatants by attending to their medical and other basic needs while also serving as a reserve force. Norkisa joined BIWAB for five years after returning to the Philippines from Saudi Arabia as an Overseas Filipino Worker.

Today, Norkisa is working to support women and girls in the BARMM against gender-based violence.

Armed conflict is over, but the fight against gender-based violence continues

The inauguration of the BARMM in March 2019 signified the end of the decades-long conflicts in the region between the government and several autonomist groups.

However, years of conflicts have left many women and girls at heightened risk to many forms of gender-based violence and other harmful practices, such as child marriage and sexual exploitation.

“Previously I wouldn’t intervene even when I saw someone harassing another person unless she or he is my family member, because in our community many have been taught not to meddle in other people’s business.” What changed Norkisa is her encounter with the “Women Friendly Space” – an initiative of the Australian Government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which are working together in promoting gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

Women Friendly Space, a platform for protection and empowerment, for women, by women

To help women and girls recover from the aftermath of conflict, the Australian Government supported UNFPA in March 2019 to operate three Women Friendly Spaces in and around Marawi. Since then, the project has provided some of the most vulnerable women and girls with ‘safe spaces’ where they get information about their rights, receive psychosocial support and referral services, and freely express themselves.

Through this initiative, facilitators – all women – engage community members in discussions on many different topics such as gender-based violence and child marriage, with a view of transforming inequitable gender beliefs and behaviours.

For female ex-combatants, the Women Friendly Space also supports their transition and integration into normal community life. It encourages them to play an active role in social rebuilding by helping their fellow women and girls to stand on their own and break free from violence and abuse.

“Now, when I see a woman or a girl being harassed, I intervene and try to solve the problem by using the knowledge and skills that I gained from the facilitator training,” says Norkisa.

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Norkisa sharing information about life-saving services with internally displaced women in Marawi © UNFPA Philippines

New reality by COVID-19, new strategy, new purpose

Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the restrictions associated with it brought some setbacks in Women Friendly Space operations and made it challenging for facilitators to reach women and girls who need their services more than ever.

Many women and girls under quarantine are not only stuck at home with their abusers, but also find it more difficult to seek help, as transportation and protection services provision are disrupted.

Recognising these additional challenges, the Australian Government and UNFPA further boosted their support to help Women Friendly Space facilitators adapt to the new landscape brought by COVID-19. The facilitators have now shifted to traditional modes of communications to ensure that life-saving information reaches the most vulnerable women and girls without putting them at risk of contracting COVID-19. For example, facilitators including Norkisa blast messages on women’s health, rights, and protection while inside a roving vehicle.

Through her journey from being an auxiliary combatant, to being a facilitator who teaches community members about gender-based violence and women’s rights, Norkisa finds herself transforming and empowered every day.

“I never imagined that there would be work like this for me. We may not exactly be the frontliners who are combating the coronavirus, but we are also at the frontline of building our community back better, by protecting and healing the most vulnerable women and girls,” Norkisa’s eyes show her pride, joy and determination.

Gender equality, women empowerment, and protecting the rights and dignity of people affected by a crisis, particularly women and children, are at the heart of Australia’s humanitarian action and advocacy.

Australia works with organisations such as United Nations Populations Fund to raise awareness on women’s rights, and empower women and girls to play an active role in social rebuilding and preventing gender-based violence.

This post was originally published on UNFPA Philippines.

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