THE NAYSAYERS said they couldn’t do it, but in the end, the women negotiators in the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) showed that they had what some of their male counterparts didn’t – grace and steel.
Peace advocates and civil society organizations on Tuesday paid tribute to the women who fought for peace – and won it – in a forum on The Women at the Peace Table at the Ateneo de Manila University. The forum highlights the role played by women in an arena long controlled and dominated by men – conflict, and conflict resolution.
The job certainly did not come easy for Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government peace panel that clinched the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF last March 27. Ferrer, appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III in December 2012 as panel chairperson, had to confront doubts not just from her counterparts in the MILF, but also from within.
Director Ilona Gracia Jalijali, head of the government peace panel secretariat, recalled how the MILF panel appeared to have “a problem” with Ferrer’s appointment at the start. However, the MILF panel indicated to the Palace that they would respect the President’s decision to appoint Ferrer. Both panels would eventually recognize the importance of earning that respect during the tough negotiations that lay ahead.
Jalijali praised the MILF for “their willingness, even though they were uncomfortable with the prospect of having a woman as a chairperson (of the government panel), their willingness to accept it and to adjust to it.”
“We knew that they (MILF) had a problem with it internally, but they found a way to communicate to Malacanang that they would respect the choice of the President whether she is a woman or not. That was a kind of professionalism, a willingness to open yourself up to goodwill and good faith negotiations,” Jalijali said.
Ferrer proved to be a tough negotiator, with the aggressiveness to push when needed, and the grace to pull back when necessary. Ironically, Ferrer indicates that it was she who had to push her male colleagues in the panel to be more aggressive.
Government peace panel member Senen Bacani, for example, was described as the “coolest” in the group. Bacani relates that sometimes, he would have to remind Ferrer of the need to soften her position. During one heated round of negotiations, Ferrer recalls, she felt Bacani tapping her under the table to urge her to soften up.
“We needed our men to also be more aggressive than (they have been),” Ferrer said, drawing cheers from the forum participants.
Ferrer said the presence of women in the government negotiating panel was part of “an opening up process” that showed both panels the need to have a broader view of gender and women’s issues.
“This is one of the opening up processes,” Ferrer said. “At the end of it, I would say that they now have a better appreciation of what we have been trying to put forward in terms of women’s issues and gender issues, but with all the sensitivities, all the cultural and religious sensitivities.”
Peace Process adviser Teresita ‘Ging’ Deles however said this does not mean that the gender barrier had already been broken – more likely, it was the women who had the perseverance, determination, attention to detail, and persistence to get things done. In the long history of the quest for peace, Deles said she noticed how it was always the women in civil society who held the course steadily while the men came and went. It was a kind of dedication that bore fruit last March 27 when government and the MILF signed the peace deal.
Deles pointed out that since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the issue of peace had become “a very seasonal issue.”
“When there is a problem, people would come to the meetings. When it is quiet, they do not come,” she said. All throughout this time, Deles said three women held the fort – Risa Hontiveros, Karen Tanada, and herself.
“That is how, in the peace movement, the women became the mainstays. It is a cause where you have to be there in good times or bad. You do the housework of the peace movement, you do the leadership. In the beginning, women were not so confident about issues on security. But since we were always there, we stood up and took on the role,” Deles said.
Undersecretary Zenonida Brosas, head of the technical working group on normalization, relates how the women members of the panel had to work with a conservative rebel group dominated by men. For example, Brosas related how they were nervous at the start when they were tasked to engage MILF senior and battle-hardened commanders in the discussion on normalization. Normalization is the process of having rebel groups lay down their guns and embrace a peaceful process.
In the end, the women found common ground with the warriors by talking about family and home. These were issues that everyone could relate to, whether warrior or peacemaker. After all, family and home had to be the only real reasons why people go to war in the first place.
But the female panel members had just as much difficulty with their own side, with the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “These are all men who are used to the chain of command,” one panel officer said. “You need to have a lot of grace and steel to keep them on the line.”
But there were light moments too to highlight the intricacies of the gender issue in the peace talks. When both the government and the MILF finally agreed on the wording of the peace agreement, Ferrer went up to MILF negotiating panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal and asked him: “No hug?”
“After (that agreement), Iye (Ferrer) offered Chairman Iqbal: No hug?” related Jalijali to the cheers of the forum participants.
“That is how you see that things have progressed,” Jalijali said. “Because now I think he is comfortable hugging.” This last remark drew loud applause from the audience. However, it is still unclear if Iqbal agreed to a hug from Ferrer.
By the last leg of the peace negotiations, however, it appeared clear that things were also changing from the side of the MILF.
Jalijali said it came to a point when the MILF started bringing in an alternate MILF panel negotiator who is also a woman. “In the previous tables with the MNLF and in the beginning with the MILF, you don’t see women in their group. But they were able to bring in women, and you can see they also respect women, and the important role that they contribute,” Jalijali said.
After the forum, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process also launched the magazine Kababaihan at Kapayapaan, a bi-annual magazine on the role of women in the peace process. The magazine, edited by Paulynn Paredes Sicam, will highlight the role of women as peacebuilders, not just in negotiations, but in the field where peace matters the most.