SHE CROUCHED in the foxhole that she and loyal Berto had dug with their bare hands, breathing heavily as she tried to fit her eight-month pregnant body sideways into its shallow hold. Above the roar of gunfire, she could hear the invading soldiers shout out the name that had come to be identified with her.
Listen to the interview with Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda
At near sundown, Berto, a former soldier from Mindanao who had defected to the New People’s Army (NPA) and sort of acted as her security, crept up to her from his own foxhole. “We have to leave.” She nodded. She knew it was only a matter of time before the soldiers discovered them. Berto said, “I’ll cover you as you make your way up the hill.” He had just fired two shots when a barrage of mortar fire rained down on them. Before her eyes, she saw her trusted aide dissolve into a mass of blood.
It was over in a matter of seconds. As the jubilant soldiers led her down the hill, some CAFGU (Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit) members began grabbing at her long hair and snipping off some strands. They had captured the famed Kumander Liway and every lock was worthy of an amulet.
Today the long tresses are gone. Yet the memories remain, even if Ma. Cecilia Flores Oebanda, 46, has come a long way since that fateful day in September 1982, when the military overran her guerrilla camp in an eight-hour gunbattle in the mountainous interior of Hinobaan, part of the chain of six towns in Negros Occidental called CHICKS, where poverty and insurgency had long fed on each other.
At her air-conditioned office, a long shelf displays a collection of plaques and pictures that portray a new life. Occupying pride of place is a big frame that reads “Anti-Slavery Award, 2005.” Last November 29, Oebanda received the award from Anti-Slavery International in London for the pioneering work of the Visayan Forum among the Philippines’ modern-day slaves — the domestic helpers who are forced to work in Filipino households for little or no pay and are constantly at the mercy of their employers.
Oebanda is the president, executive director, and moving spirit behind the Visayan Forum. Set up in 1990 by former political prisoners and activists from the Visayas, the NGO evolved from discussing the plight of the four million Visayans in Metro Manila to focusing on internal migrants from the Visayan region and elsewhere, many of whom are female and employed as maids.
Instead of organizing poor peasants and indigenous tribes that once filled up her days, Oebanda now devotes her time and energy to making visible a sector whose lowly, scattered, and hidden plight has kept them from the public eye. She is especially proud of the formation in 1995 of Sumapi, the first domestic workers’ association in the Philippines.
The rise of NGOs, fuelled largely by activists who were in the anti-Marcos movement, is one of the major developments in the post-EDSA era. Like other activists formerly in the underground who have directed their energies to NGOs, Oebanda sees this route as a valid way of working for social reforms.
“I see my work as an instrument of social transformation,” she says. “I think protecting the domestic workers, teaching them their rights, providing them empowerment in terms of recognizing their worth in society through their economic contributions, somehow, it’s part of the social transformation we fight for today to achieve in our country, but at another level, another approach. What I’m fighting for today, I see as an extension of what I fought for before.”
OEBANDA’S OWN personal struggle began in the slums of Bacolod City, where her family lived. Her father was illiterate and her mother was sickly. The second and eldest girl of 12 children, she started working at the age of five.
“I helped sell fish and I was also a scavenger along with my siblings,” she says. “Until now when I talk of hardship, I can still feel the warm drippings down my face from the basket of fish that I carried on my head. I can still smell the stench of the garbage that clung to my clothes and my skin. That’s my history, that gives me all the reflection that no matter how hard you work, if you come from a very poor family, you have a very slim chance of getting out of that situation.”
But a combination of innate intelligence, diligent study, and swimming skills honed in the waters of the Bacolod wharf enabled the young girl to get out of the morass of poverty. “What I appreciated most with my parents, especially my mother, was that they valued education,” says Oebanda. “I remember that even if my slippers were of different colors, one red, the other yellow, she required us to go to school.” She made it to the Negros Occidental National Provincial High School, a top pilot school.
A swimming scholarship then got her to the Colegio de San Agustin in Bacolod, but she would be unable to finish her commerce course “because I was at a rally almost every day.” Her faith and spirituality, a legacy from her religious mother (who would die later while Oebanda was up in the mountains), had found a new dimension in the teachings of liberation theology. She became an organizer for basic Christian communities as well as other sectors. But a crackdown in Bacolod in 1976 forced her to flee to the mountainous far south of Negros where the then fledgling NPA, made up of young students and other idealists, had found a home among the poor in the CHICKS area.
It was in these hinterlands, in the midst of meetings and more mass organizing where she met her husband, who was into education work. It was here where she bore her first child and experienced the agony of leaving him in the care of relatives to protect him from her dangerous life. It was also here where stories about the young, beautiful, and gutsy “Kumander Liway,” one of three women leaders of the Negros underground movement, spread throughout the island. It was here as well where she was captured together with her husband that fateful day 23 years ago.
In the four years they would spend in jail at the regional constabulary headquarters in Iloilo City, she recalls, “Every time I went to sleep, I felt there were fireworks exploding in front of me, and the face of Berto would appear. I would struggle to breathe and I would wake up crying.”
It was the memory of Berto’s ultimate sacrifice as well as of the people who had made her life in the mountains possible, that kept her resolve. “What I can’t forget and appreciate to this day is, no matter how hard life was, the masses followed us wherever we went,” she says. “They would cook yams for us, or boil eggs. During the times when the military operations were particularly intense, but you had a chance to pass by their huts, they welcomed you. Even the seeds they were to plant, they would cook into food for you. Actually, this was my motivation. That if I owed loyalty to anyone, it was to the masses.”
The remarkable comradeship of those years also infused in her a positive outlook. “Life wasn’t easy in the movement,” says Oebanda. “But I did not see weariness in my comrades nor did I hear complaints. They were still happy, we were all happy. At the end of the day, you would sit down together. You talk, you laugh, you dream. Maybe that’s the very important thing-not only dreaming, but willing to give yourself to your country.”
ON FEBRUARY 26, 1986, Oebanda, along with other political prisoners across the country, was released from jail. But the stresses of prison life and her decision to personally attend to her growing brood and make them her topmost priority had put a strain on her marriage. She and her husband eventually parted ways.
With four children in tow, including two who had been born in jail, she struggled to make a new life in Manila. She was able to put her kids through school with the help of supportive brothers who had made it good. But the call of service was already in her blood and too strong to ignore. The Ormoc tragedy in 1991, which killed 8,000 people in huge flashfloods and landslides, sparked the first joint activity of the Visayan Forum, which was now drawing more of her time. Tapping a growing circle of contacts among Visayan professionals and students in Metro Manila, they were able to send three planeloads of relief goods and supplies to Ormoc, Leyte.
This was also the time when cases of abused housemaids began being brought to the Forum’s attention. Oebanda recounts cases of eight year olds whom they had rescued, their backs and thighs pressed with a hot iron by their employer. There were also cases of rape, those whose bodies were burned with cigarette butts, or sprayed with a fire extinguisher. She say, “I was like an umang, a crab, who had a backpack with me wherever I went, and planted myself wherever there was some vacant place in an office where I could make use of a computer to document these cases.”
Today the Visayan Forum now has its own national office in Manila — plus a network of over 70 staff workers, six regional offices, and seven project areas at strategic locations around the highways and ports. Its program provides crisis services to child domestics and exploited adult househelp, such as a telephone hotline, medical and legal assistance, and shelters.
“Our focus is child domestics because of their vulnerability, but our advocacy is for the whole sector,” says Oebanda. The Intenational Labor Organization estimates that locally, 2.5 million women work as domestic helpers in private households, constituting 14 percent of total wage earners in the private sector. More than 250,000 are hired overseas legally. The National Statistics Office reports around 300,000 children working as domestic help.
While her current work keeps her busy, Oebanda says she has no bitterness or regret over her years spent in the movement. She muses, “The stages of my life are written and carved in the names of my children — Eric, who is his father’s junior; Kip, which is short for “dakip” or capture; Malaya, which means freedom; and Ani, which means harvest because she was born just after Edsa 1.”
And through her work among the most silent and neglected by society, Oebanda has added more children to her brood, giving them a name and a face for everybody to see. — Fides Lim