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SHE TALKS PEACE: Women and Justice in BARMM

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 19 June) — Last week, The United Nations (UN) commended Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. for his role in advancing the Bangsamoro peace process as Presidential Pdviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity.  UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines Gustavo González cited Galvez’s “commitment and professionalism in peacebuilding efforts”.

I couldn’t agree more.  Sec Galvez’ support for the peace process has been instrumental in strengthening the foundation for peace in Muslim Mindanao.

The peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was no walk in the park.  The peace talks started under then President Fidel V. Ramos, lasting almost two decades with many ups and downs, many armed clashes caused by perceived violations of terms of the peace talks.  Finally, an agreement was signed under the late President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and a law was passed under President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.  This law, the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), was the foundation for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Regional Government, which came into being after a plebiscite in Muslim Mindanao.  The 2019 Bangsamoro autonomy plebiscite  ratified BOL and replaced the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao  (BARMM).  The plebiscite also determined the provinces and communities that would become part of BARMM.

The creation of the BARMM introduced a new system of government – a parliamentary system –  in the country.  The Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).  is the transition parliament mandated to pass the laws needed to enable parliamentary system to function.  This is a unique experiment in governance as the nation is under a unitary system but the BARMM region will be parliamentary.  Much work is required to ensure smooth governance.  

You may be interested to know that Bangsamoro and Muslim women lobbied hard for the passage of the law, demanding that their rights be respected, that women be supported to be part of decision making.  I remember well the interesting meetings that we had with then MILF Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal.  (Thanks Chair IQ, for your support!)

Lobbying by civil society had positive results: women, youth, and indigenous communities each have reserved seats in Parliament, and at least one woman must be appointed to the Cabinet. The law ensures an allocation of at least five per cent of the budget for programs on gender and development. It calls for addressing the rights of women, and for women’s needs to be considered in rehabilitation and development programmes for internally-displaced people. 

However, in BARMM, women’s participation and promotion still need to be ensured.  During the pandemic, there was a rise in women’s radicalization and gender-based violence due to conflicts including “rido” or clan feuds.  Women’s access to justice and opportunities remains weak.  And yet the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda is crucial not just to BARMM but all conflict-affected communities.

Our guest on “She Talks Peace” is the perfect resource to understand the issues.  Atty. Sha Elijah B. Dumama-Alba, who placed 3rd in the Special Shariah Bar Examinations in 2018, is the Attorney General (AG) of the BARMM. AG Lai, as she is fondly called, was part of the 2019 Obama Leaders Class in Asia, recognized by Tatler Asia as one of the Gen T 2020 Leaders of Tomorrow and an Asia Peace Innovators Fellow 2020.

AG Lai served as Deputy Executive Director of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, and Attorney VI of the Civil Service Commission – ARMM before being appointed AG in 2019.   Atty Lai is the co-chair of the Joint Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Relations Body, that ensures governance in BARMM and the national government are in sync.  As the Attorney General, she is the Chief Legal Counsel of the Regional Government.  She facilitates the gradual phasing out of the employees of the ARMM as it transitions to the BARMM.   

I asked her what challenges she faced in BARMM.  She  gets to sit at the same table with powerful men. At first, she questioned whether she belonged at the table.  Today, she speaks her mind, comfortable that the BARMM leadership does listen to what she has to say.  That is good news indeed.  Another challenge:  physical security.  The shift from ARMM to BARMM threatened the employment of many who belonged to armed clans so she had to beef up her security – couldn’t even go out alone.  

Then there is the matter of ensuring that national law and Islamic law or Sharia are in sync.  I asked her, for instance, about laws like the banning child marriage, which is in effect in many Muslim majority countries – even Saudi Arabia.  After consultations with the leadership, religious leaders and other sectors, she had to present the position of BARMM to Congress – that BARMM be exempted as it is governed by Sharia.  She had to present the official position.  I know that situation well, having been part of the Cabinet of former President Fidel V. Ramos: you have to support the position of the administration.  If you cannot, then resign – don’t ever take a public position contrary to the official position.

AG Lai is optimistic that BARMM laws will, in the long run, respond to the needs of all constituents.  For instance, there are positive developments with regards to women’s access to justice and opportunities.  The Bangsamoro Women’s Commission under Chair Bainon Karon, also a member of the BTA, has been busy with consultations to ensure that the needs and priorities of women are brought to the attention of the leadership and are responded to.   

AG Lai shared that a recent assessment shows that the Sharia Courts have become a women’s court – with most cases dealing with women’s cases (divorce, inheritance, among others).  The Regional Government has instituted a mechanism – the Regional Interagency Council Against Trafficking (RIACT), expanding its mandate to include violence against women.  There are structural challenges, she acknowledges, but together with the BWC and civil society, she is confident that women’s access to justice, rights and participation will be greatly improved. 

She says that BARMM is slowly changing the view that women are victims of conflict to partners for peace.   But more needs to be accomplished in BARMM.

Want to know what the men in her life think about her position and work?  What her dad, DOH Undersecretary Abdullah Dumama, did when Lai said she wanted to be a lawyer and not a doctor? What her husband says?  Then listen to Atty Lai on “She Talks Peace”.  


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(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights, and democracy)

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