Women’s Front: Who defends human rights defenders?


New year supposedly means fresh start and newly gained energy for most of us but for the women human rights defenders who continue to suffer unabated attacks from state security forces, the year started with escalated stress and anxiety. There is no greater suffering than to start a year facing continuous threats to your life and security and be treated like criminals when all you do is exhaust your energy to serve the under-served and work for a truly free and democratic society.

As we recall, on August 2017, five women human rights defenders namely Sarah Abellon-Alikes, Sherry Mae Soledad, Joanne Villanueva, Rachel Mariano, and Asia Isabella Gepte had been in turmoil facing the trumped up charges filed against them by the 7th Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The charges included the said women in a gun-firing incident which allegedly happened between the New Peoples Army (NPA) and the AFP. Several more trumped up criminal cases were added in the succeeding months.

Due to high levels of anxiety and stress facing these attacks, Asia, a member of Binnadang, a support group for indigenous peoples rights based in Manila, prematurely gave birth to her first child. Rachel Mariano, a community health worker who has been facilitating services for people in depressed communities in the region where government services are nil was hospitalized in the last week of December because of a nervous breakdown.

While their relatives, friends, colleagues from human rights organizations, support groups from the church and academe try their best to provide strength and encouragement, these cannot fully assure the traumatized families of the women under attack, especially that most of them have young children. Also, the family of one of the accused, Joanne, has been subjected to unabated surveillance. Their kin who was a long time indigenous women organizer and currently a staff of the Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center (CWEARC) has been treated like a criminal. Her parents are agonizingly worried. Because of Joanne’s case, they cannot meet her freely like any other family should.

Last January 6 at around 5pm, Joanne was accosted by a man who introduced himself as a“Eric” from the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA). “Eric” tried to convince Joanne at the same time threatened her saying that if she “cooperates with them, he will take care of her” otherwise she will end up like others who are now in jail. Joan however vehemently rejected the proposal and berated the intelligence officer’s proposition saying that she is not guilty of the charges filed against her so she does not need to do anything in exchange for her acquittal. Also, she stressed that cooperating with NICA runs contrary to her principles.

We believe that these continuing attacks against women human rights defenders are part of the systematic ploy of the US-Duterte regime to silence those who question government policies and programs deemed detrimental to the lives of the poor and marginalized and are resisting the oppressive system. This is certainly the state’s plan to malign, and discredit those who have embraced a life to serve the underprivileged.

Right after President Rodrigo Duterte openly declared a crackdown on what the government accused as “legal fronts” of the CCP-NPA in December 2017, human rights and land rights defenders have been under constant threat. Aside from the trumped-up charges, activists not only in the Cordillera but all over the Philippines have been subjected to intensified threats, harassment, intimidation, surveillance and are relentlessly put in danger by either being arrested or even extra-judicially killed.

On December 12, 2017, a fellow land rights and human rights activist Sherwin De Vera who was very active in various activities in support of the women under attack was illegally arrested in Ilocos Sur while on board a bus going home. He is charged with rebellion and was jailed.

Just like what happened during the time of the Marcos dictatorship and the fascist regimes that came after, it is again an open season for hunting anybody whom they see as terrorists or enemies of the state. These waves of attacks against women and other human rights defenders are attempts to silence any kind of dissent. Martial Law has not been declared in the entire country but in actually the national situation screams of Martial Law.

History however proves that fascism will never silence the people. These fascist attacks will only spawn further dissent. Tyranny and oppression have bred and will always breed resistance.

Hence, we again enjoin the public to defend our rights and the defenders of our human rights as well. Let us demand government to immediately drop the trumped-up charges against the women human rights defenders and free Sherwin De Vera. Together, let us call on the government to stop persecuting political activists. Let us actively take part in the campaign to protect our civil and political rights.

In the face of the crackdown against activists, we call on all women human rights defenders to never doubt our aspiration which is to liberate women from the current oppressive society and work for a truly free and democratic Philippine society. Let us remain steadfast and vigilant in safeguarding our rights, dignity and life itself. # nordis.net


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