by JASS on May 31, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Written by Mikas Matsuzawa

With President Donald Trump poised to pull the US out the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a hard-won global commitment to reduce carbon emissions, many fear the consequences for vulnerable communities and those already experiencing climate change related challenges. According to Global Witness, indigenous and rural women are not only some of the most impacted by climate change but also among the most targeted activists for defending their land, forests and rivers against unregulated destructive industries such as mining, logging and hydropower. In Southeast Asia, defending the environment (including land rights and water) is one of the most dangerous forms of activism. In the following blog, Mikas demonstrates why as she interviews activists from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, who despite the risks they face, continue defend their territories, livelihoods, and rights.

Piya Macliing Malayao sat on the pavement, teary-eyed and bleeding. If she had her way, she would have been standing up to speak before the thousand tribal minorities and rights activists gathered in the streets. However, minutes before, a police van rammed into her and a dozen other protesters in an attempt to break up their peaceful demonstration.

The “Lakbayan” or “People’s Journey” organized the demonstration in Manila as part of the Philippine indigenous peoples march across the country to protest and assert their rights against the militarization and plunder of their ancestral lands.

Malayao is an Igorot, a member from a mountainous tribe in the northern Philippines. She is the Secretary General of Katribu, a national alliance of indigenous peoples’ organizations that brings forth the issues faced by tribal communities to the public’s attention both nationally and internationally.

She cannot forget the sound of the thud each time the police vehicle ran over a protestor. The van hit her legs. “I am angered by the brutality of the police. I could not walk for a few days because of the pain. I couldn’t function properly,” she said in Filipino.

Despite the harrowing experience, Malayao is firm in her resolve to demand her rights and the rights of her people. “These forms of violence wouldn’t end even if I stopped. On the contrary, it’s a victory for us if I continue,” she said.

The 27 year-old leader cited the example of the successful campaign of the Igorots to halt the construction of the Chico Dam on their lands. The dam was a top-priority project of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from the 70’s to the early 80’s. Construction of the dam would have inundated their ancestral lands. The indigenous peoples won an historic victory when they forced the government to stop the project in the 80s.

Land is life to indigenous peoples, to lose land, is to lose their heritage,” Malayao explained. Unfortunately, protecting their resource-rich lands against mining and logging interests has been a constant struggle for tribal minorities in the Philippines.

Smear campaigns from streets to courts

In 2015, 700 Lumads, non-Muslim indigenous peoples in Mindanao, fled their homes and sought refuge at a church compound in Davao City after the Armed Forces of the Philippines  moved into their communities with the pretext of fighting against guerrilla forces.

Soon after, the government charged the rights activists and church clergy who helped the Lumad families, with kidnapping, illegal detention and human trafficking. Among the accused was Cristina Palabay, a Manila-based rights monitor for Karapatan. “In the Philippine context, women human rights defenders are not only vilified as ‘terrorists’ or as ‘enemies of the state,’ we are also branded as ‘witches’ or ‘destroyers of families’ because while we uphold and fight for human and people's rights, we also fight for the right to divorce; right to health, including reproductive health; and the non-sexist portrayal of women in media and in advertising,” Palabay said.

Where violent political conflict affects daily life in the Philippines , words are powerful. An adjective can elevate a woman’s social standing or condemn her to social censure. A noun can paint her either as a friend or an enemy — a critical distinction in conflict zones.

Women activists confront traditions that dictate the role women  should play in the family and community. Philippine society largely maintains the outdated belief that a woman’s “proper” place is at home. "Women human rights defenders face twice the threats facing male human rights defenders, because of the double standards and the additional layer of oppression we face as women,” Palabay added.

Women defenders are frequently threatened by members of their own communities, and even their families, who see their work as a challenge to the traditional role of women.

Waewrin Buangern, called Jo, belongs to the organization Rak Ban Haeng, which means “We love Ban Haeng”. It’s a fitting name for a community organization that works to oppose a Lignite mining company in the village of Ban Haeng in the Ngao district of the Lampang province in northern Thailand. Lignite is a low-grade type of coal and the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

Since 2010, the group has been speaking out against the operations of the mining company Green Yellow Co. Ltd. They fear the impact of the mining activities on the health and livelihoods of the people in the village.

Buangern was placed under surveillance by police and has faced intimidation and threats for defending her community’s land.  

Representatives from the mining company paid a visit to the school, where she works as a teaching assistant for children with special needs. They pressured the school director until the director warned Buangern that her work is controversial and could tarnish the image of their institution.

When that didn’t stop Banguern, the company turned to bribes. Using her kin as mediators, the company offered her money and a new car to quit opposing the mining project.

Global Witness’ On Dangerous on Ground Report showed that the majority of the killings of 42 land and environmental defenders in 2015 were linked to the mining industry. The report noted that the actual death toll might be higher, since many of the killings occurred in remote villages or deep in rainforests, and thus may not have been reported as related to human rights activism.

In spite of the risks, Buangern never considered giving up. “Although victory is still far from sight, what I know is that we have not lost yet,” she said. Buangern fights to ensure a future where young people in her community can still enjoy land untainted by the anticipated environmental destruction of the mining operation. “We have started working with the young people in our community to make them aware and teach them that they should defend their home,” she said.

Defying norms

In Southeast Asia, cultural norms and practices of most traditional societies work to keep women from taking on the roles that Malalya palabar and Banguern have taken on.

Helda Khasmy, a human rights defender who leads the Riau chapter of Indonesian women’s organization Seruni, explains how they use organizing and alliance-building as powerful strategies to push back. Khasmy said her organization addresses the interconnected issues faced by women in the community. Seruni-Riau provides services to women and children victims of sexual abuse and tackles pressing community concerns, such as the thick haze from forest fires that is affecting the villagers. The slash-and-burn techniques used by firms to clear the woodlands surrounding forest cause the wild fires.

She said the two companies responsible for the haze in the province of Riau, Asia Pacific Resources International (April) and Sinar Mas, are protected by the military. “You cannot defeat these companies just by putting a poster out. They have guns, they have the government army supporting them,” she said.

To publicize their issues, Khasmy writes in the newspapers, talks on local television and at university forums, and organizes young women on campuses. “We achieved small victories from the government, like services for haze victims, after a lot of local and international pressure. We push for national and international solidarity. Sometimes we build alliances with the lower levels of government to fight at the national level. When we demonstrate, I call the governor to give him a message. We ensure that he signs the commitment in front of us.They (local government) come out because we have large constituencies,” she explained.

This same strategy helped Malayao and other defenders during the police crackdown in Manila in Oct. 2016. Health workers who joined in support of indigenous people’s rights were the first responders to those injured. Paralegals also helped free 25 people illegally arrested by police that day.

We link the struggles and issues of indigenous peoples with other oppressed Filipinos as women, as workers, as peasants. We reach out to professionals, the church and academics. We are able to achieve greater victories through our collective struggle,” Khasmy added.

Even though her opponents view her as a troublemaker, Khasmy continues to speak out. “My problems cannot be solved by myself, but with all of the women in the local and national community. I want my children to lead good lives  in the future, but I cannot fight for only my children. I must organize every woman so they can do what I can do.”



Comments: 0
by Winnet Shamuyarira on January 27, 2017 at 10:38 am

As women, we are always vulnerable to violence but there are shades of violence directed to women who do not conform to the social expectations of what it means to be a good woman: lesbians, sex workers, feminists and all women who challenge the status quo in their countries, homes, society, become even more vulnerable to violence.” These are among the sentiments shared by women activists who were part of JASS Southern Africa (JASS SNA) Cross Movement Dialogue (CMD) that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The gathering brought together women activists from Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa to identify and map the key actors, politics and policies driving the “closing space for civil society” and increased backlash against women activists in Southern Africa. Across the region, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are forced to navigate an alarming increase in criminalization, harassment and intimidation as well as restrictions on civil society organizations which is fueling fear, and closing the space for democratic engagement.

Zooming into the operating context for WHRDs in Southern Africa

Across the region the levels of violence, vulnerabilities, risks and threats women face are on the rise. For example:

In Zimbabwe, there has been heavy militarization and securitization of civic involvement following a spate of protests that have rocked the country in the past few months. Police brutality and policing of women’s bodies has also increased with a recent picture of an unarmed woman being brutally assaulted by the anti-riot police in front of the Magistrates court in the country’s capital city, Harare.

In South Africa, the increasing levels of violence against, and murder of women and LBTIQ+ people continues to happen with impunity. Women land rights activists and farmworkers, in particular, continue to be at risk of violence by power holders including multinationals and the state. Education uprisings through #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall have made the strong leadership of black women visible, many of whom are black non-binary and black LGBTQI+ leaders who are equally vulnerable given their positioning.

In Malawi, women with albinism are in danger of “systemic extinction” due to persistent attacks fueled by superstitions. Discrimination and violence against the LBTIQ+ community and sex workers is rampant.

’Even in the face of adversity, we continue organizing’

JASS joins Fikize MarchThe aforementioned gives a grim picture of the organizing and operating contexts for WHRDs in Southern Africa. However, regardless, women continue fighting for justice. Women’s organizing and how they mobilize and organize in these fraught contexts, their wellbeing and how they sustain their activist fires and passions, how they understand the operating context, at local, regional and the global level has thus become ever so critical and as one participant put it, ‘even in the face of adversity, we continue organizing. The CMD was a space that allowed for activists to think about their operating contexts, their bodies, the meaning of cross movement work, solidarity in movements and what it means to learn from other resistance movements across the globe. The CMD was also a space to reflect, laugh, vent, strategize, create knowledge dance, connect, reconnect and dream about the world we want. While the dialogue managed to surface a sizeable number of issues, I have chosen three major issues that stood out for me:

  1. Our bodies as the first site of struggle, violence, resistance and wellness – For JASS SNA, the body is the first site of engagement as women’s bodies are constant sites of violence. Given women’s positioning in society, where they are expected to be nurturers as well as do twice (and even more) as much work that is not valued and within terms of remuneration (where it applies) less than their male counterparts, the need to center women’s lived realities is ever so critical. The conversation about bodies, which was facilitated using a collective body mapping exercise, enabled women to speak about how they experience the world and how their bodies carry the pain, love, violence that the body is subjected to. The vagina was identified as constantly being vulnerable in the context of power, control and vulnerability, with women being constantly told who to have sex with and what the vagina can and should be used for. “We have developed capitalist necks, our bodies ache from overworking,” one participant put forward. The conversation surfaced the real need to prioritize and strike the balance between the need to provide for family through paid work and women’s self-care, collective healing and wellness in light of the real threat posed by the general lack of wellness, pain and trauma that WHRDs experience at the personal, professional levels.  
  2. The mutating face of shadow power – corporates and State becoming one –The dialogue deepened understanding and analysis of power given many political shifts happening in the world. In today’s context, corporates have become very powerful, such that sometimes it has become difficult to separate the State from these powerful corporations. This power has manifested itself in violence, for example, in extractive industries, there is complicity between government officials and corporations. Over the years the role of transnational companies and corporates in determining how states respond to issues has become a real threat to WHRDs’ personal security. While human rights issues and safety nets have been delegitimized, corporate interests have been given priority. The state has responded with violence to silence people who speak out.
  3. What does solidarity and collective organizing look like - As one participant put it, “How do we cultivate a shared politics so that divide and conquer cannot happen as easily to us?” Solidarity across movements looks a particular way, which can be riddled with contradictions and tensions. It is therefore important in thinking about working across movements to acknowledge the tensions that exist within and across movements and how to work around them. The story of Honduras (mobilization around #JusticeforBerta) and how women from different movements have come together to challenge injustice is an example of how cross movement work can help amplify issues affecting women. The CMD also participated in a March to reclaim Fezekile Kuzwayo’s identity. Fezekile was raped by President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, in 2005 and had to assume a new name and identity (Kwezi) given the violence that surrounded the case. JASS participated in the march as a show of solidarity, cross movement building in action, and what it means to have and mobilize numbers as we think of building women’s collective power, security and protection.


Movements bring all the seeds that will give rise to new vegetation – seeds can give nourishment”. These words shared by one of the participants sum up the need to continuously nurture, reflect, evaluate our work and our movements so that they can flourish and give seeds for nourishment. The CMD managed to bring to the forefront the importance of self and collective care as part of building strong movements, as well as the need to take stock of important shifts taking place globally, locally and regionally. As the world shifts, so should our analysis and strategies in order to fully respond to the increased militarization, securitization, violence and the general un-wellness of women’s bodies. It also provided a safe space for release, re-energizing, and strategizing for the feminist future that we want. The importance of such spaces for collective organizing can never be over emphasized and JASS SNA did this so well.

 Photo credits: Fungai Machirori

Comments: 0
by Srilatha Batliwala on November 23, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Four years ago, a young girl – Januba – from an impoverished family in a village in Tamilnadu, a province in the heart of southern India, finished middle school thanks to the determination and sacrifice of her mother, who had never attended school at all. Januba had done exceedingly well and her teachers encouraged her to go on to high school. Alas, there was no high school in the village, but Januba’s determined mother enrolled her in the high school in a town some ten miles away. Januba’s mother had been a longstanding member of a local women’s movement that had analyzed and fought against misogynistic customs and traditions, established their own parallel “women’s courts”, and simultaneously empowered the women through micro-credit and improved livelihood opportunities.

The matter came to the attention of the customary council that governed the affairs of the religious group that Januba and her mother belonged to. Throughout India, such clan/caste/religious councils continue to have sway over the members of their communities, even though they have no formal or legal authority within India’s constitutional and governance framework. They cross the line constantly, in the worst ways. Yet the government has failed to curb the power of these councils, even when their rulings and decrees violate national laws and constitutional rights, except in rare cases when their atrocities hit the headlines – such as hanging couples who had married across caste lines, for example. 

In the area where Januba lived, the religious council had issued a decree that no girl should be sent to school after she reaches menarche (roughly around the age of 12 or 13). Girls should stay at home, learn cooking and housework, until they were married. When Januba’s mother refused to obey their edict, the council members sent a posse of thugs to their house. Januba’s father was beaten up while Januba and her mother were tied to a tree and whipped. They were threatened that if they continued to defy the council’s orders, they would be executed. Januba’s terrified father fled from the village and has not been heard of since. 

Januba and her mother also fled, but to another part of the province, where she promptly enrolled in the local high school, while her mother did daily wage work to support her. No one knows where Januba or her mother now live – they have never disclosed their location, only that they are alive and well.

This is what women crossing the line means to me. I bow my head in salutation to Januba and her mother. I bow my head in silent salutation to all the women around the world who cross the line.

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