She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “A just peace is not achievable, nor is it sustainable without the energies, dreams, imagination and inspiration of women.”
Irene Morada Santiago – Philippines
For 30 years, Irene Morada Santiago has been at the forefront of efforts to improve the status of women in the Philippines and the world. Starting as a grassroots organizer of minority Muslim women in southern Philippines, she has worked on issues of poverty, peace and conflict, politics and governance, empowering women so they are taken seriously and are placed in major decision-making positions. She was the executive director of the highly successful NGO Forum on Women 1995 in China, which will be remembered for its impact on the issues that confronted women at the end of the 20th century. Irene Morada Santiago still remembers the day two drunken soldiers broke into the seminar hall and opened fire with their M-16 rifles. In front of her, about 20 women and 23 children cowered for safety, terrified. “I had never seen so many scared women and children in my life,” says Irene. “And I felt responsible.” It was in the mid-1970s and at the height of the secessionist rebellion waged by the Moro National Liberation Front against the Philippine government. Martial law had been declared in 1972.
It was against this political landscape that Irene, a graduate of the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, founded the Kahayag Foundation, a Davao City-based NGO that brought her to dangerous places in Mindanao to organize poor Muslim women.
The perils did not deter the strong-willed Irene who, when she began her advocacy in 1973, was a young mother at 32. “Martial law was about a year old. And, remember, there were no mobile phones then. When I went away, there was no way for my family to know where I had gone, and whether I would be coming back alive,” she recalls.
Not only did Irene leave two toddlers and her husband behind, she also turned her back on a comfortable career as a journalist and educator and chose to focus on the empowerment of women through organizing and advocacy.
The day the drunken soldiers barged into her seminar is forever etched in her memory. The experience left Irene a changed person. “Yes, I was scared,” she admits, “but I realized that I could be scared and still be brave. I was able to make those soldiers go away. So now being scared doesn’t stop me from doing anything.” She now knew that she had courage. “Courage is a gift I value,” she declares. “If it is to articulate resistance, if it is to manifest disgust, if it is to show how unaligned policies are, I am willing to speak out.,” she says. “If people think that is not feminine, that is not my problem.”
In Irene’s lifelong advocacy to push for gender equality in the context of peace and development, she has spoken out, whether to drunken soldiers or powerful officials. “I always found myself to be the courageous one, the brave one, the one who spoke out in a group, when other people would not speak up.”
A skilled public speaker, Irene says that it was her father, a lawyer, who trained her to speak well in public. “I was lucky in the sense that my parents totally believed in me, and because of that I had very high self-esteem. I suppose that is partly where my courage comes from.” It also comes from a strong sense of what is just and fair. “You want me to act? You push those buttons,” she says.
Irene also credits her training as a journalist for her ability to grasp the significance of seemingly isolated events (“I think in terms of lead paragraphs”), to ask the right questions, and to be a quick study. Because of the importance she gives to communication, she insists on a communication strategy for any activity she is involved in.
The potent combination of her education, training, experience, dogged determination, courage and boundless energy has brought Irene to the forefront of national and international work for women., founding or co-founding many organizations and networks. In 1988, Irene was appointed Chief of the Asia/Pacific Section of Unifem, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, based in New York City. With her vast experience on women’s issues at the grassroots level, Irene focused the Unifem Asia/Pacific program on innovative ways to connect grassroots level needs of women to the macro policy environment.
“Unifem was then in transition,” she says. From a fund for small projects, it was moving into mainstreaming. Irene and her Asia/Pacific team worked on developing mechanisms that would result in a wider impact for the small funds Unifem allocated. They focused, for example, on data and statistics, national development planning, and policy development. “But all that time, we were focused on the reality of women’s lives and how their condition could be improved.”
Irene’s international involvement led to her appointment as Executive Director of the NGO Forum on Women ’95, the parallel non-government event to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. As head of the multi-nation secretariat, Irene oversaw all preparations for the 10-day event attended by 30,000 participants, the largest international gathering of women in history.
“Whatever possessed me to agree to organize such a massive enterprise?” she laughs. “Believe me, it was a brutal experience in many ways. The logistics part– complex as it was – proved to be the easy part. The politics, especially with China that didn’t really want the NGOs there, was the hard part. But when I hear people say that it was a life-altering experience for them, I know it was worth the blood, sweat and sleepless nights we all put into it.”
Soon after the NGO Forum which left her “totally burned out”, Irene decided it was time to go home. “I needed to be healed,” she says. After 11 years of international work, Irene packed up her bags and headed for home in Davao City. She says it took her three years to heal and the warmth and solace of family and friends were exactly what the doctor ordered.
One day in 1998, she got a phone call that was going to change her life once more. Presidential candidate Sen. Raul Roco, known in Philippine circles as an “honorary woman” because of his pro-women bills, asked her to run as his vice-president for the national elections in 1998. “At first, I said he was crazy. But then, I thought, I had nothing to lose but everything to gain,” Irene recalls. She accepted Sen. Roco’s offer. Irene had been involved in many programs to recruit women to run for public office but here she was — a candidate herself!
She believes that women should run for public office and redefine the prevailing notion of political power which she says, has been associated with “horse trading, manipulation, deceit, talking through the corner of your mouth, backstabbing”.
She believes: “Unless we redefine power, women will not claim it,” Irene says. After many years of reflection, she says she is comfortable with the definition that power is the potency to act for what is good. “The operative words are ‘potency,’ ‘act’ and ‘good’,” she points out.“If women and men apply this definition in their exercise of power, then everything will be transformed. You will stop calling a man who kills and who wins elections powerful. You will just call him evil!” She adds: “Precisely because women do not have power now, they will bring about change in the use of power. They do not have the kind of vested interest in its perpetuation that men have.”
Her advocacy for more women’s participation in politics led her to organize the Global Forum of Women Political Leaders. Its first conference in 2000 brought together hundreds of politicians, political scientists and NGO advocates from all over the world to discuss issues related to women’s political power. Irene also conducts training on women’s political leadership through the Kahayag Training Institute on Gender (Katig).
Her vice-presidential bid gave Irene a national forum for her ideas and causes. After the elections, she spoke out frequently on national issues, among them peace in Mindanao. In 2000, the government of President Joseph Estrada had waged an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. Irene found herself forging ties anew with Muslim women whom she had met while doing grassroots organizing in the 1970s.
What made Irene, a Catholic, choose to work with Muslim women? “Sheer arrogance”, she says. At first she thought the Muslim women, being in the minority and being poor, needed the most help. “Little did I know that it was I who stood to learn more from them, and they would make me become the feminist that I am today.” Some of the Muslim women became victims of war and had to flee their homes to escape being caught in the crossfire. “I was concerned over the impact of war on the women and children, knowing that it is the women who suffer the most when violent conflicts erupt.”
At that time, peace campaigns were gaining ground. But Irene immediately saw that there was a gap: “There was hardly any gender perspective among peace advocates.” So she gathered Muslim, Christian and Lumad (indigenous) women leaders in Davao City in December 2001 to see if they could unite their voices to achieve peace. That gathering led to the formation of the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW), an NGO committed to providing women’s leadership to achieve peace and development in Mindanao. Irene is the current chair and CEO. She is also the Convenor of the Mothers for Peace Movement.
In February 2001, Irene was appointed member of the Philippine government panel to negotiate a peace agreement with the MILF. She recounts how her appointment came about. “I told the newly-elected chair of the panel, ‘heaven help you if you don’t have a woman in your panel!’.” She believes that it is important to bring the women’s perspective to the negotiating table. “Without women’s perspectives, a peace agreement will not result in sustainable peace.”
Under her leadership, MCW has embarked on very successful, highly visible campaigns such as “Mothers for Peace”. Launched in 2003, the campaign brought the yearning for peace in Mindanao to the national public consciousness. “Peace in Mindanao cannot remain a problem of Mindanao alone,” she says emphatically. “It has to be owned up as a national problem.” With almost no resources but a lot of contacts and commitment, Mothers for Peace launched a relentless campaign using TV and radio time and print space offered free by media networks who believed in the message of the campaign. Within three months, a ceasefire was declared by both the government and the MILF.
As member of the peace panel, she worked tirelessly to ensure that women would not only benefit from a peace agreement but also take up leadership positions in the post peace agreement period. She is credited with having played a major role in developing the ceasefire mechanism that has enabled conflict-affected communities to begin reconstruction.
Irene is now engaged in highlighting gender issues in post peace agreement periods bringing together women activists from Mindanao and other parts of Asia and the Pacific such as Timor Leste, Cambodia, Boungainville. Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan.
Irene believes that because women play multiple roles in the family and community, they are in “a unique position to provide leadership in many critical areas of Mindanao society.”
Based on her years of grassroots work among marginalized women particularly in Mindanao, she asserts that women should be the linchpins of any poverty reduction program. Says Irene: “You put income in the hands of the women, and they spend it on family welfare. Investing in women must therefore be the major strategy of any poverty elimination program.”
As part of its peace program, MCW is promoting multiculturalism because it “embraces and celebrates the diversity of the Mindanao population. This diversity must become the basis for peace rather than the source of conflict.”
Recently, Irene in the preface entitled “A fierce struggle to recreate the world” to the book, “Challenging Empires,” on the World Social Forum, Irene wrote: “To achieve a dream of another world, why don’t we take greater control of the discussions, strategize together and methodically work with a plan to bring about change?”This dream to achieve a better Mindanao and a better world animates her work today. Just recently, MCW launched the “Another Mindanao is Possible” campaign.
In her speech accepting the Mae Carvell Award given by the Venture Club of the Americas for her contribution to the advancement of the status of women, Irene sums up her journey: “My personal road to empowerment has been a long one, and my struggle continues to today. And though that struggle is personal, it must also continue to be political in order to bring about systemic and lasting change.” (Read all this on ths page of 1000peacewomen).