The gender benders: Kalahi-CIDSS empowers Tiboli women

KIAMBA, Saranggani - Nestled at the top of the array of picturesque green mountains in the eastern part of Kiamba, some 25 kilometers away from town in Sarangani Province, the village of Kapanal in Barangay Gasi, which means equal in local dialect, is a home to 696 members of T’boli tribe of Mindanao.  

But underneath this idyllic place, the meaning of its name for women villagers is just a mere illusion, for they have struggled for the equality of rights and opportunities for decades.  

Early marriage is considered by the tribe’s young villagers as the reason for being trapped in the development. Education and livelihood opportunities, that could bring bright prospects for better future, have been sacrificed, marginalizing women in the process.  

Shirly B. Cabot, 31, is one of the T’boliwomen who was arranged and married at an early age of 16.  

Growing up, she barely graduated elementary grade at the age of 15 by juggling her time as a student and a house helper in town proper. Her parents could hardly provide education support, having 9 other siblings in the family.  

In her first year in high school, she was arranged to marry a T’boli neighbor by their parents, leaving her with no choice but to drop from schooling. Six horses and a carabao as dowry has been agreed and given to her family.  

According to Shirly, of the 45 women of her age, 30 had early marriage and 15 were arranged marriage. Often, at 16, the youth marry and beget four or five children more than half a decade later.  

This practice among T’boli has been reflected in the national data, as one in ten young Filipino women age 15 to 19 is already mother or pregnant with first child, according to 2013 demographic and health survey.  

Ready not yet  

Many don’t have the full grasp of what  really marriage is all about,”  Shirly said.  

Upon knowing that she was soon to marry, Shirly has initially thought of leaving home. She said her body was too young to carry a child and will look too old for her age as a mother.  

Shirly’s hesitations have something to do with the risks as teenage mother, dangers that are usually associated with the readiness of reproductive organ, maternal death due to higher risk of eclampsia or a serious complication of pregnancy condition leading to unexplained coma.  

World Health Organization report says that there are 13 Filipino women dying daily due to childbirth. This has been exacerbated by the lack of access to health facilities and services, especially of young women in the remote communities like Kapanal.  

Minerva Suyan, 30, a T’boli woman who has been arranged to marry at the age of eight, said that it is really difficult to marry at the very early age. Because of the distance of health facility to the community, her life was put at risk during giving birth to a child. The river in the village overflowed and there was no other way but to wait until the floods subsided to reach the nearest birth station.  

Rights, opportunities  

Arranged and early marriage are practices that we do in our tribe, these are passes from one generation to next,” Shirly said, whose parents were also arranged and married at the young age.  

For Shirly, arranged marriage discriminates the rights of women to choose whom they want to be with for the rest of their life. This is a usual brand of feminism discrimination in the community.  

Why we just allow that only men can choose whom to marry, not for women, where is justice,” Shirly says with jest.  

The role of women in T’boli tribe is based on the long tradition with strong paternal system. This means that man is regarded as decision-maker in the community.  
Since during the marriage, women are usually very young, men do the livelihood and earn income, while the former are confined at home.  

This has impliedly sending the message that whoever has the control of resources has also the control over decision-making in the households of T’bolis in Kapanal.  

There is a need to educate women of their rights as members of the community,” Shirly said.  

Sense of participation  

Shirly has been working to influence the mind of community and little by little, answering the needs of women. At the stance of 4’10’’, she is now a mother of 4, standing tall in the middle of all men and women, encouraging participation in whatever community affairs of Kapanal.   
In 2010, Shirly found an opportunity to encourage women’s participation to volunteer, through the government’s Program community-driven development (CDD), the Kalahi-CIDSS.  

Shirly, despite her educational attainment, is persistent in encouraging women folks to take active role in the identification of problems, planning for various activities, taking responsibilities in implementing and proposing of projects for the possible solutions to their problems.  

Shirly realized that one of they need to be organized for their voices and concerns will be heard in unison.  
There is a need to make women realized that they have an important role in the community," she said. Nowadays, her daily routine includes as volunteer facilitator of meeting, monitoring and addressing women’s concerns for nine self-help group; compose of some 15-20 T’boli women members.  

The self-help group (Sheg) serves as an avenue and home to discuss women concerns including early and arranged marriage, abused and many others which usually not discussed in public openly. In some instances, when Kalahi-CIDSS Program called for assemblies, meetings and trainings, other programs were also conducting activities especially for women of Kapanal.  

Sense of empowerment  

Shirly and women members of Kapanal have attended various training, seminars and activities, helping them to gain more self-confidence and openly express their stakes in the community.  

“Ang daku namong natun-an sa Kalahi-CIDSS kay unsa man kadaku o kagamay ang desisyon o plano, dapat tanan ginakonsulta, babae man o lalaki, (The biggest learning we got is that, how small or big the decision and plan, everybody should be consulted, either they are men or women)," Shirly added.  

This has been of great help, according to Shirly, especially in the community where men usually dominated planning and decision-making, in slowly changing the mindset in Kapanal’s households.  

Shirly’s group has initiated cooperative in Kapanal to encourage women to be a partner of men to earn income and save portion of this for the future, which residents usually do not do. She encouraged to save out of cash grant from the PantawidPamilya program.  

Our cooperative was able to access loan for women which we utilize to for our livelihood activities to meet our needs) Shirly said.  

But, with the provision of opportunities to women to earn income, has changed the situation, making women feel financial freedom and as partner of husbands in providing the needs of their broods.   /Furthermore, Shirly and other women, also take role as volunteer barangay health worker for many years, taking care of their health and guiding them to access health services and with, components of educating them about family planning, child rearing, responsible parenthood and many others.  

Bridge for development  

Along the various Kalahi-CIDSS community activities and processes, women of Kapanal have been empowered as a community, including their capacities to craft proposals for funding of projects by various agencies to address their pressing needs.  

There is a big difference with the situation of women then and before,” Elena Wot, 19, mother of two, said.  

The strong organized group of women in Kapanal, has influenced on the development directions on what kind of projects it should be put in the community.  

As a result, the community has acquired and constructed day care center, school, electrification, road concreting and many others, resulting to rapid development of the area.  

Also, women in the community were mobilized as volunteer and paid labor for the construction of Php1.2 million school building and now, Shirly volunteers as an audit and inventory head for their hanging cable footbridge amounting to Php2.47 million, courtesy of Kalahi-CIDSS.  

Kapanal women have broken the old mindset of the roles of women among T’boli, like they are just homebody, but rather as potent force of development.  

According to Shirly,  Kapanal now is slowly being true to its name, where villagers recognize the equal rights and opportunities of men and women and that, we can only talk about development unless we address the needs and concerns of women in the community. ###