COVID-19 Op-ed

The compounded threat of COVID-19 and armed conflict in Mindanao

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Noraida Abo and Abie Ayao

Abo is Executive Director of United Youth of the
Philippines-Women (UnYPhil-Women), a women’s organization based in Cotabato,
Mindanao; andAyao, also based in Cotabato, is an Emergency Response Officer
of Oxfam Pilipinas, a humanitarian and development
organization.

UnYPhil-Women and Oxfam, along with other local
partners, are providing life-saving support to families displaced by conflict
in Mindanao, including the provision of water, sanitation, and hygiene
facilities, food, and dignity kits for the COVID-19 response. Learn more
about UnyPhil-Women here:
https://bit.ly/unyphil;
and Oxfam Pilipinas here: https://philippines.oxfam.org/.
This article was written with additional research support from Patricia
Miranda of Oxfam Pilipinas.

Last week marked one month since United Nations (UN) Secretary
General António Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire to ensure
lifesaving aid reaches the poorest and most vulnerable. Indeed, the only
fight that should be happening in our world today is the “shared battle”
against COVID-19 (United Nations 2020a, 2020b). The call for a global
ceasefire resonates because the Philippines, particularly in its southernmost
region, has long been plagued by conflict between the government and armed
groups, as well as banditry and rido (clan feuds). This
state of intermittent violence is worsened by extreme poverty and exposure to
various natural hazards, such as typhoons and earthquakes. The threat of
COVID-19 now looms large for the internally displaced and families on the
move, with women and girls facing disproportionate impacts due to traditional
gender roles (Valerio and Parvez Butt, forthcoming), expectations to shoulder
the bulk of unpaid care work, and decreased caloric intake as they prioritize
the needs of their families (Adle et al. 2020). The situation for internally
displaced persons (IDPs) living in evacuation centers and informal camps is
even more dire because of the compounded threat of COVID-19 on one hand; and
continuing fragility and insecurity due to armed conflict on the other.Even
when the Department of Health and other government agencies issued COVID-19
guidance in February and March, hundreds of families in Mindanao were
impacted by armed conflict. In March, a total number of 76,906 families were
reported to be displaced (UNHCR Protection Cluster, 2020), with around 250
families fleeing from hostilities between government forces and members of
the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the Maguindanao.By March
16, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of calamity throughout
the Philippines and the entire island group of Luzon was placed under
enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) the following day. Other areas followed
suit via issuances from local governments, including Visayas and in Mindanao.
Yet despite movement restrictions and curfews in place, pockets of conflict
and violence continue to occur. According to the UNHCR, in March alone, seven
out of 10 armed conflicts in central Mindanao occurred in Maguindanao (UNHCR
Protection Cluster, 2020). In April, more than 20 soldiers were either killed
or wounded in a clash with Islamic State-Inspired Abu Sayyaf Group fighters
in Patikul, Sulu. Episodic clan violence, also known as blood feuds or
rido, range from ambushes, hit and runs, to the
launching of grenades.  Armed conflict is placing communities in the
most unacceptable position of having to choose between fleeing yet risking
exposure to COVID-19, or staying put in their homes with the possibility of
getting caught in the crossfire.Even with imposed government lockdowns, some
families still evacuate up to three to four times a month. They return to
their homes to gather food and earn a living, like harvesting bananas or coconuts.
By nightfall, they return to the evacuation centers to rest rather than risk
staying home, only to be awakened by gunfire or explosions around midnight or
in the early morning. In evacuation centers, one shanty usually houses around
two to three families. As many as 70 families share one toilet, and there are
limited bathing and handwashing facilities. Access to health services and
facilities, which were already extremely limited pre-COVID, are now
completely disrupted in many areas. Results from Oxfam’s 2019 baseline study
in selected areas in Maguindanao show that, even in a pre-COVID-19 context,
91 percent of indigenous IDPs from Datu Hoffer in Maguindanao did not seek
medical services due to the distance of hospitals and medical practitioners
from where they live. Aside from difficulties in transportation,
Lumad IDPs cited that the high insecurity in their area
prevented them from seeking medical attention. Additionally, nine percent of
women respondents shared that they have never attended any health check-ups
or sought medical care because of care responsibilities in the home, cultural
practices, and unavailability of health personnel.The current situation of
affected communities and populations serve as stark reminder that no one is
safe until all of us are safe. An immediate ceasefire in the Philippines and
around the world is a critical step towards building inclusive peace and
ensuring an effective COVID-19 response. Just as communities are the first
line of defense to stop the transmission of COVID-19, community level
peacebuilding is the first line of defense for conflict-affected populations.
The Philippine government must increase efforts in supporting local
capacities, including those from women’s rights and youth-led organizations;
leverage community mobilization; and promote ownership of the COVID-19
response.Our experiences of working and living in Mindanao show that a
militarized and draconian measure, or a “kamay na bakal”
approach, harms communities, since it creates a culture of fear and silence.
A gender perspective is also needed to ensure response operations and
strategies do not reinforce discrimination, or enable impunity and violence
to thrive. Rather, a peaceful and inclusive COVID-19 response should respond
adequately to the different needs of women and girls, homeless and displaced,
indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable
sectors.Alongside the ceasefire, governments should also look into the roots
of armed conflict, ensure that communities are able to decide on matters than
concern them, and address the dimensions of poverty and inequalities which
gives rise to extremism. Failing to address these roots will allow armed
conflict to spark anew even in a post-COVID scenario. To sustain ceasefire
agreements and other efforts towards sustainable peace, including the
transition phase towards the new structural framework of the Bangsamoro
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), women and the youth must play a
critical role in shaping the agenda. The meaningful participation of women
and the youth in conflict resolution processes that follow ceasefires
recognizes their agency, leadership, and their contributions in creating a
humane and just COVID-free future.References:

  1. Adle, Camille, Miriam Solleza, Jeanette Dulawan, Randee Cabaces,
    Patricia Miranda, Rhoda Avila, and Dante Dalabajan. 2020. “Joint Oxfam
    Response Strategy: COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Response.”
  2. UNHCR Protection Cluster. 2020. “Philippines: Mindanao
    Displacement Dashboard March 2020.” UNHCR. Retrieved April 24, 2020 (http://www.protectionclusterphilippines.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Mindanao-Displacement-Dashboard_-March-2020.pdf).
  3. United Nations. 2017. “Public Statement by Chair of Security
    Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.” United Nations.
    Retrieved April 24, 2020 (https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12942.doc.htm).
  4. United Nations. 2020a. “Secretary-General Calls for Global
    Ceasefire, Citing War-Ravaged Health Systems, Populations Most Vulnerable to
    Novel Coronavirus” United Nations. Retrieved April 24, 2020 (https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sgsm20018.doc.htm).
  5. United Nations. 2020b. “Secretary-General Reiterates Appeal for
    Global Ceasefire, Warns ‘Worst Is Yet to Come’ as COVID-19 Threatens Conflict
    Zones” United Nations. Retrieved April 24, 2020 (https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sgsm20032.doc.htm).
  6. Valerio, Kristine and Parvez Butt, Anam. Violence Against Women
    and Girls—A Public health Challenge in the Philippines: The Links Between
    Social Norms and Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health Information and
    Services. Oxfam International (forthcoming).

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