Last Wednesday, I participated in a consultation on the Philippines Country Gender Assessment organized by the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) and the Overseas Development Assistance-Gender and Development Network (ODA-GAD Network). Supported by the World Bank, the CGA seeks to identify “priority gender issues related to human development, economic opportunities and voice/empowerment.” The participants included representatives of national and local government agencies, civil society organizations, and development partners. Policy options for government and its development partners to empower women would emanate from the CGA. 



At the consultation, experts presented the highlights of the CGA -- key development gains, emerging/prevailing challenges as well as the discussion of their initial policy recommendations. While the resource persons were excellent, I wondered why both experts were male. Hmmm. Have we in the Philippines attained such a comfortable level of gender equality that we don’t find it strange anymore to have men be the principal resources for a consultation on gender assessment? Possible, since the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index shows that the Philippines ranked eighth out of 135 countries. Iceland topped the ranks for four consecutive years while the United States fell to 22nd place. Imagine that! The Philippines is eighth and the US is 22nd out of 135!!!

However, as the experts discussed the accomplishments (there are many!) and challenges of the Philippines, I felt a sense of unease. Then it hit me -- the highlights presented had no bearing on the situation of Muslim women, particularly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao! I felt compelled to stand up and say that it seems the CGA report was one for a Philippine Christian Gender Assessment -- a purely rhetorical statement on my part to stress the fact that the Philippine report was descriptive of the majority, not the Muslim minority (and I dare say the Indigenous Peoples as well). The Philippine report did not provide even a hint of the yawning gap between the majority community and the Muslim minority community, the “other Philippines.”

I proposed to the PCW and the WB representatives at the consultation that perhaps there should be a focus on Muslim Mindanao. First, after 16 long years, the negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have yielded the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). The Transition Commission (TransCom) has been appointed and is awaiting the approval of the annexes that will flesh out the FAB. The TransCom will draft the basic law to replace the Autonomy Act (RA 9054), which had been criticized by many Moro leaders as flawed, deliberately designed to make the ARMM government fail.

Second, this year’s Philippine Development Forum (PDF) has a special focus on Muslim Mindanao because of the peace process with the MILF, to prepare for the establishment of the New Political Entity for the Bangsamoro.

Third, the reality of Muslim Mindanao belies the remarkable accomplishments of the Philippines with regard to gender equality and the challenges the country faces, challenges that are more the concern of the majority than the minority communities. For instance, the ARMM is the most conflict-affected region, has the highest under-employment rate physical capital, the least served region, the worst human development indicators, the worst health indicators (the most dangerous to pregnant women). However, the CGA -- following government reports -- shows that none of the ARMM provinces are part of the poorest of the poor. How could ARMM have moved miraculously out of the poorest of the poor category?

Fourth, the Aquino Administration has prioritized “inclusive growth” for its development strategy. To be inclusive, the most marginalized and problematic sectors should be included. This applies to the CGA as well. The recommendations should be aligned with government’s development strategy.

Education, empowerment and participation. In ARMM, the region that is the principal focus of the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro, government education statistics indicate that there are over 600,000 adult illiterates, a majority of whom are women. How can they be empowered and participate in “inclusive growth?”

If the benefits of the FAB are to be immediately felt by the marginalized Bangsamoro families and communities, shouldn’t there be a specific strategy to provide literacy skills to the hundreds of thousands of adult women who cannot read or write? The Magbassa Kita Foundation, Inc. is in the third year of implementing its Literacy for Peace and Development (LIPAD) project for adults and will graduate a total of at least 62,500 neo-literates or some 10% of the adult illiterates. Shouldn’t adult literacy be implemented on a bigger scale to provide skills to the adults -- particularly the women -- so they can avail of opportunities when peace finally comes?

Specifically, ARMM’s Muslim women are the most affected. For example, the experience of the MKFI-LIPAD adult literacy classes showed that 87% of the total illiterate learners enrolled at the barangay level are women. Given this situation, women are not aware of their basic rights nor would they be capable of understanding any information on their basic rights and that of their children. Considering likewise the significant influence a mother has on the total development of a child, it is clear that the need to at least provide literacy skills is a low hanging fruit that has immediate positive impact on women, their families and their communities. Shouldn’t there be a focus on adult literacy in the CGA?

Isn’t it important for this significant number of population to be given the functional literacy skill they need in order to be able to understand the issues of rights, agency, empowerment and participation?

Finally, there is UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1820. UNSCR 1325 called for the adoption of a gender perspective in peace processes, including the special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction. UNSCR 1820 calls for effective action to combat Sexual Violence against Civilians in Conflict. The Philippines has launched its National Action Plan for the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 (Philippine NAP 1325), generating actions to strengthen women’s participation in and benefit from peace processes. This priority clearly necessitates that special attention be given to the women in ARMM and other Muslim communities.

Having said my piece let me however congratulate the PCW and the WB for the presentation of the CGA. The recommendations prepared for the nation, if partners for women empowerment and gender equality will support, are key to ensuring that Filipino women -- of all ethnicities and faith -- will live up to the expectations of a gender fair nation, ranked eighth globally. Way to go, Philippines!!!! 


Amina Rasul is the president of Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy. Surveil is her column in BusinessWorld. Follow her on Twitter @aminarasul.