Echoing women’s voices in Marawi crisis

Story by Dennis Amata (Communications & Knowledge Manager, CARE Philippines)

The sun slowly sets over the picturesque Lanao Lake in Marawi City. Janerah Abdulmoin, CARE’s Program Coordinator for its Marawi Crisis Response project, looks at the sky in vibrant red and orange also reflected across the water. She can’t help but recall her days as a college student at Mindanao State University adjacent to the calm lake.

Marawi used to be a busy and vigorous city where Maranaos (local people from Marawi) harmoniously did business with each other until a bloody siege between the Philippine military forces and the ISIS-affiliated Maute Group struck.

“I was a college instructor in Jamiatul Philippine Al-Islamia, an Islamic academic institution in Marawi when the clash happened. It was like a normal day in the university until we heard disturbing noise from helicopters swarming the place and a series of gunshots that immediately sent shiver down our spine,” shared Janerah.

The 23-year-old Janerah tried her best to hide her fears to lead her students. “I told them not to go outside the building and wait for further instructions from our security personnel. We were informed of the ongoing armed battle between the soldiers and a rebel group. Civilians especially the Maranaos were told by the Maute group to leave the city.”

“My parents hurried to the university where I worked. I could feel the fear revealed by their trembling voices. We decided to leave the city and went to our hometown Ditsaan-Ramain, a town next to Marawi. We worriedly rushed to our usual routes but they were all taken over by the Maute group so we looked for other possible exit points. We literally fought for our life as we tried not to be seized nor become victims of stray bullets,” she said.

Janerah and her family were able to safely leave Marawi after encountering several Maute group members along the way. They were allowed to leave the city because they’re Maranaos and could speak the local dialect.

“When we were on our way out, we all breathed a sigh of relief but were abruptly terrified after hearing loud booms and gun shots from afar. It was painful to see that the city we love and consider our 2nd home was slowly ruined into pieces, said Janerah.

Janerah Abdulmoin of CARE conducts a session on gender-based violence with women displaced by the bloody armed conflict in Marawi City, Philippines.
(Credit: Dennis Amata, CARE Philippines)

Janerah’s siblings were also trapped in Marawi on that day but fortunately escaped the rebel group. Thousands of families flocked to nearby towns and communities seeking refuge. Janerah’s sister was part of Al Mujadillah Development Foundation (AMDF), a non-government organization focusing on women and girls. That time, AMDF immediately mobilized their staff to provide emergency assistance to families displaced by the conflict.

“I felt the need to support the displaced people from Marawi. My sister got me involved in AMDF’s relief operations and psychosocial therapy sessions.”

Janerah’s humanitarian role continues as CARE has partnered with AMDF to provide immediate assistance. She saw an opportunity to be part of CARE’s emergency response project.

“At first, I was hesitant to apply because I’m young. I felt I didn’t have much experience in humanitarian response but thinking about the plight of the affected people, I knew I needed to act and do something for them.”

Janerah was ecstatic when she got CARE’s trust to lead its field activities in Marawi. In close collaboration with AMDF, CARE was able to provide cash support to internally displaced people temporarily staying in evacuation camps or with their relatives/host families. She also joined “Family Conversation Sessions” (fam con), an approach by CARE and AMDF on providing psychosocial support to shocked and traumatized families.

One year after the armed conflict, some families still feel the pain of yesterday and still away from home. This is also aggravated by the loss of their assets and livelihoods. Janerah and AMDF continue to conduct fam con sessions to discuss their recovery plans, educate about women’s rights and address gender-based violence. The displacement has also led to various protection issues that need to be addressed.

“Through the sessions, I’ve heard of various distressing stories of women and girls about the unfavorable conditions they experience. Because of our culture, women do not typically report any abuse or harassment. So most of the time, they just keep it to themselves. And if the abuse becomes repetitive or severe, it would absolutely affect their emotional and psychological state,” shared Janerah.

Despite the challenges, Janerah keeps on educating women and girls about their rights and referral pathways for gender-based violence. CARE and AMDF also formed sessions that greatly involve men and boys to engage them in pushing for this advocacy.

Janerah believes that people affected by the siege will be able to recover. She is happy whenever women and girls tell her that they now know their rights and the authorities they can go to if there are cases of abuse and harassment.

“What keeps me motivated as a humanitarian worker is seeing that our work has positive impact in the lives of people who need help. Gaining knowledge is an integral part of empowerment. If we empower women, it will also help empower the entire community,” said Janerah.

Janerah continues to work for CARE as humanitarian actors now focus on the rehabilitation and recovery of Marawi and the affected people. CARE is currently partnering with AMDF and Agri-Aqua Development Coalition Mindanao to conduct family conversation sessions, and implement a project on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

“I believe that Marawi will regain its vibrant atmosphere one day. And we will all appreciate the lovely sunset over Lanao Lake, just like the old times.”

Read more about CARE's work in Philippines.