Feature Story

As fighting in Marawi continues, UNFPA creates women-friendly spaces

30 September 2017
Women affected by the fighting in Marawi share experiences and have a light-hearted moment at UNFPA’s women-friendly space in Barangay Bubong, Saguiaran.

PAWAK, Philippines – With a confident voice, Jamela Sani explained violence against women to a group of new mothers and girls in a tent at Pawak, a village about five kilometres from where government forces and the Maute and Abu Sayyaf armed groups fight in the war-torn city of Marawi, on the long-embattled island of Mindanao, Philippines.

The tent serves as UNFPA’s women-friendly space, established in partnership with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, to provide women and girls displaced by the violence a safe space to share experiences, re-build social networks, and acquire relevant skills and information.

Facilitators at the safe space conduct information sessions focused on the protection of women and children and can refer women to support services, such as counselling, psychosocial support and health care, particularly for victim-survivors of gender-based violence.

Ms. Sani, 48, started working as a facilitator at the women-friendly space after she fled her home in May when fighting erupted.

She, her husband and children, and nearly 360,000 people have been displaced, according to 22 August information from the government’s disaster response centre. The crisis has increased risks for women and girls. 

Ms. Sani, 48, started working as a facilitator at the women-friendly space after she fled her home in May when fighting erupted.

Those living in crowded evacuation centres, for instance, often lack privacy and protection from gender-based violence.

At the outset of the conflict with the island in a state of martial law, Ms. Sani feared for her family’s safety and the condition of their home and store they left behind. “I felt hopeless,” she told UNFPA. Her husband learned that UNFPA’s women-friendly spaces were looking to train internally displaced persons (IDPs) as facilitators, and he encouraged her to join to cope better.

“Being a facilitator has reduced my stress,” she said. “It makes me happy to help my fellow IDPs learn about women’s rights, violence against women and trafficking.”

Learning women’s rights

One of the women Ms. Sani has spoken to is 33-year-old, Jalilah Amerol who gave birth to her sixth child a few days after fighting erupted.

She fled Marawi on foot with her mother and children, making the difficult journey to an evacuation centre in the neighbouring municipality of Saguiaran. 

Ms. Amerol heard about the women-friendly space from other IDPs and liked Ms. Sani’s session. “I enjoyed participating because I learned many things here I never knew about such as the rights of women and abuses towards women and children,” she said. “I think more women should go,” she added.

Facilitators at the women-friendly space in Pantao Ragat support women and girls affected by the fighting by increasing awareness on women’s rights and referring women to support services, such as counselling, psychosocial support and health care, particularly for victim-survivors of gender-based violence.

Reaching more

“I’m very happy participants appreciate the discussion,” said Ms. Sani who is among 200-UNFPA trained facilitators working in 10 women-friendly spaces spread across municipalities with some of the highest concentration of IDPs.

The programme funded by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund and Australia aims to reach 16,800 women and girls affected by the conflict.

“Women and girls are more vulnerable in emergencies such as in this crisis. They have specific needs,” said Klaus Beck, UNFPA Country Representative in the Philippines. “They need protection from gender-based violence and services for safe pregnancy and childbirth,” he added.

-  Mario Villamor