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MARAWI CITY, Philippines “Before BARMM, the purpose of my life was mainly to support the combatants.  Now, it is different,” says Ms. Norkisa Mangaho, a 48-year old former member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade (BIWAB). 

BIWAB was an all-female supplementary force that constituted a part of  the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  BIWAB’s main mission was to ensure the safety of the combatants by attending to their medical and other basic needs and also serving as the reserve force.  Norkisa has joined BIWAB for five years since she came back from Saudi Arabia as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). 

Armed conflict is over, but the fight against gender-based violence continues

Through the plebisites in January and February 2019, the majority of the Bangsamoro people supported the 2018 Bangsamoro Organic Law and the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The inauguration of BARMM in March 2019 signified the end of the decades-long conflicts in the region between the government and several autonomist groups in particular the MILF. 

However, the years of conflicts that ravaged the region have robbed many people of their livelihoods, homes, opportunities for skills development, exposure to good governance, and support systems.  Also, during conflicts and in the aftermath of such emergencies, women and girls face heightened risks to various forms of gender-based violence (GBV) and harmful practices, including intimate partner violence, sexual violence, economic exploitation, trafficking for labor, and so forth. Some parents also resort to marrying their under-age children off, to lessen their household expenses.

“Previously I wouldn’t intervene even when I saw someone harassing another person unless she or he is my family member, because in our community many have been taught not to meddle in other people’s business.” What changed Norkisa was her encounter with “Women Friendly Space” (WFS).

Women Friendly Space, a platform for protection and empowerment, for women, by women 

Norkisa sharing information about life-saving services with internally displaced women in Marawi
(early 2020, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak) © UNFPA Philippines

WFS is an initiative assisted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to provide ‘safe space’ for women and girls - including the survivors of GBV and those who face risks of violence - with psycho-social counselling service, and information sessions on human rights and dignity.  WFS Facilitators  - all women - engage community members in discussions on many different topics such as gender-based violence, and child marriage, with a view to transforming gender inequitable beliefs and behaviors. These sessions engage women and men separately, so that they can speak freely and comfortably.  Women Friendly Spaces also provides GBV survivors with referral to necessary clinical, police and legal services, and also linkage with livelihood programmes.

As the communities have not recovered fully from the 2017 Marawi siege, UNFPA, with the support of the Government of Australia and in partnership with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), local government units and local NGO, has been operating multiple WFSs in and around Marawi.  Since the creation of the BARMM in 2019, UNFPA also initiated a capacity development programme for the former combatants of BIWAB to become the WFS Facilitators.

“The aim is not only to support the transition and integration of those female ex-combatants from BIWAB members back into normal lives in their communities, by offering means to livelihood, but also provide them with skills for community engagement - help them realize that they can be the engine of rebuilding their communities through protecting and empowering their fellow women and girls,” explains Ms. Joyce Flores-Cea, UNFPA Gender-based Violence Programme Analyst based in Cotabato. 

“Former combatants from BIWAB have an innate sense of leadership and strength cultivated through their training days. That unique quality and experiences could be tapped to bring about positive changes in their communities, now as the WFS Facilitators.”

A new chapter in Norkisa’s life 

Norkisa is part of the third batch of the 60 former BIWAB members who were trained in Cotabato through the UNFPA project, to become WFS Facilitators in their respective communities. 

“Now, when I see a woman or a girl being harassed, I intervene and try to solve the problem, by using the knowledge and skills that I gained from the WFS Facilitator training,” says Norkisa.

As the traditional beliefs are firmly entrenched and interplaying in people’s lives in the community, WFS Facilitators find it not always easy to make their viewpoints understood.  However, Norkisa feels herself filled with a bigger confidence now after the UNFPA training that she can facilitate these kinds of dialogues and interactions regarding women’s rights, especially freedom from violence. 

“I now often hear the WFS visitors talk about child marriage and discuss how to stop the practice of marrying young chindren off because of many ill consequences. This makes me proud of the work I do,” Norkisa shares. 

New reality by COVID-19, new strategy, new purpose

Unfortunately the areas where UNFPA runs Women Friendly Spaces are not immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. The highly infectious nature of the coronavirus, as well as the effects of the quarantine measures such as restrictions on social gatherings, and need for physical distancing and PPE etc, drastically changed the way WFSs were operated pre-COVID, and add layers of complexities to how WFS Facilitators can and should reach women and girls who need their services even more now. 

Ms. Flores-Cea cites UNFPA’s global report, COVID-19: A Gender Lens, and affirms, “Past crises show that women and girls may be at higher risk of intimate partner violence, child marriage, and other forms of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household.”  Many women and girls under quarantine are now not only stuck at home with their abusive partners, but also find it more difficult than before to seek help as the transport means are reduced and protection service provision is also disrupted.

To ensure that life-saving information reaches the internally displaced persons (IDPs) without increasing the risk of spreading the coronavirus to communities that are not yet equipped with adequate supplies for hygiene and protection, this UNFPA project supported by the Australian Government has shifted back to traditional modes of communications, like “recorrida” where messages on women’s health, rights, and protection are played through a loudspeaker on a roving vehicle. WFS Facilitators including Norkisa join the vehicle and add their own explanation to the recorded messages through a microphone. 

Through a journey from having been an auxiliary combatant now being a WFS Facilitator, teaching her community members about gender-based violence and women’s rights, Norkisa finds herself transforming and empowered every day.  

“I never imagined that there would be work like this for me.  We may not exactly be the frontliners who are combating the coronavirus, but we are also at the frontline of building our community back better, by protecting and healing the most vulnerable women and girls,” Norkisa’s eyes show her pride, joy and determination.  



UNFPA’s Women Friendly Space initiative continues to empower women affected by the Marawi siege crisis and support their roles to contribute to post-conflict recovery, as well as conflict prevention and peace-building. As of July 2020, six batches of WFS Facilitator training have been completed.  Drawing on the success, this gender project in Marawi has been extended until June 2021 to train more WFS facilitators and save more women and girls, thanks to the generous financial support of the Government of Australia.  

With additional new assistance from Japan, Norway, and New Zealand, UNFPA Philippines will expand and scale up its contributions to the Women, Peace and Security agenda, addressing the unique humanitarian-development-peacebuilding in Mindanao from a ‘gender’ lens, amid the COVID-19 crisis, including through further developing institutional capacities of BARMM and select LGUs e.g. for supporting female ex-combatants to serve as para-social workers and community leaders, as well as strengthening local service delivery systems especially for sexual and reproductive health and GBV response.

- Ann Regala, UNFPA Philippines Communications and Media Officer