Indigenous Women In the Philippines Fight For Their Rights

On July 31st, the Philippine indigenous coalition LILAK, or “Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights,” organized an event called the National Indigenous Women Gathering. According to independent Filipino journalism group Rappler, this event sought to organize various indigenous peoples throughout the Philippines. Here, different female community leaders highlighted issues various indigenous Filipino groups are facing, such as the “threats, disappearances, and killings” of activists who actively fight to defend “ancestral lands” from corporate and development-driven interests.

Many communities are experiencing increasing hostility from the government under President Duterte’s rule. Furthermore, despite national laws to prevent discrimination against these communities, such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, indigenous groups remain disparaged. The pandemic and state-sanctioned violence have only aggravated their conditions.

The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (I.W.G.I.A.) states that the Philippines’ population of around 111 million comprises 10% to 20% indigenous peoples and over 100 distinct ethnic groups. Some are part of the Igorot (“mountaineer”) group located in the northernmost part of the country in Luzon, while the Lumad (“indigenous”) live in the southernmost region Mindanao.

Another prominent native group called the Aeta in central Luzon are said to be the “first inhabitants of the Philippines,” believed to have migrated to the country 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Despite the Philippines’ cultural diversity, indigenous communities were disadvantaged, especially with the Spanish and American colonization of the country. The colonial powers’ arbitral institution of laws undermined indigenous rights and land claims for several decades.

The aftermath of the U.S. occupation in the Philippines signaled considerable changes for the rights of indigenous groups. In 1997, with the National Commission for the Indigenous Peoples, the Philippine government created the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (I.P.R.A.). The I.P.R.A. delineates the State’s responsibility to “recognize and promote all the rights” of indigenous peoples by “protect[ing] the rights…of their ancestral domains” and by preserving their “cultures, traditions, and institutions.” The I.P.R.A. also says that the State must respect indigenous communities’ needs by working closely with indigenous leaders to identify necessary services and resources. Thus, the ratification of the I.P.R.A. offered a promising legal framework to advance indigenous peoples’ rights and their claims to land.

However, the I.P.R.A. has had multiple shortcomings, according to a report by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance. The I.P.R.A. failed to create a strong, overseeing committee to ensure partnership between the Philippine government and the indigenous Council of Elders who served as representatives for their communities. This failure undermines a crucial aspect of the law: that indigenous peoples should be involved in making decisions concerning their well-being. Likewise, there are limited mechanisms for groups to express grievances.

As a result, communities continue to have little access to funding, agricultural resources, education, and health services. This lack of accessibility, in turn, makes maintaining livelihoods more challenging for families to this day. To improve these communities’ conditions and prevent them from getting worse, the Philippines must establish partnerships between indigenous representatives and government officials.

In this partnership’s absence, the onslaught of COVID-19 and Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency exacerbated the injustices faced by indigenous communities. Due to indigenous “exclusion … from government care and service,” Rappler says, many groups had “little COVID-19 information,” making them more vulnerable to the virus. The pandemic also had a severe economic impact. LILAK states that farmers lost opportunities to sell crops, and the increased financial burden of the pandemic forced many children to stop attending school.

To worsen matters, Duterte’s “militarist approach to address the health crisis” and implementation of discriminatory legislation, such as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, has, according to the I.W.G.I.A., limited “the right to free speech” against “legitimate grievances.” Because this legislation provides vague definitions of “terrorism,” any act or protest can be labeled as such and punished by law. Therefore, many indigenous activists protesting government policies and neo-liberal projects have been targeted by the Philippine National Army, labeled as dangerous “counter-insurgency” groups. This criminalization has resulted in discrimination, unwarranted detention, and brutal killings of indigenous peoples as a means to silence dissent.

Despite the danger of opposing the government, however, female indigenous leaders in the Philippines continue to cultivate grassroots efforts, mobilizing to improve their communities’ conditions. Organizations like LILAK and the I.W.G.I.A. highlight indigenous narratives and struggles under military harassment and repressive laws. International human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also aid in these efforts. Increasing these challenges’ visibility is vital to achieving government and corporate accountability, promoting livelihoods, and protecting indigenous safety.