August 2012


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Noraisa Saban: ‘Previously, I Wanted to Go to Dubai and Work . . . after SOP; Now I Want to Return to Mindanao and Work with My People’

Bruce Van Voorhis

Noraisa Saban

Prior to arriving in Bangalore, India, on Feb. 1, for the 14-week School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), Noraisa Saban says she felt hopeless about the problems in her country—the Philippines—especially as a Muslim woman living in Cotabato City in the large southern island of Mindanao. Her part of the country has witnessed decades of violence between the Muslim people and the Philippine government and tensions with the Christian majority whose interests the government largely represents.

As a 29-year-old community organizer for United Youth of the Philippines (UnYPhil–Women), Noraisa says that her diminished hopes for her country in general and her Muslim community in particular before attending SOP in 2012 stem from her work with Muslim women and children in Mindanao who have experienced violence personally and as a community.

Part of the work of UnYPhil–Women, she explains, involves responding to cases of rape and domestic violence. Her role, she says, has been to document rape cases and to help victims get the services they need. UnYPhil–Women, for instance, can refer victims to lawyers who volunteer their services as well as to the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC) where UnYPhil–Women is one of the conveners. The organization also operates the Bangsamoro Human Wellness Center (BHWC) that provides shelter, food and a safe environment for women who have been raped.

As for her work with children, Noraisa says that it has focused on those who suffer from trauma in the conflict-affected areas in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato through a program conducted in partnership with UNICEF. This aspect of her work, she says, has entailed providing psychosocial training for teachers in the child-friendly spaces of temporary schools that have been erected. This training emphasizes the rights of children, child behavior and trauma counseling. As well as the fighting in this part of Mindanao, Noraisa says, some children suffer from trauma because of other violent experiences, for some, she notes, have been raped by rich men or their relatives or others in their village.

UnYPhil–Women also has other programs that seek to respond to the violence that communities face, she adds, such as being advocates for peace in Mindanao by participating in rallies and doing research about the root problems of the war. The main cause of the tension and conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government, she says, is over land and identity: the desire of the MILF for the Bangsamoro people to have control over their own lands and respect for their identity.

At SOP, all of the topics, Noraisa says, are related to her work: how to resolve problems in the community, what are the root causes of the problems, how to work in the community and build relationships with the people—all are important to the development of a community organizer.

“As an organizer, you need more discussion [with the people],” Noraisa explains. “The community has a lot of expectations on you as an organizer.”

The fields visits in India were also useful to her, she adds, as well as the case studies.

“Some of the issues I saw during the SOP field visits are similar to those in my country, in my community,” she says, “such as child marriage and especially child labor. In addition, in Hyderabad, I learned about the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. This was a new experience for me that I learned from. In the Philippines, we have some discrimination based on religion as Muslims face discrimination by the majority community, but it’s not as much as what we saw in India.”

“The SOP case studies have also been very helpful. In the Philippines, there are many human rights cases that are undocumented because of the culture of silence. People are afraid.”

Noraisa also sees many similarities between the social structure in her part of Mindanao and India.

“In North Cotabato, there are a lot of clans. It’s like a caste system,” she explains. “Families from different clans have a feud over money or land or politics.”

Her views on development have also undergone a change after SOP.

“I always saw development as something good for the people and the country, but now I see development as a source of conflict,” reflects Noraisa. “Sometimes it involves a road. The government, for example, wants to widen a road, and it affects my brother as he has to move.”

In short, Noraisa concludes, SOP has helped her think more deeply. She now asks why something happens, she says, and what can we do.

Perhaps the most important transformation for Noraisa after SOP is a new attitude about her work and the impact she can have on her community and society, for, as noted earlier, she had felt little hope toward addressing the problems she witnessed every day; it was difficult to see any solution to the constant problems affecting individuals and her Muslim community in general.

“Previously, I wanted to go to Dubai and work with my sister after SOP,” Noraisa confesses. “Now I want to return to Mindanao and work with my people. Now I have to do this work.”

Her work, however, will change when she returns to the Philippines. She will continue to be part of the staff of UnYPhil–Women, she explains, but she will now join the monitoring team that lives in a community for a week or more to build stronger relationships with the people and to begin to feel what the people are feeling in order to better monitor the issues affecting women as well as other concerns of the community. Noraisa believes that what she learned at SOP, especially about structural analysis, and the insights she gained through the field visits and the experiences of other SOP participants that have broadened her understanding of the world and other realities in Asia will better equip her for these new responsibilities.