‘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
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
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
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.