By Lorela U. Sandoval

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer on women power -- and Mamasapano

Posted on March 27, 2015

THEIRS IS a meeting of minds that, inevitably, is also a meeting of genders. Government of the Philippines (GPH) Peace Panel Chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer faces the centerpiece of the peace table, tossing words of utmost significance or of complementing banter to the male panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the midst of discussions of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that would settle the decades-long dispute and insurgency in the country.

Ferrer: “Moral support” -- OPAPP
The No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report by Clinton Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described her as “the first woman ever to serve as a chief negotiator for a peace agreement.”

Her appointment as chair and chief negotiator wasn’t that easy, however. She is, after all, a woman in a man’s world -- in particular, the milieu of conflict.

On two occasions in 2012 when former GPH panel chair and chief negotiator Marvic Leonen was considered for another government position in January and then shortlisted for the Supreme Court in November, Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles of the Office of the Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process (OPAPP) recommended her to President Benigno Aquino III, to fill in the would-be vacated seat.

The President was reported to have said “that those on the other side of the table may not be ready for one,” Ms. Ferrer wrote in her piece, “Woman at the Talks,” published by OPAPP’s Kababaihan at Kapayapaan magazine in March last year.

“For someone who spent her youth and adulthood generally unhampered by societal barriers, it was with consternation that I found myself in my golden years hitting the glass ceiling for being WOMAN,” she wrote.

Soon enough Mr. Aquino was convinced to appoint Ms. Ferrer in December 2012. A professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Ms. Ferrer joined the GPH peace panel in 2010.

“It certainly helped that the MILF wrote a letter to the President signifying that they can work with any chairperson regardless of gender and ethnicity -- again another sign of their growing openness to en-gender,” Ms. Ferrer added.

Still, the MILF had their misgivings. She said MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal was quoted saying that it’s their culture in Maguindanao to not quarrel with a woman, a statement somehow indicating that such “new situation might unduly constrain them.”

There were challenges, of course, to being the GPH peace panel chair. The challenge of adjustment, however, was more theirs than hers, she said, considering that she has worked with men all through her professional life.

For instance, a Malaysian facilitator in the peace talks called her “sir or chairman” several times. The facilitator reasoned in good humor that “sir” in Malaysia is used for both genders.

In another case, her handshake with a “Tengku,” the Malay royal title equal to a prince, was also not without a chuckle. Tengku Ghafar joked it was his first time to shake the hand of a woman, to which Ms. Ferrer replied it was her first time to shake the hand of a prince.

Housewife jokes also surfaced when National Security Council Undersecretary Zenonida Brosas came in the picture sometime in 2013. The MILF contended with two determined women, Ms. Ferrer and Ms. Brosas, who haggled and bargained on numbers, percentages, and costs in the remaining annexes.

“Beware of the housewives. They are after the kitchen money,” Ms. Ferrer recalled a joke by the facilitator. Yet she and Ms. Brosas didn’t mind it because their efforts were “producing results.” Ms. Ferrer also remembered how their attention to detail would later be “noticed and appreciated by the men in both panels.”

In other occasions such as Valentine’s Day in 2012, she narrated they bought and gave heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to the men in the room. Then in another instance, they “unceremoniously handed over copies of UN Resolution 1325 to the Facilitator and the MILF,” a resolution recognizing the critical role of women “in making and keeping peace,” according to the No Ceilings report. All this in their “cautious attempt to genderize the process.”

The meeting of genders isn’t always pleasant; at times, it’s a tug-of-war.

Ms. Ferrer also narrated in her piece how -- after an intensive discussion and questioning by the panels -- a woman in the GPH panel was ridiculed as a “second-class woman” or a woman aspiring to be “like a man.” A younger female member of their team also endured some antagonism in a separate instance.

But in general, Ms. Ferrer noted the collective progress in the openness of the MILF “to talk and appreciate gender concerns.” She added: “Although a quota system remains difficult to introduce, we happily witnessed over the months the presence of several more women in the talks.”

“Woman was a part of the equation, certainly, but obviously not the only factor,” she wrote, somehow easing reservations as to whether being a woman factors in greatly in delicate negotiations such as the peace process.

“She did change the dynamics as in any group setting, especially in a sensitive and difficult undertaking such as peace negotiations. She did guarantee the inclusion of important gender provisions in the agreement,” she said.

Filomin Candaliza-Gutierrez, president of the Philippine Sociological Society, considers the participation of Ms. Deles and Ms. Ferrer in the peace talks “an extremely positive development not only for women but also on the peace process itself.”

“Women negotiators can bring in a more proactive brand of diplomacy, persuasiveness, and communication that may not necessarily exist when negotiators between camps are all men. My sense is that women see the overall picture, have the intuition and foresight for peace,” she said in an email to BusinessWorld.

“This is a development that has been waiting to happen as part of a latent part of our history,” Ms. Candaliza Gutierrez said, adding that, historically, Filipino women were active both in the political and community spheres and were oriented toward civil rights recognition.

Ms. Ferrer also believes that women’s participation is being recognized nationally and internationally.

“Number one, the whole importance of peacefully negotiated political solutions, and what is very specific about our own peace process is the significant role that women have played in this process,” she said in a phone interview on March 19.

Considering the statistics where very few women assume leadership positions in political negotiations, she further said the whole world now sees the development “as a shining example of women empowerment and success of political solutions to long-standing conflicts.”

She however said, “Unfortunately, there are people in the country who do not appreciate that from that bigger perspective and are actually, parang ano eh, even denigrating the significance of the peace process and what it means for the whole Filipino people and especially also for the women.”

In the wake of the controversial operations on January 25 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, resulting to the death of 44 Special Action Force troopers of the Philippine National Police and other casualties, the GPH peace panel has been receiving a lot of flak, with Ms. Ferrer and Ms. Deles, in particular, even being accused of disloyalty to the country and of pursuing peace at the expense of justice.

“Peace process started a long time ago and people do not have that history, do not have that familiarity. It’s so easy to judge events and issues based on surface knowledge without the backdrop of the complexities of the conflict and of the process that you’re putting in place,” Ms. Ferrer however said. “But of course it’s worse if there’s an orchestrated campaign to generate misinformation for various reasons or not, so you end up doing a lot of firefighting.”

Knowing that what they’re doing is for the best interest of the country keeps her strong in all of this, she said, noting also the fact that there are people and other countries actually supporting the peace process in the Philippines.

“At the end of the day, it’s also the support of family and friends who give you the moral support as well as the courage to be able to withstand all the challenges,” she added.

When asked if she -- as a woman and chair of the peace talks -- would advise the President to apologize and own up for the outcome of the Mamasapano operations, she replied: “I’m not going to comment on that, [because it]s not my mandate to assess] Oplan Exodus. But it’s not about that question. But something about being a woman in this position.”

She went on to say that they have seen “very degrading memes being posted on the Internet, on Facebook accounts of certain individuals” over the last weeks, referring to those postings as “gender-based violence” against them or certain female public officials in the case of Ms. Deles and herself.

“The kind of images that they are projecting there with sexual context is really very insulting to all women who are in government positions and are doing their jobs according to their respective mandates,” she stressed.

She said social media should be able to moderate itself or self-regulate and not allow to be part of “encouraging and disseminating these unethical postings.”

She then disclosed: “We have received death threats as a result of this controversy. [But] that’s one thing, I guess. But the fact that we’re women, we get this kind of memes that have sexual content and that’s something that we cannot accept.

“But otherwise, you know that this is part of the job. For me it’s not reason to stop what we’re doing which is to explain to everybody and correct all the misinformation that’s been coming out,” she said.

Ms. Candaliza-Gutierrez, for her part, said “it is both women and men that bear the brunt of violence,” in any collective violent situation such as Mindanao’s peace crisis.

“For the men, clearly, and this should not be put aside: the masculine pressure of having to participate in combat, or the false orientation to achieving status and prestige in winning battles or dying in them, take its toll in men from all sides of warring camps. Whether they like it or not, men are sent into the battlefront, with the notion that it is masculine to do so, that achievement in battle must be, that dying in them is heroic. This costs them their lives,” she said.

“For women there are the risks and threats of victimization, physical and even sexual. Women also suffer the more insidious post-violence effect of economic displacement, destroyed livelihood opportunities, and the new challenges of widowhood,” she also said.

Ms. Ferrer believes that women should be given more roles in all areas in the government.

“Although surprisingly, I learned today that there are more female ambassadors now and most of them as you know are career officials. That has been the policy of President Aquino, to minimize political appointees [in the] cluster ship and to tap the expertise of career officials and that’s very good because that means we are professionalizing our diplomatic corps,” she said during the phone interview.

She added: “Because of the different socialization and social networks and the fact that they talk more to other women, there’s significant perspective in any decision making, not because they are born with this but because that’s how they were socialized and the kind of interactions that they have with other women. So for me that’s very important.”