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‘You need to journey with the people in your support system for them to fully understand your work, and the risks and challenges that come with it.’ ‒ Interview with Cheryl P. Polutan (Che), Programmes Officer at Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights (LILAK)

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In conjunction with International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples last month, FORUM-ASIA talked with Cheryl P. Polutan (Che), Programme Officer at Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights (LILAK), FORUM-ASIA’s member in the Philippines. In the interview, Che shared with us how she works to empower indigenous women to be recognised for their contributions in their communities and utilise digital platforms to amplify their voices. She also shared with us why it is important to journey with the people in our support system, the value of safeguarding wellbeing and finding purpose in human rights work.

How did you become involved with human rights? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

My awakening as an activist started when I was in college, in the University of the Philippines in Cebu-in the Visayas. Right after graduation, I had a friend who invited me to contribute to a research with) a FORUM-ASIA member, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP). That experience exposed me to issues on the right to food and means of subsistence of indigenous people in Bukidnon, which is part of northern Mindanao.

It started as a short stint but it was such an enlightening experience that when I was invited by TFDP to become part of their regular staff, I jumped at the opportunity! I became part of TFDPs northern Mindanao office. My first task was challenging; I was asked to look for missing young Muslim boys who were arrested because they were accused of being involved in the airport and port bombing in Davao. That’s when I started documenting cases of human rights violations here in Mindanao, where I was born.

I was exposed to so many forms of human rights violations from civil and political rights through my work with political detainees. I was also exposed to economic, social and cultural rights through my research and documentation work on resource and land grabbing. That was when I really identified that human rights were my passion were something that I really want to contribute towards.

Then I joined a peasant rights organisation where I worked on agrarian reform rights. Finally, I became a part of LILAK, where I am now.

 What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

I studied political science in college and, in the Philippines, when you take political science, the direction is to go into law school. That was my plan. When I got involved in human rights and met not only the victims of human rights violations but their families and the survivors of human rights violations, it was a turning point in my life.

There was an indigenous woman from Bukidnon who went through so much; members of her family were massacred, they were displaced because of commercial plantations‒Bukidnon is a part of Mindanao where land grabbing is rampant because of investments in commercial plantations such as banana, pineapple and now oil palm.

I was really inspired by her because she could have all the reasons to say, ‘I’ll just give in to the corporations who own the plantations and do without the struggles I’ve been facing.’ But she was so strong! In fact, I was the one who was so stressed because I was young then and new on the job.

She ended up comforting me and telling me to be strong that that she was thankful for the work I do, that I could have made other choices in life but I chose to be with them.

She made me realise how important it was for me and my colleagues to be there with them during that time, not only to help them with their case but also to just listen to them and believe in their struggles and what they were going through.

I experienced down times but with what is going on in my country, I would not forgive myself if I did nothing for those who face human rights violations. I believe I have the capacity, capabilities, and platform to do something.

At times, I endure harassment, threats and ridicule even from people closest to me but I remain motivated to make this world a better place for everyone‒a world where indigenous communities, rural communities and women can live a life where their fundamental rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?

There are countless inspiring moments when working with indigenous women leaders. Last August had been an emotionally charged month for us because the annual Philippines’ President’s State of the Nation Address was released. In conjunction with it, LILAK hosted its National Indigenous Womens’ Gathering. The gathering produced the Unity Statement of the National Indigenous Women’s Gathering 2021 Under the Duterte Regime: Our Stories, Our Struggles, Our Resistance, which presents the situation of indigenous women and their priority agendas. This year was particularly significant because the Philippines will have its presidential elections next year.

I facilitated the gathering of 127 indigenous women at this virtual gathering‒you can imagine the logistical challenges we had to deal with! These indigenous women are from communities where there is no mobile nor internet signal. They must travel long distances and hike to the highest points just to get one bar of signal on their mobile phones. In our virtual gathering, we could see participants walking under the trees and through in the forest. I became so emotional hearing these women talk about their determination to continue fighting at the frontlines.

Many of our communities and women partners right now are under attack. Every day, I wake up and go to bed with messages from them telling us if ‘I die tonight, this is what I want to tell my community.’ They get sick and experience anxiety because they face struggles, threats and harassment on a daily basis.

I also face my own challenges with the pressure, stress and harassment LILAK receives. It is difficult to balance being strong for our indigenous women partners when we ourselves are going through something difficult.

But it’s always a moment of inspiration for me whenever I hear them say, ‘We can do this. We will continue our fight; we will carry on.’ The lives that they live, the strength that they have despite all the things they must go through are what keep me going.

Marivic Danyan, a T’boli indigenous woman, had lost her father, brothers and husband were killed in just one day in 2017. Her father was their village chief who fought, for almost three decades, against a company that wanted to grow a coffee plantation on their community land. She believes he was killed to silence his protests.

She inherited his determination to continue their community’s efforts to regain its land and protect its environment. The first time I met her, I was tasked to be her translator. It proved to be a difficult task translating and hearing her harrowing stories first-hand!

Beyond being community partners, we became friends. We text message each other every day and talk about many things beyond our common struggle for human rights. She has really made a mark on my life and inspires me to continue my human rights work.

There are communities, there are human rights advocates, there are human rights defenders who are not from the communities, who are not from the grassroots. We need to work together, move together, towards reaching our ultimately goal of a better place for everyone where there is justice and human rights.

This is what motivates me the most‒our community partners, the indigenous women I came to know, who are now my friends.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on indigenous women’s rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?

There are many challenges working in the context of indigenous women’s rights. Most indigenous groups and indigenous cultures in the Philippines are highly patriarchal. When you talk about indigenous women’s rights and gender rights, it’s perceived as challenging the culture. In many indigenous cultures, women are expected to only be caregivers and nurturers‒rarely are there specific leadership roles for women in these communities. Tribal leaders, elders and council leaders in many tribes are often men. In fact, there are several indigenous groups where women are not allowed to be a part of the tribal council.

LILAK was created to help and contribute to indigenous women’s leadership development by equipping them with critical tools for analysis and confidence so their leadership and contribution to the community are recognised. This challenges and changes the perception of women in all aspects of their lives to their communities.

At times, the tribal councils have long discussions with us, reprimanding us about supposedly teaching and influencing the women of their communities with ‘wrong values’. But the indigenous women will always assert their rights and stood their ground for not only for LILAK but more importantly for themselves.

They say, ‘This is not about LILAK. This is me, deciding for myself that my rights deserve to be recognised, my voice should be heard in the community.’

As a women’s right organisation, we are criticised by government agencies such as the National Commission on Indigenous People and the Department of Health in the Philippines because the indigenous women we work with assert their rights to continue practicing traditional customs without facing punitive action. Government agencies have a lot to learn from indigenous communities and I believe they should work together. We have also experienced being red-tagged by the government.

Because indigenous communities are in geographically remote areas, we require a lot of resources to reach them. COVID-19 also made it challenging for us to visit our partners who are in areas where there is no mobile signal.

Initially, our partners with were very sceptical of using online platforms. But they went out of their comfort zone‒these indigenous women challenged themselves to learn digital skills and embraced new ways of conducting their advocacy work through technology in the face of COVID-19. Some of these women travel hours to places that have no proper roofing just to get signal! They recognise that these platforms give them a voice so people would know they exist and would know their struggles. I’m grateful of their trust in us by embracing these online platforms for their advocacy.

I’m also very grateful for my technologically savvy colleagues who translated all these various online platforms, word-for-word, into local languages so we could send our indigenous women partners a booklet on how to use and troubleshoot these platforms.

We were also successful in engaging with more of the young indigenous women with our programme where we conducted sessions exclusively for them in addition to a mixed session with the older women so they could work together using these digital platforms. Many communities do not have access to electricity, so we invested in gadgets and solar panels right from the onset of the pandemic. This has enabled indigenous women to continue their advocacy work.

 If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

First and foremost, being a human rights advocate is something very personal-you need to have your whole heart in the work you do because it won’t be an easy journey. It’s not a very convenient life when you’re an advocate for human rights, especially in repressive countries. You may receive attacks and harassment for the work that you do.

This also means you would need to take a break at times to safeguard your wellbeing and health. There are times you will have to say ‘no’ and saying ‘no’ does not mean you’re a bad advocate. It means you’re preparing yourself to be stronger when you go back to your work.

You also need a strong support system. It is challenging especially as a woman, considering all the expectations that come with being a woman and the multiple burden you may carry. You need people around you who really support you. For me, this is my parents. But they weren’t immediately okay with me doing this work. They too journeyed with me until they reached the stage where they said, ‘We believe you and we support you and whatever you do, we have your back.’

You need to journey with the people in your support system so they will fully understand your work, and the risks and challenges that come with it.

Lastly, you need to answer the question ‘why are you here?’ to bridge the gap between who you are and what you’re doing. Knowing the answer to this will keep you from giving up. For me, it took me years to journey with that and arrive at a point where I’ve accepted that no matter what happens, I will always be a human rights advocate.