Mindanao’s displaced caught between the conflict and the pandemic

Military checkpoint in Marawi city, Mindanao Military checkpoint in Marawi city, Mindanao © Al Jazeera

This article is a brief presentation of the report of The New Humanitarian on the conflict in Mindanao, Philippines

In its report “Violence or the virus? Mindanao’s displaced forced to choose”, The New Humanitarian (formerly IRINnews) focuses on the violence and the ongoing conflict the people of Mindanao - an island in the southern Philippines- are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report aims to highlight the deteriorating situation for the inhabitants of  Mindanao - especially women and girls. Tensions are continuing despite the United Nations Secretary General’s call for an immediate ceasefire to render  assistance to the most vulnerable to combat the spread of  COVID-19 in war-torn areas.

The Philippines is a mostly Catholic country, but parts of Mindanao’s island -including Marawi- are majority Muslim. For more than 40 years, grievances among the Moro Muslims resulted in  a separatist movement that has fought against  the army in the southern regions of the Philippines. In Mindanao, the conflict is multi-faceted, involving multiple armed groups and clans with  shifting alliances which resulted in clashes between the factions or between armed groups and government forces. In 2017, five-months of fighting between the government forces and the Islamic State-inspired Maute groups resulted in the destruction of Marawi city. According to the non-governmental organization Save the Children, the siege laid around Marawi during this period led to the  displacement of  200,000 children and their families. Moreover, the violent conflict further deepened long-felt dissatisfactions with the government and aggravated the existing  mistrust of  a population of the national authorities. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Mindanao’s intermittent conflict has forced more than 370.000 persons to flee from their homes. These numbers are now raising further due to a new escalation of the violence between the army and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Despite the countrywide lockdown measures, at least 26.300 people were displaced across Mindanao in the first quarter of 2020.

The report of The New Humanitarian focuses on the impact of the hostilities on women and girls who face disproportionate challenges due to traditional gender roles.  Mindanao’s displaced women are caught between the conflict, the pandemic and gender-based discrimination as “they’re expected to shoulder the bulk of unpaid care work, and often eat less from already limited food rations in other to prioritize other family members, especially children”. Moreover, the lack of health personnel and cultural practises that force women and girls to seek permission from male relatives before approaching  health centres further limit their access to health services. The report concludes that in order to achieve a truly inclusive conflict response, a gender perspective would be needed.

The living conditions in the already under-serviced camps and evacuation centers housing the internally displaced persons (IDPs) worsened further due to the pandemic. There are limited sanitary and hand-washing facilities and as many as 70 families are forced to share a single toilet. A 2019 survey showed that 91% of IDPs in the municipality of Datu Hoffer could not properly benefit from  medical services due to the long distances to hospital and health centres. Now, access to healthcare services is completely disrupted.

The report recommends  the Philippine government to step up its support of community-level peacebuilding, focussing in particular on  women and youth-led organizations. The protracted peace process in Mindanao has never involved  local populations, let alone  addressed the grievances of such communities. The report The New Humanitarian further concludes that in to ensure a lasting peace, the government “must also examine the roots of the armed conflict in Mindanao”, including  injustice against the Bangsamoro people, socio-economic disparities and general discrimination. In its final recommendations, the report encourages the government to develop a new approach focused on dialogue as the current reliance on  “militarized and draconian measures” harmed communities. Closing borders and erecting military checkpoints led to fear among communities from which violent resistance ensued. The New Humanitarian thus calls on the government to include in the national COVID-19 response plan displaced communities, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.


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Author: Silvia Luminati

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