Elisa “Tita” Lubi knows how it feels to be targeted by her government. A human rights defender in the Philippines, she endured torture during the Marcos era in the 1980s. Tita was again targeted by the police in 2006 under then-President Macapagal-Arroyo. Now she is confronting threats from President Rodrigo Duterte, whose administration uses intimidation and false accusations to silence dissent, particularly when it comes from women.
The Duterte administration’s latest move to delegitimize critics came on March 9, when the Philippine Department of Justice (DoJ) released a petition labeling 649 citizens as terrorists. In one stroke, the government sought to intimidate opposition activists and human rights defenders, a group that includes several prominent women like Tita, and smear their names.
The “terrorist” list is the latest effort in a long list of actions meant to silence resistance. Since 2016 the Duterte’s administration infamous “war on drugs” has claimed the lives of 13,000 people without due process. This state-sanctioned murder with impunity has attracted international condemnation, but the government’s crackdown on political dissent is less widely known. Political repression is not new in the Philippines, but what is new is how brazenly – through legal and extralegal measures – the government has imposed authoritarian rule. Duterte’s administration recently orchestrated an impeachment trial of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, an opposition figure who now faces trumped up charges of corruption and betrayal of public trust. Continuing the trend of attempting to eliminate opposition, the government named more than 70 women human rights defenders on the latest “terrorist list,” which Human Rights Watch dubbed a virtual “hit list.”
One of the accused “terrorists” is Beverly Longid, an indigenous Igorot woman and global coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples’ Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL). Beverly serves as the international solidarity officer of Katribu, a national alliance of indigenous peoples’ organizations in the Philippines. After hearing news of the terrorist accusation, she immediately feared for her family. “I will no longer see my son and his family. I will no longer see my granddaughter,” Beverly said.
Zara Alvarez, a political and human rights defenders from the Negros Occidental, is also perceived as a “threat” to her country. She is the research and advocacy officer of the Negros Island Health Integrated Program for Community Development (NIHIPCD), helping people better understand and access their rights to health services. Between 2012 and 2014 Zara spent 22 months in jail on false charges. After being added to the latest terrorist list, she worries she will be imprisoned again, forcing her to be absent from her daughter’s life for a second time. As a single mother, she fears what will happen to her daughter if she is targeted once again.
One of the most well known names on the “terrorist” list is Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As punishment for her outspoken criticism of the displacement and abuse suffered by thousands of indigenous peoples in the southern part of the Philippines, which had escalated when martial rule was imposed in Mindanao, the government targeted her deliberately. Naming a UNSR a “terrorist” is an attempt to eliminate the visibility of human rights abuses perpetrated by the government against activists and indigenous peoples. By attacking the UNSR’s international credibility, the government can carry on its human rights violations with impunity.
The unfounded terrorist accusations of these Filipino human rights defenders led to immediate international outcry. JASS Southeast Asia, a regional network of JASS (Just Associates), released a statement of concern for the safety of the women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the Philippines who were included among the more than 600 accused terrorists. JASS also sent a letter in support of UNSR Tauli-Corpuz.
The most recent actions taken by the Duterte administration put women activists at great risk. These women human rights defenders may face rejection and abuse in their own communities and homes for stepping outside traditional gender norms. For their courage and leadership, they face possible attacks in the streets to silence their political activism, criminalization, and stigmatization in the courts and media.
Despite these risks and the overwhelming pressure and intimidation from the president, women’s groups have not backed down. GABRIELA Women’s Party, for example, recently called Duterte “the most dangerous macho-fascist in government.” According to GABRIELA, a national alliance of women’s organizations in the country and a JASS partner, the Duterte administration is “raising the ante of its attacks on women who have been at the receiving end of the President’s foul and misogynist remarks.” This latest move is meant “to give a legal veil on the ongoing surveillance, harassment and intimidation of women leaders and women’s rights defenders, under Duterte’s twisted belief that he can silence resistance by wielding the brute force of the state. This makes activists open targets for worse rights violations by state security forces, especially in the context of Duterte’s fascist crackdown on political dissent.”
On the Island of Negros, Zara said that it is normal for her and others to face trumped-up charges. “Farmers are killed in broad daylight… enforced disappearances and different forms of human rights violations are experienced here,” she said. Many of these cases remain unresolved. For Tita Lubi, the government’s actions are a sign of desperation. “Despite President Duterte’s bluster and I-don’t-care rudeness, he cannot take criticism and even suggestions which differ from his ideas,” said Tita Lubi. The president is “acting like a crazed macho goon,” she added. “He strikes at people who oppose him and try to expose the true character of his regime.”
When asked why she was targeted, Zara surmised, “Simply because I am a woman.” A woman “who stands firm and uses my voice against abuses faced by my fellow Filipino people. We will continue to raise our voices; we will share our strength to those who need us. Women human rights defenders can shake this misogynist president if we will raise our voices together and unite with the other sectors,” said Zara.
Duterte is not a man who troubles himself with women’s protection and safety. He has bragged about rape, and, referring to women rebels, he even instructed his troops to “shoot them in the vaginas.” While he may have contempt for them, women human rights defenders in the Philippines continue to organize. “Shackles, incarceration and inhumane treatment in detention and the recent terrorist tagging did not in any way deter me,” Zara said. Beverly and Tita Lubi seem equally unmoved. “We shall not be forced into fear and submission, but shall join others similarly oppressed and exploited to fight for our rights and peoples’ rights!” said Beverly. “We will not be cowed. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Instead, we will overcome; and the people will prevail,” Tita Lubi predicted.
They know that by strengthening women’s collective organizing power they can increase their political influence while ensuring their safety as they advance rights and justice for everyone in a world of rising authoritarianism.
Rosanna Langara is an activist from the Philippines. She is currently the regional communications and knowledge associate of JASS Southeast Asia. JASS (Just Associates) is a regional network of international feminist NGO.
This article has also been published on the JASS (Just Associates) website.