Weaving a Living

This International Women’s Day, we highlight the stories of siege-displaced women

“I remember the deafening gunshots. We abandoned everything we had, jumped on a small boat and left,” Anna recalls ruefully, as she sits inside her house on stilts, filled with her weaving products. She is one of the thousands displaced when an armed group entered and attacked Zamboanga City, situated at the south of the Philippines.

Photo: Julie Batula / IOM 2017

Photo: Julie Batula / IOM 2017

Anna is from the ethnic group Badjao, locally known as the ‘sea gypsies’, who mostly live along the coastal areas in the southern part of the country. Unique in their cultural rituals which centre around the concept of life and their relationship to the sea, the Badjaos are expert fishermen, deep sea divers and navigators.

“We believe we are part of the sea. It is the sea that gives us life,” Anna says. “That is why after the siege, it was particularly hard for my people to live in evacuation sites. We’re very thankful that now, we live in these stilt houses with water underneath us. We feel alive like we did before.” 

Zamboanga Siege

On September 9, 2013, an armed group entered and attacked Zamboanga City, situated at the southernmost tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula, on the island of Mindanao, Philippines.

The stilted houses at Rio Hondo and Mariki used to be inhabited by Badjao families, a tribe indigenous to the southern Philippines who depend on the sea for their livelihood and wellbeing. Other groups living in the area, including Tausug and Samal, were also displaced by the conflict. Photo; Ray Leyesa / IOM 2014

The stilted houses at Rio Hondo and Mariki used to be inhabited by Badjao families, a tribe indigenous to the southern Philippines who depend on the sea for their livelihood and wellbeing. Other groups living in the area, including Tausug and Samal, were also displaced by the conflict. Photo; Ray Leyesa / IOM 2014

The fighting between Government forces and the armed group lasted for almost three weeks. The Zamboanga siege displaced more 100,000 residents, creating a humanitarian crisis that has taken years to resolve.

Maintaining livelihoods is one of the key concerns for the displaced families, especially as they wait for their permanent resettlement at the transitory site.

Women, in particular, have voiced out that they need help to support and meet their families’ needs. For others, securing and maintaining livelihoods was already a recurring problem even before the fighting broke out.

Empowering the Women

To help the displaced women become more resilient, IOM, the UN Migration Agency in collaboration with Office of the Social Welfare, Department of Labor and Employment, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority, trained them in weaving and sewing.

They were also given starter kits that they can use for their livelihoods and assist in building their skills. Not only do the women have their own source of income, they also have more understanding of their worth as women and are now more aware of how to deal with gender-based violence through the trainings conducted under this project.

“Before, they discriminated against us because we are uneducated. But now, we are informed and we are aware,” Sabrina says. She is one of displaced women who is now a trained weaver and is able to earn from her products.

Anna’s story

Looking around Anna’s house at the Valle Vista resettlement site, there are two things that are very noticeable: the weaved products she makes and the photographs hanging on her wall.

“These things represent the new life we have now. I lost all our photographs during the siege. In fact, we lost our entire house. So now, I make new ones and hang them on my wall,” Anna tells us.

“Weaving has changed me a lot. I used to be so shy and timid. Talking to other people is something I feared and avoided. But now, I feel more confident with this new acquired skill. I also want to help my friends and neighbours and I am doing this as a weaving teacher to the other women here in the resettlement site.”

As Anna heads out to go the small fish market at the site, she shares how the other trainings have helped the women in the community. “I learned from gender-based violence training that men don’t have the right to hurt women and children and I also learned about our other rights. Now, I know that if there are cases of abuse, we can report them to the concerned government agencies.”

Before heading back to her house, Anna stops by and introduces the IOM team to her friend, Indah. We catch her in the middle of weaving a mat, in her house.

“Before the siege, it was hard for me to find any source of income. I have 10 grandchildren. I want to help my family but selling in the city boulevard was a lot of work and unsafe for an old woman like me,” Indah explains while she weaves the mat ordered by a friend. “Now, I don’t have to go out of my house to earn. I just sit and weave which I enjoy a lot too.”

After chatting for a few minutes, Anna then heads back home to cook food for her family. She prepares some charcoal in a self-made furnace, which is made of stone and cement. Anna is making sinanglag, a local common food made of cassava. “This is inexpensive and filling, that’s why everybody here makes it in their houses. It is delicious and my daughter, Anika, loves it as well,” Anna says with a smile while she purposefully stirs the food.

As the team concludes the visit, Anna walks to the IOM vehicle with everyone. She carries some of her weaved mats, the IOM team has agreed to sell on her behalf. Before she heads back to her house, she shyly thanks the team for spending the day with her.

She promises, “I will try my best to continue helping and empowering the other women in the community with all the learning I have been provided. In Allah’s time, the siege that displaced us will be no more than a distant memory…”