Peace is a subjective term, but it’s the shared understanding of what peace means that makes it possible. People can find peace in the consistency of their everyday lives; having enough to eat, access to education and safe drinking water. Their security can be found in having reliable access to land, income and basic services. In times of conflict, it is often these rights that are most at risk.
The Bangsamoro region in Mindanao, southern Philippines has a history of conflict spanning several decades. Agreements forged in 2014 have helped to bring a level of peace to the region, but local tensions frequently flare up over land and family-based feuds can fester for generations. The area is one of the poorest in the country and is prone to violent conflict resulting from land dispossession, marginalisation, poverty and a lack of opportunities.
Working with Mindanao-based partners Teduray Lambangian Women's Organization Inc and United Youth for Peace and Development, we are supporting inclusive Community Security Working Groups. These groups have been established where they can be most effective and respectful of local priorities and customs. From this work we have developed a Bangsamoro Community Security Toolkit to capture lessons and provide advice on how to set up and facilitate similar groups.
The Community Security Working Groups are having an overwhelmingly positive impact on the communities in which they operate. They are giving people the opportunity to connect within societies and with local government in ways thought impossible before.
Community discussions organised by the working groups are encouraging disengaged community members, including young people, to take on more active roles in local decision-making and ensuring indigenous groups are given equal say in local governance. They are also increasing communication between local officials and communities – leading to greater transparency, trust and confidence in their leadership. As one official stated:
“In all matters, the people have to know. Be transparent. You will have peace of mind because you know that what you are saying is the truth.”
For some individual community members, involvement in the working groups has had significant consequences. Norhanie Mamasabulod Taha went from watching working group meetings to chairing the Persons with Disabilities Affairs Office, Municipality of Pagalungan, Maguindanao.
While a young man, disaffected and describing himself as a ‘nobody’, gained enough confidence attending his local working group that he started delivering religious sermons aiming to keep youth from straying down paths towards violence and conflict.
However, the impact of the community working groups has gone much further than purely the individual level. Community discussions have been finding practical solutions to very real problems, and transforming gender relations. For example, in a number of communities, violence and harassment towards women and girls was a constant threat when taking the long journey to collect water. The working groups enabled women to collectively raise the issue with the community and local government. This paved the way for water to be brought closer to the community, negating a walk of several kilometres. Instances of violence and harassment against women and girls has significantly reduced as a result.
Officials and community members are also gaining new skills. Officials new to their jobs have received essential training in how to draft local ordinances and resolutions that provide a better public service. Improving public services has led to eased tensions in communities and a sense that people are being listened to by local government.
As a result of the mentoring and support provided by this project, people have developed the knowledge and confidence to mediate community conflicts over land. As one community working group member proudly commented:
“A conflict was left unresolved even after 10 sessions handled by my uncle from the barangay (district). After UNYPAD taught us how to properly resolve conflict, the conflict was finally settled. When conflicts arise, they send me to handle them.”
In total, working groups have been attended by more than 2,000 people, with even gender representation. The groups have been designed to be inclusive and include young people, indigenous community members and persons with disabilities.
The Community Security Working Group model can be replicated in other parts of the Philippines where similar risks of conflict remain prevalent. Conciliation Resources and our partners have taken the lessons learnt in the Bangsamoro region and created the Bangsamoro Community Security Toolkit. This toolkit contains practical advice for setting up community security working groups in other regions or communities.
Ultimately, this work has demonstrated that participation and collaboration among community members is essential to building peace, and through establishing open channels of communication with local government, trust can be built and violence reduced.
We work with communities affected by violence in the Philippines to promote a peaceful transition away from conflict.
The Philippines has suffered two major armed conflicts in recent years – in Mindanao involving the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and a countrywide communist insurgency with the National Democratic Front (NDF).