Three Women Humanitarians in Marawi Empower Themselves and Others in the Backdrop of Post-conflict Recovery

19 August 2019, Makati City – Today marks World Humanitarian Day to honor people who work in some of the world’s most volatile, remote, and fragile corners to tend to those most affected by emergencies caused by either armed conflict or natural disasters. This year’s commemoration especially shines a light on women humanitarians, many of whom can be found in the Philippines and were honored via an art installation depicting some of them and their stories at a Stand Together event this morning in Makati City.

“Today is a particularly special day,” said Kristin Dadey, Philippine Humanitarian Coordinator, a.i., in her welcome statement at the event. “We honor and pay particular attention to the women humanitarian workers by raising awareness and support to those women who are often the unsung heroes of the frontlines. Women’s role in humanitarian leadership is critical, evidence shows that when women are part of the decision-making process, it is a better or effective response.” 

Over 40% of humanitarian workers are women, and three of them can be found working with Rebuilding Marawi Shelter and Livelihood, a Japan-supported project implemented by UN-Habitat which aims to provide 1,500 new homes and 10 community infrastructure projects for those who lost everything to the Marawi siege. 

On May 2017, armed conflict broke out in Marawi City in the southern Philippines. During five months of heavy fighting between government forces and militants, large swathes of the city were destroyed and tens of thousands of people fled. 

The city is slowly being rebuilt, and these three women, in varying roles, work together in enabling communities champion post-conflict recovery. 

Charlyn Pendang—Mother of Three and 28 Families

Charlyn Pendang (left): “I will employ all that I know to assist in the restoration of peace in Mindanao so that my daughters won’t have to witness death and destruction caused by armed conflict.”

Community mobilizer Charlyn Pendang, 40, has grown accustomed to the rapid demands of emergency response, with a daily routine comprised of lodging security clearances, back to back meetings, and phone calls that reach well into the night. 

“Cha,”  as her friends fondly call her, has been in humanitarian aid for eight years now. 

“Growing up in an impoverished family, I’ve always had a soft heart for those in need,” Cha shares. “I remember whenever I had a classmate who needed help with something, I go out of my way and help them within my capacity. In this way, I was able to gain friends.”

As a community mobilizer for the Rebuilding Marawi project, she spends most of her time organizing displaced families into registered homeowner associations or HOAs that can avail of government loans and specialized land access, and making sure that rehabilitation efforts provided by aid workers like her are participatory and led by the communities themselves.

Cha has gained the trust of affected Maranao, people indigenous to Marawi, and is closely working with 28 families in construction management, financial management, and community contracting among many other types of training under the project. 

For community member Abdul Jalil Madid, Cha’s presence gives them a sense of security: “We know we are in the right hands. Aside from giving us guidance on how to do things, she attends to every concern of the members. One time we requested for her to conduct one of the trainings on a Saturday, and she accommodated us on that without hesitation.”

A mother of three, Cha can’t help but see herself in the women and mothers from affected communities who still find time to attend various project meetings on top of their household responsibilities.

“Every day more and more women are participating in the [Rebuilding Marawi] project implementation and I find it particularly inspiring that there are women and mothers who are vocal and active in public fora,” she added.

Through Cha’s mobilization efforts, women found a safe space for their voices to be heard. 

Rohma Gato Omar—Seeing Herself Among the Displaced

With the rest of the project team, Rohma inspected devastated areas in post-conflict Marawi to identify families that may be eligible for housing from the Rebuilding Marawi Shelter and Livelihood project.

As a community mobilizer for the Rebuilding Marawi project—and herself one of those displaced by the conflict—Rohma Gato Omar, 23, acts as liaison between the project’s targeted displaced communities and the project implementing team. 

She has closely assisted displaced clans and groups in preparing the requirements needed to be eligible to receive new homes and has developed systems by which community members affected by the siege can engage with and benefit from the project’s other interventions. 

“Being a community worker is exciting but quite challenging,” Rohma says, sharing how she has been the recipient of both admiration from potential beneficiaries and of enmity from those who are still displaced and need to express their frustration. “I feel some pressure when I can’t meet everyone’s needs. It takes a lot of conversations to make them understand that the project takes time and that we in the project team are doing the best that we can.” 

In the office, Rohma can come off as introverted and timid, but only because as a first-time employee of an international agency, she opts to observe and listen to learn more about the technical and normative aspects of her job. In the field, however, she is in her element: strong, outspoken, self-assured. 

“When it comes to community work specifically in a place where youth and women aren’t usually heard,” she says, “I’m more comfortable and confident despite my youth and gender—which in fact become my motivation to speak.”

For this young Maranao, being a humanitarian means consistently recognizing and acting on the primacy of human welfare and dignity at all times and in all manner of aid and intervention, with a focus on enabling and empowering people to act on their own recovery rather than handing it to them. 

“The internally displaced people (IDP) from the Marawi siege are the target beneficiaries of the project I work for,” Rohma says. “They are my fellow IDPs and I understand their loss and agony. That’s why working in this project is especially fulfilling for me, when I see how it gives people hope and the strength to rise and build a new and better future for their families and communities.”

Norhaifa Patarandang—Finding Her Voice

Norhaifa Patarandang: “Meeting IDPs like me and listening to their stories has helped me come to terms with my own predicament and made me grateful for everything that I have right now.”

Norhaifa Patarandang, 33, was already doing development work for a local NGO when she met her husband and moved to Marawi City two years prior to the siege. Nothing could have prepared her for neither the violent conflict nor the 19 months she and her family would spend moving from one town to another after losing their home to the siege.  

It was seeing the plight of her children in the cramped room they rented that gave her the motivation to play an active role in the Rebuilding Marawi project and say yes when her community asked her to be community leader. 

While Charlyn and Rohma are part of the UN-Habitat team, Norhaifa is one of the internally displaced and a target beneficiary of the project. 

She records the minutes of all meetings and gives out notices to all members. But what she finds as the most rewarding part of her duty is the empowerment that is accorded to her by the project and the opportunity it is providing Muslim women to speak their minds.

“In one of our consultation meetings, I was very pleased that the project engineers considered my concern on the construction of toilets [in the permanent shelters],” she shares “Even before the siege, most of the affected families didn’t have proper toilets. It was very tedious then for mothers like me to fill buckets of water from faucets outside our houses. I told the engineers to ensure that there were toilets inside the house and so they included that in their plans. That made us very happy.” 

Since then Norhaifa has been very vocal in meetings and trainings, speaking her mind to the committees. As a community leader, Norhaifa is breaking the conventional mold of “beneficiary” and inspiring other women in the community to speak up, be part of the conversation and decision making, and be architects in the design of their own recovery and rehabilitation. 


These are just three stories of women who are devoting their lives in the service of the most vulnerable; and whether it’s about approaching aid work as a mother to ensure that no one  else’s children have to suffer or seeing yourself in the displaced or finding your voice and helping others find theirs, there are yet many stories in and outside Marawi of unsung heroes who are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters. 

UN-Habitat Philippines honors the commitment and fervor of these and all women humanitarians. May their example not only inspire but affirm what women have achieved and can further achieve in making the world safer, peaceful, and better for everyone.

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