Project staff and participants plant mangrove seedlings. Image credit: PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc.

Twin-Bakhaw: Connecting SRH to a Community’s Ecosystem — Part 2

Indigenous women protect their sexual and reproductive health and their marine environment

October 6, 2021

By: Grace Gayoso-PasionVivien FacunlaLiza GobrinNemelito Meron

This post was originally published on the Knowledge SUCCESS website. To view the original post, click here.

This is part 2 of Twin-Bakhaw: Connecting SRH to a Community’s Ecosystem. The Philippines-based project advocates for gender equity via sexual and reproductive health services among indigenous populations. In this part, the authors discuss challenges, implementation, proud moments, and give guidance for replicating the project. Missed part 1? Read it here

Part 2

Gayo: What were the challenges you encountered during this project?

Vivien: We started the Twin-Bakhaw project in September 2020, so it was challenging because it was done during the time of the pandemic. There was always the regulation of no mass gatherings. This led us to do clustering during our trainings since only small groups were allowed for gathering. Usually, we do one-on-one talks with women just to share information about SRHR. Because of the pandemic, we can only have a limited number of participants. We must conduct the training multiple times and have to triple our efforts just to reach the number of participants that we need to engage.

Nemelito: [One challenge was] poor mobile network connectivity in the area. It was a big challenge to relay information and not being able to communicate properly through calls, SMS, or data. People are usually hanging their phones on the trees to get a signal. (Note: It is usual in remote areas, or in islands with poor mobile phone signal, to go to the highest point just to get signal/connection such as climbing a tree or a rooftop or putting their mobile phone on top of a tree.) So what I did was ask people where the nearest place in the village was with a phone signal and I would coordinate with the person closest to the place with the signal. Sometimes I send a letter to the community public transportation driver, a van that goes to the village once daily.

Ana Liza: This community has no electricity. Every time we have a training, we need a generator, and these generators are noisy. It disturbs both the participants’ and speakers’ focus. Mobile phone signals are also very weak. You can only get a signal near the seashore.

Nemelito: Participants were always late and not on time during training or workshops. If the training starts at 8 a.m., most of the participants arrive an hour and a half or two hours later…but we cannot blame them because the women still come from far-flung areas…they walk barefoot for 2 km just to attend the training.

Gayo: In this project, you engaged the indigenous women’s groups. What role did traditional leaders/elders play?

Nemelito: They [traditional leaders and elders] played an important role in the project because they were the ones who approved the project in the community. It is a tradition in Tagbanua communities to get free, prior informed consent from the council of elders for any project or activity of any kind. The consultation with the elders was a crucial stage in getting an approval, a resolution of endorsement, and a memorandum of agreement.

Vivien: They want to integrate the Twin-Bakhaw project in their Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP). They have identified that they want their mangroves to be marine-protected areas, but they do not have an idea on who will manage them. It is not indicated in their plans. It helped that they know there is a group that can lead in managing the mangroves. (Note: The ADSDPP, wherein which its creation is included as a provision under the Philippines’ Indigenous People’s Rights Acts of 1997, is a plan prepared by indigenous cultural communities that outlines their strategies on how they will develop and protect their ancestral domains in accordance with their customary practices, laws, and traditions.)

Gayo: Was there any reluctance among indigenous leaders on providing training to women and female adolescents about SRHR? If yes, how did you manage it?

Vivien: There were instances when they felt violated and like we were being vulgar when we gave an SRHR orientation where we described women’s and men’s private parts. What we did, together with the women, we talked to the elders together. The women themselves explained to the elders saying that, “Nowadays, we do not know what our children are doing in their Facebook accounts…what they open and see there when we are not around. It is better that with this [the training], we will be able to guide them.” An agreement was then reached that when showing videos on SRH or when conducting an SRH training for youth, show the videos first to the elders and the women to determine how acceptable it is. If they disagree, make a compromise on what can and cannot be shown. If they say no, defer to them. Better to explain first to the leaders because if the leaders are convinced, they could easily influence the other community members. Listen to their opinions. If they are not ready yet, give them time to be ready. That’s why it is important to get free, prior informed consent so you know the do’s and don’ts and the things that need to be improved. Also, have a disclaimer to the audience that what they might see could be something uncomfortable for them and that it is only for educational purposes.

“[Their] acceptance is also important [and having] consultations with the community and providing capacity building to empower women to engage in these kinds of projects…It is [also] important to have a study prior to doing the project, especially if the focus will be on women. It will be good to know their perception about gender and SRHR.”

Gayo: What recommendations do you have on how to engage traditional leaders in advocating for SRH and environmental conservation?

Nemelito: It is best to know their culture and traditions first, and the best practice would always be to ask permission before engaging—always treat them with respect. Even if they think the project is against their existing beliefs but they believe that it will benefit everyone, they will approve it and push through with it.

Vivien: Before the project started, we presented [the project] to them as part of the free, prior informed consent process. We explained the project’s output and how it will help in their Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan. Then, we had a resolution saying that each of the elders had acknowledged the project. At the same time, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was created and signed. The elders requested the MOU and that it states that we will give information on SRHR and environmental protection and that we will integrate women-managed areas into their development and protection plan.

“Get to know them, know their culture and their traditions, and always treat them with respect.”

Interested in replicating the Twin-Bakhaw project? Use these tips to build culturally responsive programs with environmental applications. 

Gayo: How about the indigenous men’s perspective about the Twin-Bakhaw project’s concept of introducing SRHR to women in their community?

Vivien: At first the men could not accept it [introducing SRHR to the community] since they feel that men should be the ones making decisions, but when their wives attended the training, they eventually were able to accept it. We showed them that gender equality is having equal rights between men and women when making decisions. Their wives made them understand this concept [they learned from the training], so they were able to easily convince their husbands to participate and to help in building a mangrove nursery. The women also requested that we give a lecture to their husbands about SRHR so that they would better understand the importance of task sharing at home. The women thought that information should also be shared with their husbands to show that what they were saying to them had a basis…[so we had] an orientation [for men], on the basics of SRHR.

Ana Liza: What we are emphasizing is that men are not enemies, but they are women’s partners in all areas. That is gender mainstreaming. Men are not enemies, but they are allies.

Project staff and participants plant mangrove seedlings. Image credit: PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc.

Project staff and participants plant mangrove seedlings. Image credit: PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc.

Gayo: What changes have you seen in the community while implementing the project?

Nemelito: These women were able to realize that they have a right, they have a right to participate, the right to proper health care/services…It opened up a whole new world for them. They were able to identify the different health issues in their community and reproductive health and the importance of proper hygiene. Most of these women are now brave enough to say no to their husbands if they are not in the mood to have sex, or they will only have sex if their husbands have taken a bath and they smell good and clean…[and to discuss with their husbands] when to conceive, how many children [they would like to have], and the spaces of children at birth. Through the Twin-Bakhaw project, the women now have a voice and a place that they can call their own. Being leaders and stewards of the mangroves made them feel empowered. Most of these women have become more aware [of] marine protection and fisheries management, climate change, the importance of the interconnectedness of the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and the mangrove forest, which made them leaders in their own ways. When we asked them why they wanted to protect and conserve the mangroves and the whole marine ecosystem, they all said that they are doing it for their children and for the future generations to come.

Vivien: Now they have started to explain to their children the importance of taking care of the mangroves and how girls should take care of themselves, not only about protecting themselves from violence but also on proper hygiene and care of their reproductive health. There were also families that started planting mangroves as the “twin” for their newborn…that is the story of the Twin-Bakhaw.

“Most of these women have become more aware [of] marine protection and fisheries management, climate change, the importance of the interconnectedness of the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and the mangrove forest, which made them leaders in their own ways. When we asked them why they wanted to protect and conserve the mangroves and the whole marine ecosystem, they all said that they are doing it for their children and for the future generations to come.”

Gayo: What has been your proudest moment working on this project so far?

Vivien: That the mothers are now able to say to their husbands, “You take care of the children first since I have to attend a training, and it is my right to learn” and that they are now the ones lobbying the village leaders that they want their area to be a woman-managed area.

Nemelito: How these Tagbanua women were empowered and that we were able to build the leadership capacity of each one of them.

Ana Liza: The community loved me. They did not want me to go. When I told them about my last day in the community, they pooled their money together and were planning to give me a farewell party. I just stopped them because I know that they have no money. These are priceless moments…the mere thought that the community wants to prepare a celebration for you. This kind of community effort warms my heart.

The Twin-Bakhaw experience can help those who are looking for ways to implement multi-sectoral, community-based approaches to holistically address the needs of indigenous families and communities. Linking improved FP/RH to sustainable environmental conservation that impacts the community’s food security helps communities better accept the benefits of having a smaller family for their own and their community’s well-being. With the interconnectedness of development issues the world is facing today, an integrated approach by development projects such as Twin-Bakhaw is much needed to achieve significant impact in the areas of reproductive health, natural resource management, and food security.