By Marivir R. Montebon
“At one time, a mother complained that her husband had broken all her trays of eggs when he was drunk. Another husband had stolen his wife’s income from peanut vending. These realities have opened my eyes to the fact that domestic violence has a lot to do with the economic impairment of our women beneficiaries,” says Teresa Banaynal-Fernandez, women’s rights advocate and one time Cebu-based nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for 1000 Women.
That moment of truth, from women’s lamentations of abuse, led Tessie to make an organized campaign against domestic violence. At first it was a lonely issue, with her husband in fact cautioning her against prying on private lives. She did not listen to him, of course. She listened to her heart.
Now the campaign against domestic violence, through the Bantay Banay, has reached national proportions, in the legislative and executive offices of government in the Philippines.
Tessie and the women who wanted change have come a long way indeed.
Her nomination to the Nobel (she was the only one for Cebu) was definitely an additional feather on her cap, having gone a long way since her teenage years in the relentless, passionate task of empowering women and the marginalized sectors of southern Philippines. Although the nomination did not make it last year, Tessie believes it was mileage enough for women’s rights advocates in the whole world to make their works known and recognized. The Philippines fielded 28 women’s rights champions in the entire nomination.
Tessie (born 1953) is a passionate trailblazer in “alternative politics” for its ubiquitous but voiceless urban poor residents. She is a tireless advocate of women’s rights that has helped change the lives of many women and influenced government institutions, non-government organizations, and universities to take on such “unpopular” issues as domestic violence, gender sensitivity, good governance, environmental protection and human rights.
The Lihok Filipina Foundation, the institution that she helped found and is currently executive director, won as the exemplary institution in the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Triennial Awards in 2006.
When appointed to head Cebu City’s urban poor office in the early 1990s, she conducted a survey on domestic violence and found that six out of 10 women in the community were being battered. This prompted her to form the Bantay Banay program in 1992, a community-based and multi-stakeholder approach to end domestic violence. Police enforcers, social workers, councilors, lawyers, and village chiefs were trained in gender sensitivity and human rights to help them respond to domestic problems.
“It was time to realize that domestic violence and gender sensitivity are public concerns because it is commonly felt by women,” asserts Tessie. Barangay (village) volunteers were trained and a referral system was opened where non-government organizations, government agencies and professionals are tapped to help. Bantay Banay has been replicated in 70 cities and towns all over the country, effectively making the issue of domestic violence not only a public issue but also one of governance.
Tessie continues to pursue her other passions, the environment, particularly solid waste management, water conservation, and watershed protection.
PEACE IS POLITICAL
Tessie’s political awakening began in her teenage years in college at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City where she took sociology and history. Student unrest was sweeping from Manila, the country’s capital to Mindanao, as the young minds in universities grew increasingly critical and vocal about the way Marcos ran the country.
In 1971, on her third year in college, Tessie was among the leaders of a big protest action that demanded for quality services from the school. “We wanted peace in our land, but that which is based on justice. We were openly advocating for reforms,” she recalls.
When martial law was declared in 1972, she went back to her hometown in Wao, Lanao where she taught in a parish school. Teaching in her hometown provided a respite from the perils of the Marcos regime, when student leaders were blacklisted by the military as communists and arrested.
After graduating from college in 1972, she went back to her hometown for summer vacation where she was asked by the parish priest to teach in the coming school year. When martial law was declared in September that year, she was informed that her name was in the blacklist. She went into hiding for a month and later surfaced in a military camp in Cagayan de Oro with a character bond from the Archbishop. Tessie then joined the Social Action Office where she took charge of the relief and rehabilitation program for refugees, the youth program, and the Archdiocesan Bulletin.
As a community organizer, she helped the communities in Kawasaki Corporation and the tribal community of the Higaonons in Misamis Oriental. She became training director for Mindanao of the Philippine Ecumenical Community for Community Organizing and supervised the training of organizers in Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental and Occidental, Surigao, and Lanao del Norte.
Her marriage to Bimbo Fernandez, currently city administrator of Cebu City, in 1980 did not deter Tessie from her advocacy work.
In 1981, when she first became a mother, she settled in Cagayan de Oro and continued her work with the squatters in the city. Also at the time, she was involved in alternative law (making the law accessible and useful to people) and Pilipina, a women’s NGO that pioneered the advocacy for gender as a development issue.
In 1982, with a second child coming, Tessie joined her husband in Cebu and worked with him in advocating for low-income housing and experimenting on alternative housing materials using their own house as the example. She also began organizing the women in the community where they lived, initially around health care issues, land acquisition, and later, income generation.
The fall of President Marcos through the People Power uprising in 1986 opened new political frontiers. For Tessie, it was an opportunity to articulate the issues of the people who had long been silenced by martial law.
During the 1988 local elections, she initiated an electoral forum on urban poor issues in Cebu City that opened the discussion of commonly felt problems in the community by candidates and the urban poor organizations. The forum outlined seven major concerns for the urban poor, summed up under security of tenure and delivery of basic services.
“It was a first attempt at democracy, a kind of alternative politics where the people defined and articulated what they wanted and expected of the political leaders,” Tessie says. The forum, led by the political party Bandila, the Urban Poor People’s Council, and the Cebuano Development Forum which Tessie herself founded in 1985 and where Lihok Filipina is a member, later endorsed mayoralty and vice mayoralty candidates whose platforms jived with their concerns.
When these candidates won, they created an urban poor office that the mayor asked Tessie to head. Although she was hesitant to head a government office, Tessie was forced to take on the new responsibility on the insistent prodding of NGOs and urban poor organizations.
The Office for the Urban Poor takes charge of urban concerns such as land acquisition, relocations, basic services, and others. “It was an uneasy undertaking for me. I was used to working in a non-government organization, which was very critical of government. And suddenly, there I was, asked to head a government office. It was very uncomfortable. But I managed to do what I had to do, and reminded myself that once I become an apologist for the government, it is time to get out,” she quips.
Tessie initiated advocacy of the Community Mortgage Program (CMP) for land acquisition of the urban poor authored by er husband, who was then presidential commissioner for the urban poor. The CMP later became a program of the national government, as a response to the land tenure needs of the urban poor.
PEACE STARTS AT HOME
That domestic violence is a social issue became an uneasy realization for Tessie who, alongside her work at the urban poor office, continued to manage the Lihok Pilipina Foundation which had programs for micro credit, production and marketing assistance, a welfare program for street children, water and sanitation, and women’s education.
The foundation’s staff was surprised and alarmed at the low repayment by women in Lihok’s micro credit program. Tessie realized that domestic violence probably had something to do with the problem.
“At one time, a mother complained that her husband had broken all her trays of eggs when he was drunk. Another husband had stolen his wife’s income from peanut vending. These realities have opened my eyes to the fact that domestic violence has a lot to do with the economic impairment of our women beneficiaries,” Tessie says.
“When I touched on domestic violence as an issue, my husband was at first reactive. He asked, ‘Why do you have to touch on something so private to couples?’” Tessie says.
But she was unstoppable and Tessie brought the long misunderstood issue of domestic violence into the consciousness of Lihok Pilipina.
Her office conducted a survey on domestic violence and found out that six out of 10 women in the community were being battered. This led to the formation of Bantay Banay in 1992, a community-based and multi-stakeholder approach to end domestic violence.
Police enforcers, social workers, councilors, lawyers, and village chiefs were trained in gender sensitivity and human rights in order help them respond to domestic problems.
“It was time to realize that domestic violence and gender sensitivity are public concerns because they are commonly felt by women,” asserts Tessie.
Since many cases were referred to city hall, the mayor lent financial support to the training of barangay (village) volunteers and opened up a referral system where non-government organizations, government agencies, and professionals are tapped to help. Bantay Banay has been replicated in 70 cities and towns all over the country, effectively making the issue of domestic violence not only a public issue but also one of governance.
Cebu City is among the cities where the gender issue is mainstreamed in its planning and budget processes. Recently, it was one of the three awardees as a Women Friendly City in the Asia Pacific given by UN Habitat and UNIFEM.
The city was also awarded by the Galing Pook Foundation as an outstanding city in the realm of Gender Responsive Governance. Other than politics and women empowerment, Tessie is a staunch advocate of environmental protection. Her urban poor groups
are pioneering in a solid waste management program that segregates recyclables from degradable wastes right in the home.
This effort has been replicated by 11 barangays in the city.
She was among those who started the Cebu Uniting for Sustainable Water which advocates for water and watershed conservation through educational tours, reforestation activities, and sensitive land use plans.
PEACE IS PERSONAL
At the end of the day, among her many roles, Tessie is ultimately the mother of eight children, a role she gladly performs amid the huge challenges of her advocacy work. “Despite my busy schedule, I always have time for my children. I make it a point to attend parents-teachers meetings in school. And I make sure I buy them the stuff they need for school, that I always remember to bring them at the end of day,” she beams.
While the children were growing, she would bring her kids to her office. “My bag was always stuffed with crayons, candies, and toys for them so that I could continue with my work while they drew or played in a corner.”
Now all the children have grown, and she has much more time for her work. It seemed to go by so quickly, Tessie observes, but raising eight children was not at all easy.
“I had to budget our money very well. I did not want to incur debts, so I made sure we prioritized school and food first. Until now, our house is a work-in-progress. And since they came one year after the other, my kids did not mind wearing hand-me-down clothes. We try to limit spending and only spent what we earn. This is one of the surest ways to have peace of mind. This is one value I taught my children,” she says.
Where does a woman like Tessie get her strength to work as mother and advocate for social change? “After I have done my utmost, I pray that God will take care of the rest. I guess, faith and gut feel just keep me going,” she says, smiling.
(This article first came out from the WOMEN’S FEATURE SERVICE) #