THE idea that a woman can mediate successfully between armed groups of hostile men, and that one of these groups comprises hardline, Sharia-touting Islamists, might seem far-fetched to traditional Western societies.

But not so in the Philippines, where two women have taken the lead in resolving the long-running Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.

Teresita Quintos Deles, a former teacher, women’s rights advocate and anti-poverty tsar, was reappointed presidential adviser on the peace process by President Benigno Aquino in July, 2010.

Since then, her steady and patient hand has guided the combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and their government interlocutors towards a historic peace deal that both sides now regard as all but inevitable.

Interviewed in her office in Manila, she speaks eloquently of the need to ensure that all those affected by the agreement ... have ownership of the process. “As in all peace processes, there is a symbiotic relationship between the people on the ground and the negotiators,” she said.

In a speech in Davao City on Feb 4, Deles showed a very humane understanding of reconstruction and development issues in the Bangsamoro region, whose long-term resolution will be crucial if the peace deal is to stick.

“We all know that the areas [covered by the pact] remain the most underdeveloped communities in the country….

“Government is committed to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of conflict-affected areas and to fast-track socio-economic development ... This will be accomplished in a large part by empowering the Bangsamoro themselves [to] transform their own communities,” she said. “As the fighters see these developments on the ground — that the peace is real, the land can now be cultivated and crops can grow to full harvest, there is livelihood for me and a market for my products, my children can go to school… — then it will be a matter not just of me giving up something but of a better life I will be gaining for my family and my community, especially our children.”

Encouraged by this outlook, activists in the National Rural Women Coalition, backed by Oxfam, are working to ensure the peace deal recognises indigenous women’s roles, said secretary-general Daryl Leyesa. Village women traditionally acted as arbiters of domestic and community disputes, for example, and this function must be allowed to continue under the new dispensation, she said.

Deles works closely with Miriam Coronel Ferrer, professor of politics at the University of the Philippines who was one of 27 Filipinas among 1,000 women listed for the Nobel peace prize in 2005. Last year Ferrer became the first woman chair of the government’s negotiating team.

The Islamists’ leaders had initially balked at dealing with women, but that gradually changed, Deles said. “Some in the MILF had some kind of difficulty. There was uncertainty they would work with a lady chair. Yet now they have increased women in their delegation, including a woman lawyer.”

Deles allows herself a wry smile. “There is no tokenism here. It is about merit. Women are always tested harder than men but we have passed so far.” — The Guardian, London

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