The Philippines is home to many indigenous communities. But even with legal frameworks such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) reports that IPs in the Philippines continue to face challenges in accessing basic social services and availing opportunities for participating in economic, education, or political activities.
Against this very context, it is no easy endeavor for many young women and girls to fight for and demand change as advocates of their own rights, especially coming from communities that strongly value cultural integrity and indigenous practices.
In honor of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples this coming August 9, 2021, we sat down and talked to Ghene, a 20-year-old girl advocate from the Ifugao Community in the Philippines. As she walked us through her journey as a girl advocate, she reflected on the challenges she faced, coming from an IP community, shared the valuable lessons she has picked up along the way, and imparted a significant message for all girl and young women activists out there.
Ghene started out as a girl advocate at age 14 and became actively involved in Plan International’s Positive Discipline Project back in 2015. Reflecting on her journey as a young advocate, she pointed to her youngest sibling, 9-year-old Nena, as her biggest inspiration for what she does.
“Before, I drew my motivation from other girls and their experiences, but as my sister grew up, that’s when I realized a more important duty I have, as her sister and as a girl, to help and contribute in shaping a society that can support her and keep her safe while she grows up. I want to see my sister grow up to become a strong, independent woman,” shared Ghene.
In many ways, Ghene has effected significant change already within her community through her involvement in the Positive Discipline Project, which yielded both local and national outcomes. But while she appreciates how open and supportive her locality is towards youth initiatives, there are still issues that remain difficult to tackle, particularly: Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health and Child Marriage.
“Since we are Indigenous Peoples, it is somewhat taboo or not as acceptable to talk about ASRH with adults. Although there are many initiatives from the Municipal Health Office, there are many programs, the target usually is the youth because we are more open to these discussions. It is a challenge to lay out the information, the education campaigns for the older sectors of the community,” she said.
Indeed, the fight for girls’ right to safety extends too vast for just any one person to take on their own. And knowing this is why Ghene has found comfort in the view that girl advocates should care for their own mental health, too.
“It’s okay to take a break,” reminded the 20-year-old. “When we ourselves are not mentally healthy, we would find it difficult to be the source of strength and the voice for the rights of others. In order to be strong, we must be able to take a rest.”
Not only that, Ghene also offers an inspiring way of looking at this uphill battle for the rights of girls and women, one that serves to remind us that this fight is always shared.
“This fight that we take on is never just about the present. It is also for the next generation of girls. We, the girl advocates of today, gained the ability to join, to be in this fight because of the women before us who helped ensure that we have this kind of freedom in our time. And so, everything we do now, we dedicate to those girls and women of the past, and to the girls and women of tomorrow.”
Ghene has recognized that not every girl and young woman has this safe space to speak up on the issues that matter to them. Thus, for her, this privilege to freely represent and act as a girl advocate is one that will continue to inspire and motivate her to help create a society that values and supports all girls.