Advocates pay tribute to women rights defenders

Karapatan, in a protest action on Nov. 29, highlighted the cases human rights defenders Cora Agorvida and Honey Mae Suaza, as “both recent victims of state-perpetrated attacks against women defenders who assert people’s rights, including our communities’ rights to a safe and healthy environment.”


MANILA – On International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, a human rights group has put a spotlight on the plight of two women activists – one missing, one illegally arrested – in two separate incidents in the Philippines as its government continues its apparent crackdown against dissent.

Karapatan, in a protest action on Nov. 29, highlighted the cases human rights defenders Cora Agovida and Honey Mae Suaza, as “both recent victims of State-perpetrated attacks against women defenders who assert people’s rights, including our communities’ rights to a safe and healthy environment.”

Gabriela – Metro Manila spokesperson Agovida, along with husband Michael Tan Bartolome, was arrested in Manila on Nov. 1. On the other hand, former Karapatan – Southern Mindanao secretary general Suazo was reported missing since Nov. 2. Her whereabouts remain unknown as of this writing.

Woman leader, husband arrested in Manila

Davao rights activist reported missing

“They are women who have both voice and agency, who are empowered to organize and move others into action against government-aided businesses and projects detrimental to communities; yet it is precisely this empowerment that threatens the government and thus rendered them as targets,” said Cristina Palabay, co-convenor of Tanggol Bayi, a group of women human rights defenders in the Philippines.

The International Women Human Rights Day, celebrated every Nov. 29 per the United Nations, aims to celebrate the contributions of women defenders, as well as commemorate the lives of those killed in the line of fire.

In recent months, Palabay said human rights defenders have been subjected to more stigmatization, demonization, judicial harassment, and grave rights abuses such as killings under President Duterte’s Executive Order No. 70, creating a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

Weaponizing law

Palabay pointed out that the two women, as many other women human rights defenders in the country, “are at the frontlines, including the struggle for a safe and healthy environment.”

Agorvida was actively involved in the campaign against the reclamation of Manila Bay. She also took part in the campaign against a coal pile in Tondo, focusing its impact on the health and welfare of women and children.

Tondo urban poor protest illegal coal dust stockpiles

Meanwhile, Suazo was with Karapatan from 2011 to 2016, where she led campaigns against militarization of communities, large-scale mining, and logging operations. However, Karapatan said that even after she left, she continued to face numerous threats.

She was last seen on Nov. 2, after paying a visit to her relatives’ grave in Panabo, Davao del Norte. She then informed her partner that she was being tailed by a white-pick-up truck. Her phones eventually became out of reach. Karapatan attributed her “disappearance to the handiwork of the military who have been actively engaged in perpetrating threats against her.”

Both cases, Palabay said, are few examples of women who refused to cower amid an atmosphere of terror. Likewise, their cases show that we are far from a society that truly respects and promotes people’s rights,” Palabay said.

“As laws are weaponized to cripple critical thought and criminalize dissent, women human rights defenders have increasingly been at risk. Yet the overwhelming pushback from women continues to challenge the macho-fascist character of emerging authoritarian regimes,” said Palabay.

The Center for Women’s Resources, for its part, said the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places for human rights defenders as they are targeted by state-sponsored rights abuses.

Elisa’s killing

Karapatan issued a separate statement assailing the continuing injustice to their Negros Oriental coordinator Elisa Badayos and peasant leader Eleuterio Moises who were killed while conducting a fact-finding mission in Bayawan, Negros Oriental on the eve of the International Women Human Rights Defenders day two years ago.

Karapatan said no proper and independent investigation was ever conducted to hold to account the perpetrators of the killing.

“We remember and recognize her work in peasant communities, working tirelessly and beyond the spotlight to advocate for people’s rights. It is through people like Elisa and Eleuterio, and the cause that they fought for, that organizations like Karapatan are dearly humbled and further engaged in the struggle for people’s rights,” the group said.

Under the Memorandum Order No. 32, the killings and repressive measures in Negros, however, never stopped. The same is true in many parts of the country.

The group added that their “best tribute to our slain colleagues is our strengthened commitment to promote, protect and advance people’s rights.”


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