Tributes highlight beauty of Nelia Sancho

Photo courtesy of Sancho family


MANILA – Tributes continue to pour for the late beauty queen and women’s rights activist Nelia Sancho, who passed away last week.

“Nelia Sancho contributed immeasurably to building Gabriela, which today stands as a shining example of how principled unity and collective action can bring about significant changes in society and empower women to fight for their socio-cultural, political and economic rights and interests,” women’s group Gabriela said in a statement.

In 1971, Sancho was crowned Queen of the Pacific, a pageant held in Melbourne, Australia. Under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., she became active in the progressive movement and later the underground movement “in pursuit of meaningful changes in the country,” as described in a 2016 women’s month tribute by advocacy group Dakila.

She was arrested and detained from 1976 to 1978, along with other activists during the Martial Law period. Here, she suffered torture from her military captors, Gabriela said.

Sancho later ran under the banner of Partido ng Bayan together with the late labor leader Crispin Beltran, press freedom fighter Jose Burgos Jr., and human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong as they advocated for a new politics in the 1987 senatorial elections.

She also served as the chairperson of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) in 1990.

“Her empathy towards the marginalized, her sharp intellect and her gentle but firm negotiation skills made Nelia a great human rights advocate,” the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council said in their tribute.

A beauty queen turned activist, a mother

In Sancho’s previous interview with the Asian Journal USA, she shared that she initially took pre-med courses at the University of the Philippines but later shifted to Mass Communication.

Read the interview here.

In 1969, she joined the Bb. Pilipinas pageant where she won first runner-up. She then modeled for Pitoy Moreno, one of the country’s top fashion designers, and was later appointed by the tourism department to represent the Philippines in the Queen of the Pacific pageant.

After her stint, she became involved in student activism, particularly protests against the US involvement in the Vietnam war. She also helped her classmates who later joined the underground movement.

In 1973, however, her former classmates were arrested and along with them was a list of their donors and supporters that included Sancho’s name. This forced them to go into hiding as well.

Her turning point, she told the Asian Journal USA in the interview, was when she witnessed the killing of two university professors.

“My conscience could not settle down,” she said, ”I was very mad at the military. Finally, I decided to join the underground. In fact, I even had to look for them; not the other way around. They did not look for and recruit me.”

When asked if there were regrets, she said that there were none “because those were my decisions at those particular moments, dictated by my conscience.”

“Would I do them again given another chance? Well, I have already experienced them, perhaps I might try another experience,” Sancho said in her interview.

In their tribute, Bayan paid the highest tribute to Sancho who served as chairperson from 1990 to 1994 which they described as “critical years” for their organization. “She, along with our allied sectors, showed her principled, sharp, and enduring efforts to fail all attempts to sow disunity in Bayan. She served as the light that united our efforts to continue our struggle.”

They, too, remember her pocket calendar that is usually filled with her schedules and activities. Every space of it, including the borders, was filled with her notes.

Bayan also thanked Sancho’s family who understood and supported the life she lived, and the struggles she endured along with the marginalized.

Meanwhile, in her Facebook post, Anna Louise, Sancho’s daughter, described her mother as someone who was not afraid to try new things and was so full of life. “My favorite memory would be you reading books to me as a child.”

Anna Louise said that when she was pregnant with her son, her mother carried him in her arms “every morning outside and gave him his much-needed morning sun. I think Ava got your wits and it always amused you,” she added.

A champion of Filipino comfort women

Gabriela said that one of Sancho’s important contributions in the country’s women’s movement was her advocacy for the promotion of the rights and reparation of Filipino comfort women.

In a post, former social welfare secretary and women’s rights activist Judy Taguiwalo said that Sancho went to South Korea in the early 1990s to meet Korean comfort women, who were abducted to provide sexual service to Japanese soldiers during World War II. “When she came back to the Philippines, Nelia had a radio interview, related the stories of the Korean comfort women and called on Filipino women who went through a similar experience to come forward.”

This prompted Lola Rosa Henson to come forward as the first Filipina comfort woman to share her experience during the Japanese occupation.

In 1992, she initiated the Task Force on Filipino Comfort Women and, two years later, the Lila Pilipina, which has since served as the voice of the survivors of Japanese wartime military sex slavery in the country. She also led “Lolas Kampanera” which documented the plight of Filipino comfort women.

“Nelia fought, together with the victims in court battles, in the halls of parliament and on the streets, for justice and a stop to wars of aggression or occupation and military sexual violence against women,” the women’s group said.

An inspiration in the women’s movement

Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Vicky Tauli Corpuz, on the other hand, described Sancho as a key player in the women’s movement in the Philippines.

Gabriela said that Sancho who is among their founding members and its former secretary general “initiated programs and organizations that responded to the rights and welfare of Filipino children, socioeconomic and community health programs for poor women, and the promotion of women’s human rights.”

“She exemplified the leader who was always immersed in the company of, and commiserated with the daily struggles of poor women,” the group added.

Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas said that despite Sancho’s passing, she will “continue to inspire generations of women who will continue the fight against the worsening humanitarian crisis in the country.”

In her tribute, Davao City-based doctor and chairperson of Gabriela-South Mindanao Jean Lindo said, “I raise my clenched fist to the extraordinary human. Goodbye and thank you, Nelia Sancho. I am grieving yet I see purpose in you and it’s alive.” (RTS, DAA) (

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