1993-06-07 00:00:00

Almost two years after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, those most seriously affected have traversed the demarcation line between "victim" and "survivor."

Such is the case with the Aeta indigenous people who live in Barrio (village) Camatchiles, Floridablanca, Pampanga province, 75 kilometers north of Manila. These Aetas have indeed survived.

The eruption June 15 and 16, 1990, of the volcano -- which for so long laid dormant -- forced them to flee in panic. Now these tribal people have rebuilt 95 percent of their homes, resumed planting bananas, cassava and assorted vegetables and begun to care for tree seedlings in their nursery.

The women have come a long way, too. Traditional Aeta culture limited their involvements to the field and home. But since the eruption of the volcano, Aeta women have begun to speak to outsiders about their experiences, joys and sorrows. Recently, they organized a health committee.

Now two of the Aeta women, Cherry Santos and Mely Apang, are among the leaders of Floridablanca´s Aeta federation, "Agumen ga reng Katutubong Ayta," formally launched in March 1992 with an all-male leadership.

However, the men realized that they lacked some of what the women could provide, including proficiency in taking minutes and that "special touch" needed to keep the harmony within the organization.

The men were also at a loss when inter-NGO (non-governmental organizations) meetings would request the presence of representatives from the women´s sector. Last October, Santos was elected secretary general while Apang was tasked with the health committee.

"I don´t know if it is really something they wanted to do or were forced to do," Santos muses. "Health is usually associated with women, but it does not mean that the men should not be involved," clarifies Mely.

Outspoken and assertive, the two women have animated the organization to consider the unique situation of women in all phases of rehabilitation work.

Together with this author, and a female researcher from the Women and Development Program of the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, they undertook participatory research on the way the Aeta women of Camatchiles coped with the Pinatubo eruption and ongoing disaster.

As the women recounted their experiences, they realized that their panic reaction during the first week was intensified by their lack of information regarding volcanoes and volcanic eruptions.

They had not read about these; neither had the elders told them of past eruptions. With the earth shaking, sand and ashes falling, sulfur fumes enveloping them and lightning, they were convinced they were going to die. Amid shrieking and laughter, they mimicked each other´s shouts and gestures.

Life at the three evacuation centers where the Aetas were placed varied. The greatest insecurity was that they might never see their homeland again. But they also made an important discovery. Their isolation had not informed them that there were so many other Aetas in Luzon -- 80,000 in fact.

Although various support groups helped in making the rehabilitation phase go at a faster pace, the women have one critique: many support groups, whether government or NGOs, are not quite gender-sensitive. The support groups usually think that "leaders" are only male, and thus fail to gather any information from the women in consultation meetings.

The "Food-for-Work" program is likewise misperceived as gender-blind, inasmuch as it provides food for work done in the public sphere -- road building, construction of multipurpose centers and other edifices, and the like. The women also work -- inside the home and in the fields -- but this is not usually recognized as having value and has no equivalent in rice.

Nonetheless, the women continue their work. They have learned to come to meetings, whether or not they are invited, and have begun to speak out their minds, assert their rights.

The health program is their special test case. If they can effectively lead this endeavor, without antagonizing the men too much, eventually the men will come to respect women´s expanded role in the community.

(by Victoria Narciso-Apuan)


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