During Disasters, Women Count On Each Other

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Posted October 10, 2018 from Philippines
Storm-Proof Filipina Sisters
Honored to listen to these women's stories of survival.
Bayanihan in Action
Bayanihan in Action (1/1)

A woman's security is to know that the rest of the women and children in her community are free from danger. 

A month ago, I attended a family reunion. The thought of meeting my siblings, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles built up my excitement. I was ready to share updates and anecdotes with them. However, during our actual family gathering, I lost my voice.

It was a blessing that my biological sisters were present to speak on my behalf. They elaborated the stories I was supposed to share, and clarified confusions due to the unexpected barrier. They became my voice. Though I was in a disadvantaged situation, I still felt secured with them around.

That feeling of security was contrary to what I felt when Typhoon Kai-tak landed on our country on December 2017.  At the height of the intense gusts of wind and rain, there was a power outage, and our cellphones were battery drained. It was not just the storm that caused me to feel afraid. It was also the lost of communication with my loved ones. The thought that I was unable to reach out for help, even just to ask for their prayer, increased my anxiety.

This was the same feeling of insecurity when a 6.5 earthquake hit our region last year.  As soon as the quake ended, the electricity was gone. My phone's battery was empty, as the night grew darker. Pregnant with my youngest son, I felt vulnerable in pitch black darkness while waiting for my husband to return home. The electricity got restored after seven days. A grueling rotational power blackout followed. But to our neighbors, Super Typhoon Haiyan survivors, this was a small feat because they experienced worse.

A month from now, on November 8, 2018, the people of Tacloban City will light up candles along the streets to commemorate the the lost of their family and friends. About 6,000 people died, and 4,000 went missing when Super Typhoon Haiyan wrecked havoc in the Philippines. This year marks the fifth anniversary, but the trauma of the past remained. 

I had an opportunity to listen to the typhoon survival stories of three mothers. As they were recounting their experiences, tears interrupted their tales. They shared that living in the eastern part of the country, they were accustomed to storms; however, it was their first time to encounter Super Typhoon Haiyan's wrath.

They shared that the day before the landfall, they went to stay at the nearest evacuation area, an elementary public school. They traveled together with their children and some relatives.

During the landfall,  when the seawater rapidly rose above the ground, these mothers commanded their children to swim against the tide to reach the staircase and climbed up to the second floor. They struggled to climb themselves due to the strong current, but they managed to reach safety. That was the fierciest typhoon they've encountered in their lifetime and wished it will never happen again.

After the storm passed, they smelled a strong stench of foul odor  from the streets. In their horror, they saw numerous dead bodies scattered all over, people of different ages, from grandmothers to pregnant women to newborns. The trees and infrastructure were wiped out. When they visited their village, there was no house standing there. The storm swept all their possessions away. For the next three months, there was no electricity. They lived inside the schoolrooms. But many of the survivors are lived in makeshift tents. 

That was five years ago, but the remnants of that tragic past are still seen in the outskirts of the city today. Most of the survivors are still living in temporary shelters while they wait for their houses to be constructed  and awarded by the government.

Sadly, the typhoons did not stop coming to our nation.These natural disasters add more damages almost every month. They impede the progress of rehabilitation initiatives. 

Last month, Super Typhoon Mangkuk, the 16th typhoon to enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR), landed on the northernmost part of our country. According to Relief Web, it displaced 270,000 people. Another news states there were around 127 deaths, 80 of which where covered by landslides, and 110 people missing.  The reported damage cost $627 million. This was the strongest typhoon since Haiyan.

There are various forms of violence in the Philippines caused by lawless men: arm conflict, human trafficking, rape, cybersex, drug trade, etc. All these are threats to women's security. However, these threats are aggravated by natural disasters: typhoons, earthquakes, flood, landslides, volcanic eruption and so on.

These natural calamities disturb women's peace and security. A destruction on infrastructure or agricultural land is a lost of livelihood source. Damage of houses brings vulnerability to sexual exploitation. Desperation for economic opportunity forces some women to practice prostitution or some girls as victims of sexual trafficking or cybersex. 

This is why women should be part of the decision-making process especially on planning disaster-preparedness and post-disaster activities. A female voice should be loud enough to state these cases inside the halls of the policymakers so voiceless and vulnerable women in the grassroots will be counted and heard. Only women understand women.

For example, the supplies given for relief goods are food, water, and clothes. Emergency planners think these are the survivor's immediate basic needs. But it takes a woman leader to include a pack of sanitary napkin inside it. For a woman, menstrual hygeine is a basic need. 

During the emergency response for Super Typhoon Haiyan, breastfeeding mothers used social media to encourage the rest of lactating mothers in the country to express their excess milk and donate it! They were to store their milk in a sanitized storage bags, and to deliver these to the drop off centers. The organizers froze the stash, then sent it to evacuation camps.

These mothers were concern with those traumatized and stressed mothers who struggled to produce milk for their babies. No male leader can think about a solution like that. Men tend to think more on the operations side during emergency response, but women incorporate care and concern to those who are vulnerable.

While natural calamities and violence threaten women's security, these forms of perpetrators can unleash women's intelligence, strength and collaboration.

A gentle mother can turn into beast mode when her children is at a disadvantaged situation. Her protective nature fuels her rage to defend her own. This is why we need more women world leaders. Our feminine nature incorporate care and empathy into our leadership style. However, once we learn women in another part of a village, city, region, country or continent has been disadvantaged, discriminated or displaced by violence, we unleash our rage and we move heaven and earth to secure protection and seek justice for those women.

In the rural areas of the Philippines, there was once a community practice called bayanihan. It was an act of voluntary kindness by villagers coming together to carry a bahay kubo or a nipa hut, a house made of dried coconut leaves and bamboo. This usually took place when the resident wished to transfer his/her house to a different location or community. Instead of living the hut behind and build a new one, the neighbours gather together to lift the entire hut and move it to the new place. Bayanihan is no longer practiced today, but the concept of collaboration and solidarity remain. It is a metaphor of carrying one another's burden.

The bayanihan spirit in our country is awakened during disasters where everyone helps and treats each one as a human being. Whether the one whose life is at risk is a blood relation or not, a stranger or a rival, this is no longer relevant. The humanitarian spirit takes over to save a life.

Security for me is knowing that I am not alone in times of danger.  It is knowing that someone  has my back when I face multiple typhoons in this lifetime. It is sleeping soundly at night because there are women leaders involved in creating platforms that keep me and my family safe from all forms of violence. 

Security for me is to have a community of women here and abroad who support me, help me, and mentor me to help other communities of women as well. It is having a safe space and a strong support system. 

Security for me is practicing bayanihan. It is building a social cohesion of women. It is trusting that during those moments when I wanted to speak out but I have been silenced, a sister or group of sisters will be speaking on my behalf and become my voice. It is participating on women's initiatives to free women from bondage and violence.

Just as I feel secured when I have a shoulder to lean on, I can be completely secured when there is no longer a single woman in this world who suffers from threats of violence and disasters.

This post was submitted in response to The Future of Security Is Women .

Comments 7

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Obisakin Busayo
Oct 10, 2018
Oct 10, 2018

Yes! Women stood up for each other, women are always there for each other as encourager during crisis. I think we should doing more of this for each other because we are the one that understand each other better.
Thank you for sharing Karen!

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Oct 11, 2018
Oct 11, 2018

True. We support one another because our struggles as the same. Thank you for reading my story,. Busayo!

Oct 11, 2018
Oct 11, 2018

Hello there dear!

Thanks for sharing your sad stories about the typhoons in your country. I agree that should be more women in political offices so the whole, broad spectrum of needs is addressed for every need and challenge. You can count on me...I will always be there for you! Good luck with your story submission!

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Oct 11, 2018
Oct 11, 2018

Hello, Jill,

Everyone is the Philippines could have a story to tell about typhoons. But the most tragic of them all is the Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Yes, women leaders improve the state of women as a whole.

Thank you, Jill! This is my contribution to the campaign.

Oct 12, 2018
Oct 12, 2018

Hi lovely Karen, aka, my #1 fan:-)

I bet!

For real:-)

You're welcome.... keep 'em coming!

Hope you have a great day!

Ngala Nadege
Oct 13, 2018
Oct 13, 2018

Hello dear ,thanks for sharing !

Thank you, dear.