FOR many years now, peace has been elusive to thousands of residents of Maguindanao province. The recurrent armed conflict between government troops and insurgent groups in the area has been affecting the lives of countless families, including children.
In the Municipality of Datu Salibo, evacuees from the remote Barangay Tee have sought refuge along the highway of the nearby Barangay Butilen, the former being one of the most affected villages.
But what were supposedly temporary shelters for the evacuees eventually became a constant evacuation site for the residents of Barangay Tee since most of their properties were destroyed by the frequent fighting.
Aida, 25, a mother of three boys and a resident of Barangay Tee, has been living in the evacuation area since 2008 when she was pregnant with her first child.
Every time the fighting subsided, Aida and her family used to go back to their houses in Barangay Tee until the day the rebels burned their house down leaving them no other choice but to stay in the evacuation area for good.
Residents and local officials of the war-torn village have left their properties behind after almost every public structure was destroyed, including schools and government offices.
Aida lives with her three kids and her husband, Abdul, in a small shack made of light materials. As with the other evacuees, their temporary shelter was built near the main highway of Datu Salibo town and situated near a river. The frequent flooding in the evacuation site brought about by the overflowing of the river after heavy rains affects their livelihood and presents risks their health and safety.
Aida admits that the location of their temporary shelter is too risky especially for the health of her children who are only 8, 5, and 3 years old, respectively. However, the bigger security threat posed by the frequent armed conflict in her village is too much to ignore.
To help protect children living in and around the evacuation area, Save the Children, a leading child-oriented non-government organization (NGO), has implemented a project that is directed towards protecting children in areas affected by armed conflict.
The European Union-funded project called, “Spaces for Peace: Strengthening the Protection of Children in the Province of Maguindanao, Philippines”, aims to promote the protection of children by conducting awareness raising activities in schools and in the communities and providing support to community-based groups who take the lead in addressing child protection issues, among others.
Save the Children believes that with the help of its partners, cases of child abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence may be prevented.
Aida is one of the many adult participants of Save the Children’s Adult Learning Sessions, a series of seminars that seeks to provide community members with valuable knowledge and insights on child-related issues, including child rights, child protection, and positive discipline. Incidentally, she is also a former beneficiary of a previous project from the same organization funded by the European Commission.
“I am happy that I am once again involved with Save the Children’s project because this time, I will be able to learn how I can protect my children and other children from harm,” Aida said.
The project also provides Learning Sessions for children where participants from different target schools are given workshops on child protection, child rights, and child participation, thereby providing them with opportunities to discuss and learn about child-related issues along with their peers.
In order to support the needs of the children in the affected communities, Save the Children helps strengthen the capacity of local government agencies tasked to lead in protecting children and has also supported the formation of core groups composed of parents, local heads, and religious leaders. The core groups are expected to function as champions on child protection, promoting community awareness and lobbying for local government support.
Despite having moved out of their original residence, Aida still fears for her family’s safety every now and then, especially whenever she hears the sound of gunfire from a distance. But with the help she gets from NGOs, she remains hopeful that one day her family can live normally.
“We would like to ask for help from the government so that we can have peace in our place and that we can have our old life back,” she said.
Now on its second year, Save the Children continues to implement its 3-year project on child protection among four municipalities in Maguindanao: Datu Salibo, Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Mamasapano, and Radjah Buayan. (Rosario Quitoras and Marani Samiana/Save the Children)