The International Women’s Day (IWD) is widely celebrated across the globe for all women hailing from different backgrounds and ethnicities. It is a day dedicated to shed light on violence against women (VAW), to promote gender equality and women’s rights, and to celebrate the victories brought about by the feminist movement.
On this day, March 8, the UPLB Perspective would like to feature the women martyrs, activists and desaparecidos of Southern Tagalog who suffered in the fight towards genuine democracy and freedom. We would also like to commemorate individuals who were victims of gender-based violence and were stripped of their right to life.
Remembering the women of Southern Tagalog
“Tish” (desaparecido since November 1975)
Ma. Leticia Ladlad was an agricultural chemistry student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) who was expected to graduate magna cum laude. She was the first woman editor-in-chief of Aggie Green and Gold, precursor publication of the UPLB Perspective.
She joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) and was a co-founder of the UP Cultural Society and the League of Editors for a Democratic Society.
Despite her promising performance in the university, Tish quit her studies and worked full-time with peasant farmers in the provinces of Laguna and Quezon in 1971. She was able to marry in 1973 to activist Vicente Ladlad and by 1975, she gave birth to their daughter.
In late November, 1975, she met with some of her comrades near Paco Church in Manila. They were expected to return within that day but Tish, along with her group, vanished without a trace. Her family and friends went to Camp Crame, but they were unsuccessful in finding her there. Up to this day, she hasn’t been found, making her the first desaparecido of UPLB.
“Tina” (desaparecido since July 31, 1977)
Melania Cristina Catalla was an agriculture student majoring in economics. She was part of the Delta Phi Omicron Sorority and organizations such as the UP Student Catholic Action as well as the UP Cultural Society. She was, once, the associate editor of the Aggie Green and Gold.
When Martial Law was imposed, Tina chose to leave UPLB in order to serve the people and to work as a youth organizer; she actively led and organized mobilizations against the Marcos regime.
Tina, together with five other youth activists, went missing on July 31, 1977. Among them were Rizalina Ilagan and Jessica Sales, both from UPLB. Until now, the three women are yet to be seen. The military, in 1978, sent a letter to their families informing them that Catalla, Ilagan, and Sales were killed in Mauban, Quezon during an encounter between the military and the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). However, their bodies were still nowhere to be found.
“Lina” (desaparecido since July 31, 1977)
Rizalina Ilagan was an activist and a very talented artist who studied in UPLB. Even before she entered college, Lina was already excelling in the arts and academics. She joined a speech and drama club, directed plays, and wrote for the Ruralite, UP Rural High School’s official student publication. It was also in high school where she became an activist, joining Kabataang Makabayan (KM), the broadest militant youth organization during Martial Law. Later on, she became the coordinator of Panday Sining (PS) in Southern Tagalog, a national performing group of artists creating art for progressive expressions of national democracy.
Lina left her studies in UPLB after the declaration of martial law as she wanted to work full-time in educating and organizing different communities and sectors under the dictatorship of Marcos. She became a writer for Kalatas, a clandestine newspaper from Southern Tagalog.
The unfortunate day of July 31, 1977 came, and Rizalina went missing too. Reports said that prior to the abduction, state forces were eager in finding her.
“Jessica” (desaparecido since July 31, 1977)
Jessica Sales was a student leader who graduated cum laude in 1972 in Centro Escolar University (CEU) with a degree in social sciences. She was an editor of her university’s student publication, and she actively participated as a member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), an alliance of tertiary student publications in the Asia Pacific region.
Jessica taught sociology and political science at UP Manila and then at UPLB. It was there in UPLB where she worked at the Department of Agricultural Education as a research associate while also taking her masteral in the same department. Before her disappearance in 1977, she was already preparing for her thesis defense.
She initiated the establishment of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) at UPLB and she also organized the Kapisanan ng mga Gurong Makabayan (KAGUMA), an organization of teachers who fought for their rights and protection; Jessica also stood her ground and was very active in campaigning against the tyranny of the Marcos dictatorship.
All of these women bravely fought for the nation, and for the people. One might think that the government’s efforts to silence dissenters will make them cower, but these women resisted with greater force, ignoring the dangerous repercussions of taking a stand against the then authoritarian rule.
Today, we are said to be experiencing a similar regime to that of Marcos’. The Girls for Peace, a women-led campaign network calling for peace to fight state fascism, said, “What’s Martial Law back then is the Anti-Terrorism Law today.”
“Rjei” (died on September 3, 2020)
Rona Jane Manalo was born in the farming town of Sariaya, Quezon and was the eldest among her six siblings.
She graduated in UPLB with a BS Forestry course back in 2011. She was a student leader who served as vice chairperson of the Samahan ng Kabataan para sa Bayan (SAKBAYAN), an alliance of organizations, fraternities, and sororities across the UP system. She was a former chairperson of Gabriela Youth UPLB and was part of the Mussaenda Honor Sorority.
After her graduation, she dedicated her life to the feminist movement and became the Secretary General of Gabriela Southern Tagalog. After serving in Gabriela, she went and lived with the Mangyan and Palaw’an indigenous peoples where she opposed the destructive mining projects and corporations being built in Palawan. Rjei then proceeded to join the armed struggle.
Rjei or “Ka Ren” was included in the Brooke’s Point 5 – the five martyrs who were killed on September 3, 2020 during an encounter between the NPA and the 3rd Marine Brigade in Brgy. Mainit, Brooke’s Point, Palawan.
“Ka Pia” (died on September 14, 2020)
Justine Ella Vargas was a Palaweña who lived in Paly Island, Taytay, Palawan. She came from a family of fishermen and growing up, she was able to see the disparities and injustices concerning their living conditions. At an early age, she already realized the need to fight for their right to life and livelihood.
She fought alongside her family and community in order to prevent the destruction of their homes, to oppose the construction of ecotourism projects that can disrupt their livelihood, and to bar the entry of destructive mining companies into their province.
Vargas was a member of Gabriela, an organization advocating women’s rights, as well as the the fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) – Palawan.
Ka Pia understood that the oppressed cannot achieve justice, democracy, and freedom in today’s rotten society. She realized that a revolution is needed to rebuild a government that will truly serve the people which is why she joined the NPA and served as the armed group’s medical staff in Occidental Mindoro.
After a year in the Party, Ka Pia was killed in an encounter between the NPA and the state forces in Barangay Gapasan, Magsaysay, Occidental Mindoro on September 14, 2020.
The importance of the women’s movement
The women of today, whether they be activists or citizens who advocate for change, are more stronger than ever.
In an interview with the Perspective, Gabriela Youth (GY) Southern Tagalog Chairperson Rizia Santos said, “Activism for me is an act of defiance against the ruling class, it is to fight for social justice and basic human rights. It is a labor of love wherein one should always put the interests of the toiling masses above everything else. It is an act of bravery that despite all the danger and uncertainties, we fervently press on with high spirits because we know it is for a greater cause.”
Although she believes that this path comes with sacrifices, she believes that in the revolution is where a woman should be. “We must choose to fight in order to truly free ourselves from the chains of oppression, abuse, and prejudice.” says Santos.
She said that, today, we face this idea that being in the modern world signifies that war and struggle do not exist anymore and that we now have rights, but she asserted that social justice has not been fully achieved and we need to show this to people. Santos added that with today’s technology, the struggles for women’s basic rights extended into the virtual world.
Neen of Panday Sining UPLB said that we are currently living in a period where women have the freedom that wasn’t enjoyed before. However, even with this freedom, she claims that she is still “vulnerable for being a woman and an activist.”
It’s like being free, but still being chained to society’s norms. Because for as long as society views women as weak and emotional, as sexual objects, and as lesser beings than men, there can never be true freedom, equality, and safe spaces for us.
Our very own president has received backlash countless times because of his sexist comments about women. It ranges from rape jokes to ordering to shoot the female parts of communist rebels to make them “useless.”
Neen shared her opinion about Duterte’s views and remarks against women. She said, “his disregard of basic human decency as a whole is a mockery of the advances we’ve made towards equality.”
When asked why she joined Panday Sining and why she chose to become an activist at this time when oppression, abuse, and prejudice against women are rampant, she said that these are precisely the reasons which made her unite with the organization.
The Perspective was also able to interview Rae Rival, a mother and the coordinator of Rural Women Advocates (RUWA), a group of volunteers forming the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women. According to her, she joined RUWA because it recognizes that many rural and peasant women are exploited and landless due to our country’s macho-feudal system. She believes organizations such as RUWA need to expand to carry out plans of ending oppression and discrimination.
Choosing the militant path has its dangers. She said that police harassment is common during protests and that she experienced it firsthand. In their protest action against the Rice Liberalization Law (RLL) at the Department of Agriculture (DA) last February 15, Rival said that policemen instructed them to leave. The chief also repeatedly asked who their leaders were even when the leaders themselves, of which both are women, kept saying “We are the leaders.”
One policeman even told Rival that in order to prove that she is a true farmer, she should explain the process of tilling land. She agreed and asked to hold an hour-long program for them.
“They only gave us 30 minutes to hold our program, and kept shouting ‘Last five minutes!’ while the speakers were still talking. They tapped their shields and moved closer to us. We had to march to the Department of Agrarian Reform to disperse peacefully but they still followed us.” Rival said.
The thirst for change also reflects on these modern day progressive women. The mere vision of a changed society, where women are granted equal opportunities and potential, pulled them into the struggle stronger than the dangers that tried to push them away. But how can one be pulled in rather than fear away from organizing and mobilizing themselves?
“A woman’s place is in the revolution”
Given that there are some women who are still hesitant to fight for their rights due to fear, Neen told Perspective that in our current political climate, it is fine to feel scared but we should keep in mind that we can always start with small steps. She said that we can start with educating ourselves about what national democratic mass organizations (NDMOs) stand for by simply attending educational discussions (EDs). According to her, “[this] knowledge will eventually empower you to have your own voice as well as amplify the masses’ responsibly.”
Rival, on the other hand, discussed the importance of unity, further explaining that it is with each other where we will get to draw strength in order to break our macho-feudal society. She also mentioned that educating each other is the way to begin.
“We must first educate ourselves so that we can educate others; know what it means to be an organized individual so that we can organize and mobilize other women. Only then can we smash this patriarchal, semi-feudal, semi-colonial system.” says Rival.
In a fight for a just society, now more than ever do we need collective effort and action. Santos says she encourages everyone to join the movement. “Nothing can be achieved alone but through our solidarity, we will forge a future that allows no woman to suffer.”
This is an urgent call as the crackdown on progressive organizations and individuals intensifies as well. Just yesterday, Southern Tagalog activists and progressive leaders faced a series of arrests, raids, and brutal killings, turning a peaceful sunday into a bloodbath. (Read: Lima ang patay, apat ang arestado matapos ang ‘Bloody Sunday’ sa Timog Katagalugan)
The force, not only of the Southern Tagalog region, but of the whole nation, will only strengthen because for every life that is taken, the need for resistance and struggle becomes clearer.
Tish, Tina, Lina, Jessica, Rjei, and Ka Pia represent the importance and the huge role of women in the revolution. They also symbolize why the women’s rights movement should continue to empower its advocacies and stances towards equality and justice not just for women, but for all victims of tyranny, because our fight is far from over. As Neen said, “Hindi kumpleto ang rebolusyon kung wala ang kababaihan.”
It is indeed dangerous and life-threatening to challenge the system and the people who maintain it. But fear not because one day, these oppressors will be the ones to shake in fear; they will be the individuals threatened by the power of the masses. Soon, the tables will turn, and the feminist movement will only continue to prosper because they, too, will be claiming their places in the next revolution. [P]
Photos from Bantayog.org, KARAPATAN-TK