Women complete Mountain Search and Rescue Training


`Woman power alive in Canatuan’

Julie Gutoman-Lacastesantos, Marites Atog, Rovelyn Roque, and Ederlina Nabiog come from different backgrounds. But by becoming the first women to undertake and complete the rigorous Mountain Search and Rescue Training (MOSART) in Canatuan, they were able to prove one thing: that they can be equals with men in determination and skill in a traditionally male-dominated field.

These women are now also qualified to undertake further training; part of a program to prepare individuals who wish to join two civilian organizations that will eventually assume the security and peacekeeping functions to protect this remote village in a post-conflict zone in Southern Philippines.

Rovelyn Roque (right) administers CPR to a male “victim” while he is secured to the backboard by Julie Lacastesantos (center).

Canatuan, located in the mountainous eastern portion of Zamboanga del Norte, is the ancestral domain of the Subanon indigenous people (IP) and host to the mining operations of TVI Resource Development Philippines, Inc. (TVIRD).

Lacastesantos, a 29-year old half-Subanon, was a former “blue guard” of the private company that once secured the TVIRD plant. A Canatuan native, she opted to stay behind after her security agency’s contract with TVIRD expired. “If I continue serving as a blue-guard, I will be forced to be away from my family and our ancestral land,” Lacastesantos said. “Through MOSART, I will be able to serve the community in times of emergency, and may also be able to get a job.”

Marites Atog successfully completes her first rappelling maneuver down a steep slope as an instructor assists. “Despite the hardships that we went through, we are grateful that we now have new skills that we can use for our community.”

Ederlina Nabiog during the firefighting drill. “I will be able to serve our community in times of emergency and may be able to have a job.”

Since the deployment of the Special Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit Active Auxiliary (SCAA) forces in 2002 following two ambush incidents that killed 15 and injured nearly two dozen TVIRD employees and relatives, mostly Subanon, the people in Canatuan have been enjoying the benefits of peace and security. However, the economic development brought about by TVIRD’s gold and silver project, coupled with the company’s joint efforts with the Philippine government to extend government services to an area previously underrepresented, has given TVIRD and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) the confidence to civilianize security and to assist in normalizing the previously conflict-affected community.

The women “Responders”: (from left) Julie Lacastesantos, Ederlina Nabiog, Rovelyn Roque, and Marites Atog with Noelle Nazareno, TVIRD Canatuan Community Relations and Development officer.

The changeover will begin in January 2008, when TVI Security Force, Inc. and TVI Community Protection, Inc. – separate Filipino private companies – take over the SCAA’s security and peacekeeping functions in Canatuan. And women want to be part of the action.

From the start of the 10-day training to its finish, the women trainees stood their ground. Side by side with their male counterparts, the majority of whom are SCAA regulars, the women performed every training exercise with equal competence and skill. From drills to stringent search and rescue exercises like basic first aid, firefighting, navigation, air marshalling, single rope techniques, and evacuation, the women showed that they were capable of doing what men can do.

For Marites Atog, a 28-year old pure Subanon who works as a clerk for the Siocon Subanon Association Inc. (SSAI), the search and rescue skills she acquired were worth the difficulties that she and her fellow women-trainees endured during the training. “Despite the hardships that we went through, we are grateful that we now have new skills that we can use for our community, especially for our family if ever incidents requiring these skills would happen,” she said.

Ederlina Nabiog, a 38-year old mother of three kids, said the income she derives from her small buy-and-sell business is normally not enough to support her family, which includes toddler twins. She hopes she will also be able to complete the other training programs required by the new companies.

And finally, Rovelyn Roque, a 16-year old from the area had other reasons for participating in the MOSART. Her being a non-Subanon did not stop her from joining the Subanon Youth Organization, an IP youth group that has opened its doors to young non-IP residents residing within the ancestral domain. And to prove to her group mates that they were right in accepting her as member, Roque volunteered to join the all-male representatives of the SYO to the MOSART. SYO plans to train other members with the skills that Roque and the rest of her group mates learned in the training.

“I want to help my fellow youths, particularly the Subanons, even though I am not one of them,” Rovelyn related after the MOSART graduation rites.

The women were part of the fifth batch of MOSART trainees. Not a single female participated in the first four stages of the program. As to be expected, there were doubts, owing to the grueling nature of the training, that the women would not be able to graduate. When they did graduate, they became instant celebrities in the community.

“They proved the doubters wrong,” Jay Dureza, TVIRD Canatuan Security Manager said. “Now these young women are several inches taller in the eyes of their colleagues. This only shows that women power is alive and well in Canatuan.”

Feliece Yeban, TVIRD Vice President for Social Commitments, for her part, commented: “All sectors in this community are stepping forward to participate in the challenging task of bringing development to this poverty-stricken area in Mindanao. Women have formed their own group, the Siocon Subanon Women’s Association, Inc., while the youth now have the SYO. And members of these groups share a common objective: to improve the quality of life here in Canatuan. Clearly, there is greater consciousness now, more than ever, that for development to happen, everybody must make his or her contribution, however small it may be.”

The first four women graduates of MOSART have just made theirs. And it was no small feat.

The 5th batch of MOSART graduates: “We serve to protect and secure!”