Inquirer Headlines: Nation

A World with Extreme Poverty is a World of Insecurity.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

'Queen' enthroned for helping Maranao poor

'Queen' enthroned for helping Maranao poor

By Jocelyn Uy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:36:00 03/08/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- She shunned the glitter of the law profession in favor of a life of service to her war-weary province in Mindanao.

Now 36-year-old Baicon Macaraya will be enthroned by chieftains in Lanao del Sur as its "queen" (or as the Bai Labi Ko Shakba) to look after the poor, and the victims of war that flared up in the region and other neighboring provinces eight years ago.

The enthronement ceremony has been set on March 23 in Ditsaan Ramain town after more than two months of deliberation.

Macaraya herself chose the date because she wanted the rites celebrated during Women's Month, which officially starts Saturday.

Traditionally, leaders or sultans in the province award one leadership title to a woman. According to Macaraya, the selection system for the "crown" is primarily based on blood lineage and the government position the woman has handled in the past.

In a phone interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of Friday, Macaraya said the appointment was a "transformation of traditional governance" in her province as she was handpicked based on her service to the community.

Although her forefathers were once sultans, Macaraya (her first name Baicon means princess) has never held any political position nor does she have a lot of wealth or resources.

"This is also the first time they are enthroning someone who is below 40 years old. I am happy they chose me because of what I did and what I can still do for the community," she said.

Another road

Macaraya never intended to abandon her law studies in 2000. In fact, she decided to pursue law after finishing her degree in political science because she wanted to help alleviate the human rights situation of her fellow Muslims.

But a trip to her hometown of Marawi City, one morning in March 2000, opened another road for the promising law student.

Macaraya, mother of three, narrated that she and her husband were on their way to a lower court to file her application for internship when she saw truckloads of grim-faced mothers and children being brought to a school.

She convinced her husband to pull over and to find out what was happening. She later learned that thousands of families had fled their homes in the neighboring province of Lanao del Norte because of the war.

Truckloads evacuated

At the time, then President Joseph Estrada had just declared an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the bandit group Abu Sayyaf. But Macaraya never realized the gravity of the situation until she saw the truckloads of homeless mothers and children.

"We were caught unaware. I knew that there was a conflict in Mindanao but I never thought it was massive until I saw people arriving in trucks with nothing except the clothes they were wearing," she said, recounting her painful encounter with evacuees.

Every three days, a fresh batch of displaced families arrived in Marawi City seeking shelter in vacant buildings, gymnasiums and schools.

More evacuees came from the neighboring towns of Lanao del Sur and much later, from Maguindanao.

"I was scared for myself because I knew the armed conflict could escalate anytime to our city. But I pitied the [evacuated] people and I felt that I was needed so I decided to help," Macaraya said.

Helping displaced families

She and her husband went home and started collecting pots and pans, as well as clothes to give away to displaced families.

Eventually, Macaraya forgot about her internship and became the founding chair of the youth organization, Bangsamoro Youth-Ranao Center for Peace and Development. She oversaw the daily needs of thousands of evacuees staying in schools.

Her organization tied up with Tabang Mindanao and pioneered the Integration Return and Rehabilitation Program to help displaced families get back on their feet.

Later, her group handled the reconstruction of about 500 houses, six mosques and five schools destroyed by the fighting in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.

Mothers for Peace

In 2003, she helped launch the advocacy group, Mothers for Peace, to push for an end to the conflict in Mindanao because women and children are the greatest casualties of war.

Macaraya recalled bringing a bleeding infant to the hospital since the mother had no money to consult a doctor or to buy medicine.

"I was worried about [which hospital] I could take my child who also had a bad cold at that time. Then there was this mother, who had no money, who couldn't do anything except wait for her son to die," she narrated.

Macaraya is now involved with the United Nations World Food Program, touring schools to distribute rice, to make sure children stay in school and to address the food security needs of people living in conflict-affected areas.

Lessons from parents

Her parents also taught Macaraya--the youngest in a brood of five-- to be independent and to work hard for their "wants and needs."

She recalled helping her parents sell goods at the barter trade every weekend and whenever she did not have classes so she could earn extra money.

Her compassion for people in need, she also attributes to her parents, who sold cellophane and ice candy at the barter trade center in the 1970s in Zamboanga City.

One incident Macaraya cannot forget was the night her father returned home from work with a bag of rotten tomatoes he had bought from an old vendor.

"I asked him why he did not buy the good ones. He told me that if he did not buy them, the old man would have stayed longer out on the streets selling tomatoes," she said.

A good heart

Her mother, on the other hand, believes in simple acts of charity.

Macaraya said her mother would always cook extra food so they could always serve something to an unexpected visitor.

"She would also always eat last to make sure everybody has enough. Those simple things really instilled in us the value of helping others," she said.

"I learned so much from my mother. She always told me a good heart is the best quality of a woman," Macaraya said.