Even before joining WFP seven years ago, Baicon Macaraya, head of WFP Philippines' Iligan sub-office, had all the tools to do her job in conflict-affected Central Mindanao. As an advocate of gender mainstreaming, Baicon has pushed towards a new outlook on women and development.
The persistence of armed conflict in parts of Central Mindanao continues to affect the lives of many people. Since clashes began in the 1970s, over 120,000 people have died and more than 2 million people have been displaced, creating a cycle of poverty that has affected communities for decades.
When WFP re-established its presence in the Philippines in order to support government efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict, the search for the right staff led them to Baicon Macaraya, a Maranao woman who at that time was heading a non-government organization for the youth.
“My first encounter with WFP was in 2003. When they contacted some local non-government organizations (NGOs) and government agencies to recommend someone who could facilitate WFP's assessment of conflict affected areas and evacuation centers, they all pointed to me,” Baicon says.
“When WFP came back in 2006 with the intention of establishing a sub-office, they asked around again, and again they got the name ‘Baicon'! While I initially insisted that WFP work with the local NGOs instead of setting up an office in Iligan, after a month of engagement I realized that I could contribute something more to WFP's operation, and not merely as an external individual providing support or advice,” she recalled.
In many parts of the world, especially in Asia and South America, women are more likely to go hungry than men. This is because women often have unequal access to resources, education, and income, and because they participate less in decision-making. “Women are often overlooked as a valuable resource for change, and are simply labeled as ‘victims',” says Baicon.
As an advocate of gender equality and having worked for an NGO with gender mainstreaming as its core programme, Baicon has made it a goal in her life to give women a stronger voice. In the youth NGO that she headed before joining WFP, gender mainstreaming was facilitated in the context of the local culture and Islam.
“In Islam, culturally speaking, women in general are regarded as the peace negotiators, the peace builders,” she explains. “We need to somehow build on that by emphasizing that we are just returning the respect that they once bestowed on women,” she points out.
Baicon strongly believes that women can be just as – and in some cases, even more – effective partners in development, as well as the most effective solution to combating and preventing hunger. That is why in many of the WFP operations that she coordinates, the focus is on empowering women.
Now, having spent seven years with the WFP, Baicon admits that responding to conflict affected areas is still very challenging.
It is an advantage that Baicon is able to speak several local languages, as it allows her to communicate better with the people WFP is assisting, and build trust with the locals. She also tries to ensure that as much as possible, the dynamics of the community – such as its culture, religion, and traditions – are all taken into account when implementing a project.
For the women in these communities in particular, Baicon believes that her presence and role during meetings serve as very powerful visuals. “You don't have to say that women should be empowered. By my being there, it is already giving them the image that yes, a woman can be effective,” she shares.
Such trust and belief from the members of the community are vital to WFP's programmes. Because the communities are the main drivers in the decision making process -- with the projects tailored to their needs -- even small decisions such as the selection of delivery dates and storage location help build confidence and establish respect for each stakeholder involved.
“We do not just bring food, we facilitate the need to address their hopes and dreams,” Baicon says.