While many women nowadays consider marriage or being ‘in a relationship’ a test of gender faith and femininity, Benilda Albao carved out a niche of her own battle. She chose the track of being a community development worker who based herself in war-torn areas immersing with people caught in the crossfire.
Being one of the maiden graduates of Women and Development at the then Institute of Social Work and Community Development (ISWCD) in UP, Benilda can easily evoke an air of toughness and diligence based on experience and knowledge of issues. She took her undergraduate degree in CD, Batch 1981, during a period when the norm for ISWCD students was to respond to the call of activism.
“Noong time namin, puro kami noon rally. Yon yung time na pagdududahan ka as DPA (deep penetrating agent),” Benilda recalled of her tibak days. “Yon ang time na nagsusunog kami ng libro kasi baka ma-identify kang kasama ka, na baka documented noon ang pagra-rally namin. “
Her reading fixtures then were complemented by the works of Karl Marx et al., and this almost got herself into trouble with the authorities in search of suspicious possessions. Fieldwork in Quezon which was part of their community extension services witnessed the peaking of her activism days. “Back then, if you do not do anything about it, then hey, you totally do not care in this world,” she noted, explaining her option of taking the legal means that veered away from the armed struggle.
The same view guided her to her first NGO work exposure. Based in Cagayan Valley, then a highly militarized region, she helped organize sugar cane workers for the Agency for Community Educational Foundation, a non-government organization. That time, according to her, was a real situation that could never be detached from herShe imbibed the plight of the peasants in that are, eespecially the sugar workers and toiled as community organizer
Asked if her activism back then was driven by the institution, Benilda said: “Kasi yong klase ng pag-iisip, nagsusuri ka. Unlike other systems of education, na nagmememorya. Dito kasi nagtatanong ka and you are seeking for answers.” The CSWCD was an instrument for how she looked at things; the curriculum contributed a lot to her hierarchy of values and decision-making.
Benilda also credited her life’s basic lesson as her foundation. “Mahirap din kami, hindi hypothetical, you know it by life, nasasabuhay mo yong tanong at paghahanap ng sagot. Nasasabuhay mo yong questions kasi nasa mahirap kang kalagayan, maa-agit ka.”
Her experiences from Mendiola to the remotest of the countryside brought her afresh to what she now calls a life mission. And since it is an overseas job, the struggles and sacrifices take the form of physical threats and the unfamiliar culture hostile to greater challenges . Refugee camps and dangerous transnational border hubs proved to be witnesses to her dedication as a social development worker of the United Nations.
With assignments spanning from Bangladesh, North Sudan, Sri Lanka and Bhar el Ghazal State in South Sudan, Benilda described her mission as ‘very fulfilling.’ Though risky sometimes, like in Sri Lanka where a bomb exploded just a few meters away from their temporary shelter, the Quezon City-born CD graduate said: “I learned a lot, and experienced fulfillment in life though those stints were small and may not have created a dramatic impact on those vulnerable souls imprisoned in a no- way – out situation. This realization tells me that I am on the right path to the role that I am supposed to play in this world and reckoned to continue this.”
Her first foray abroad started in 1998 when she volunteered for the UN to coordinate an assessment mission using social mobilization process ( or Community Organizing process in our language ) for refugees and internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka. It was after her 15 years in NGO work when she decided to work in post-conflict areas. “Kaya mas pinili ko doon kasi feeling ko mas marami ng tumutulong dito. Compared sa Pilipinas, mas nakakaawa ang kalagayan nila.”
She then served in Bangladesh as a Protection Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), addressing the rights issues and safety complaints of refugees from Myanmar, as well as the activities related to voluntary repatriation movements of the refugees. In 2007, after her two-year stint in Eastern Sudan as Resettlement Focal Person, she was designated in the then Southern part of the State as its International Rule of Law Specialist under the UNDP’s Rule of Law and Access to Justice program.
As a Rule of Law officer, Benilda coordinated support to State-based justice providers including the Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development, Police, Correctional, Peace Commission and the Judiciary. She observed in South Sudan that women are under-represented in policy-making and in court proceedings. So in capacity-building efforts in field sites, she helped them to understand the peace agreement that must be followed by the parliamentarians and the traditional justice systems.
In her view, that makes sense in terms of enhancing the role of women in development. On her added source of confidence, Benilda had this to say: “So ang mga tao at babae kapag nakikita nila ako na kasama ko mga justices, judges and lawyers, and being associated with powerful men, nakakalungkot, pero baka nai-inspire ko sila as a woman involved in the political work, traditionally the turf of the men only..” A firm believer destined to lead and to promote gender equality, Benilda took it upon herself to serve as an example in this Arab country where cows are more valued than women.
“Maybe my life is not a very common one,” Benilda answered when asked how her family life is. In fact, she seems to be so passionate in this nation-building job that until now (at mukhang hindi naka-lista doon sa grupo ng mga mag bubuo ng sariling pamilya) , she remains single and fulfilled.
If she had already wanted –and accomplished – an inspiring life project that treads a challenging path , then what can she ask for more as a mission?
“I want to delve now on the spiritual aspect of my life, if God would permit it — since back in my UP days, I did not believe in that.” After fulfilling the mission and vision of going into dreaded areas, which were quite different from our relatively peaceful country, she realized that indeed nothing is permanent in this world.
“When I wake up everyday, I pray na hindi masayang ang buhay ko, na maging makabuluhan ito sa akin at sa kapwa ko .Kasi you do not know kailan ka mawawala sa mundo at para di ka magsisi sa death-bed mo.”
By Gerald Paragas