Irene M. Santiago
A pioneering women’s rights advocate and peace maker
Irene M. Santiago has enjoyed a spectacular career spanning over 50 years. In 1963, she graduated from Columbia University with a major in journalism, returning to the Philippines that year to begin working as editor of the Mindanao Tribune, a community newspaper. A decade later she started work on women’s rights and in 1976, she founded ‘Kahayag’ (Brightness) a non-government organisation. Kahayag conducted grassroots activities with Muslim women and later connecting with women at national and international levels.
She served as Chief of the Asia-Pacific division of the UN Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in New York. Many women activists around the world would recall the groundbreaking Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. She organised the NGO Forum on Women, attracting the involvement of almost 30,000 participants, whilst hosting 5000 events over 10 days. When Irene packed her bags for home she arrived to find only more work waiting for her. Senator Raul S. Roco invited her to run for vice-president in his 1998 presidential bid. She also went on to organize the Global Forum of Women Political Leaders.
In January 2001, she co-founded the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW) comprising Christian, Muslim and indigenous women leaders to influence public policy and public opinion regarding peace in Mindanao. In 2003, MCW organized the Mothers for Peace campaign to pressure the Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to return to the negotiating table. From 2001-2004, she joined the government panel that negotiated peace with MILF, and was a signatory, on behalf of the Philippine Government, to the ceasefire agreement.
Currently Irene is helping to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law to ensure that women’s rights are enshrined in law. “The challenge” she says, “is for women to be taken seriously. I truly believe that gender equality will improve peace quality.” She and other women leaders have recently initiated the formation of a Women’s Peace Table in every congressional district in the country in order to create a national peace constituency.
Irene’s unwavering commitment to social justice has been recognised in many ways, including being nominated in 2005 as one of the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize, and being enthroned as Bai Romapenet (Princess of Hope and Solidarity) by the 28 Royal Houses of Lanao.