Surviving Covid-19 and climate change: women on the frontline

This International Women’s Day, Eco-Business highlights the stories of remarkable women braving the climate crisis and Covid-19 pandemic to further environmental and social causes in Asia Pacific.

Surviving Covid-19 and climate change: women on the frontline
Fighting for sex worker rights in Singapore, for forest conservation and indigenous rights in Palawan, for sustainable farming in Malaysia, and against child trafficking and slavery in the Philippines. From left: Sherry Sherqueshaa, Project X Singapore; Jeanne Tabangay, Conservation International, Palawan; Sylvia anak William Endak, agroecology volunteer, Sahabat Alam Malaysia; Rosemarie Ayos Lujero, International Justice Mission Manila. Images: Project X, Conservation International, Amelia Collins/ Friends of the Earth International, IJM.

“Women are shock absorbers,” remarked Roopa Dhatt, an Indian American physician and co-founder of Women in Global Health, a non-profit that campaigns for gender equality in the healthcare sector.

Dhatt was talking about how women often suffer more during times of crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the effects of climate change. “Women and health workers also have an unexpected expectation to perform an impossible balancing act of both paid and unpaid work,” she said in April last year.

And yet, through unpaid care work and pandemic-related job losses, women missed out on US$800 billion in income last year, more than the combined gross domestic product of 98 countries, according to data from Oxfam. And while 70 per cent of all healthcare workers and first responders are women, three-quarters of government taskforces set up to fight Covid are led by men.

To recognise the role that women have played on the front line of social and environmental issues in Asia Pacific over the past few years, Eco-Business asked four remarkable women in the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore to tell their stories.

Jeanne Tabangay, managing director, Conservation International, Palawan

Jeanne Tabangay, managing director, Conservation International Palawan, the Philippines

Jeanne Tabangay, managing director, Conservation International Palawan, the Philippines. “We saw children trying to dry their printed work modules after the storm. They still wanted to do their homework despite the typhoon,” recalls Tabangay. Image: Jeanne Tabangay

Jeanne Tabangay and her Conservation International (CI) team were having a Christmas party at a resort in the town of Sito Sabang on the west coast of Palawan when Typhoon Odette (known as Rai outside of the Philippines) made landfall. Winds of up to 260 kilometres per hour ripped through the town, de-roofing homes, flattening schools and uprooting trees.

Tabangay lost her phone signal, so used a satellite phone to contact her family in Puerto Princessa, the Palawan capital, and CI regional headquarters. After the storm subsided, her team of nine people made the 10-hour, 80-kilometre journey by foot home to Puerto Princessa, negotiating fallen trees that blocked their path. “One member of our team was in her late fifties, and there were two young girls in their early twenties. They were my responsibility. I was worried,” recalls Tabangay.

Jeanne Tabangay and Conservation International, Palawan, team heading back after Typhoon Odette

The Conservation International Palawan team making the 10-hour trip from Sito Sabang to Puerto Princessa, negotiating the devastation wrought by Typhoon Odette. “We could hire a motorbike for short distances, but because of the fallen trees we had to walk again,” says Tabangay. Image: Jess Pagliawan

“As we have witnessed the devastation, unavailability of clean water, electricity, communication and the loss of homes and livelihoods (fishing boats, sari-sari stores, farms, and livestock), we simply cannot ignore the people we left behind,” wrote Tabangay in a letter of appeal to CI’s Asia Pacific headquarters, which donated US$15,000 to the relief effort. Tabangay helped coordinate the distribution of 2,150 kilogrammes of rice, 1,290 corrugated roof sheets and 753 kilogrammes of assorted nails to rebuild homes for 1,500 families.

CI Palawan team on their way back to Puerto Princessa

Led by Jeanne Tabangay, the CI Palawan make their way back to Puerto Princessa from the typhoon-hit coast. Image: Jess Pagliawan

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided an additional test for Tabangay and her team. They are working to protect the forests of Mount Mantalingahan, which are threatened by illegal logging, wildlife poaching, palm oil development, and nickel mining. With over half its original forest cover remaining, the forests provide a watershed for 200,000 people who depend on the land for agriculture, drinking water and their livelihoods. It has also been home to the indigenous Palawans for thousands of years. Tabangay is working with them to develop natural climate solutions to keep the forests standing. “The indigenous people have ancestral rights to use the area’s resources and their traditional practices have kept more than 100,000 hectares of forest intact,” she says.

Pandemic lockdowns cut off a key income source for the indigenous people, who were no longer able to sell their local produce in the local markets. Tabangay and her team provided sacks of rice, hand sanitiser and clean water using Source Hydropanels, solar-powered water dispensers. The hydropanels were able to supply 100 families with clean water during the lockdown period. But efforts to help the indigenous people come with a risk, as most are not vaccinated. “The thought of going to help people but giving them the virus is a constant worry,” says Tabangay. “I’ve been lucky so far.”

Sherry Sherqueshaa, researcher and writer, Project X Singapore

Sherry Sherqueshaa

Sherry Sherqueshaa (left) and the Project X in pre-pandemic times, in 2019. Image: Project X

Sherry Sherqueshaa has fought for the rights of sex workers since 2014, when she joined Project X, a non-profit that provides social, emotional, and health support to vulnerable sex workers in Singapore. On a typical working day, Sherqueshaa will spend from 3pm to 11pm on Project X projects, and 11.30pm to 5am with her clients, earning a few hundred dollars a night.

The pandemic has made her outreach work a lot harder, since the trade has gone underground. Only sex work in licensed brothels is legal in Singapore, and they have been shut down since the beginning of the outbreak almost two years ago. She visits karaoke bars or massage parlours, where sex work may be done on the side, to figure out who may need help. But many sex workers, particularly those from overseas, are either worried that seeking help will upset their pimps, or suspicious that Sherqueshaa is trying to steal their business. “I can always tell which establishments are offering sex services, but the pandemic has made it even harder to find women who need help without scaring them off,” she says. 

Pandemic pinch

Life is tough for sex workers, who can face abuse from their handlers or their clients, social exclusion and harassment, according to Sherqueshaa. She reckons that sex workers have lost about half of their income, possibly more, due to the pandemic. Some have had to return to their home countries, others have tried to seek alternative employment as sales amassadors in shopping malls or Grab drivers. Those who continue to ply their trade do so at greater risk. “Sometimes women will charge more [for sex services], but I hope they don’t do risk behaviours to get more money,” she says. Project X, whose headquarters are in the self-contained red light district of Orchard Towers, distributes condoms, sanitary items and tests for sexually transmitted infections to sex workers. They also provide pro-bono legal aid for those who get into trouble with the law.

Project X HQ in Orchard Towers

Project X’s busy office in Orchard Towers. Pictured right, wearing the “Sex workers rights are human rights” hoodie, is Project X’s executive director Vanessa Ho. Sex workers can drop by to pick up condoms, sanitary towells or STI tests, or have a chat with staff. Image: Robin Hicks/Eco-Business

In July last year, an outbreak of Covid was linked to KTV bars, and a number of Vietnamese women are believed to have been detained. “It was hard for us to access these women. We don’t even know their names,” says Sherqueshaa. A new law set to be introduced in Singapore, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), could make it even more difficult for non-profits like Project X to advocate for sex worker rights safely. The law gives the authorities arbitrary power to clamp down on those deemed as troublemakers. “We have to be really careful about what we say and put online,” says Sherqueshaa, who has taken considerable personal risk by speaking out against the treatment of sex workers in the past.

Sherqueshaa and her colleagues have taken a more pragmatic approach to activism post-Covid. Project X launched the Emergency Safety Net Programme in April 2020 to distribute financial aid for sex workers in Singapore, disbursing more than S$23,000 (US$17,000) to help pay rent and bills. “I would never have imagined that I could handle and help a big group of people,” Sherqueshaa. “I had to put any biases aside, and not favour friends or fellow transgender people. They really needed us in times like these, many of them far from their families. It really helped us earn the trust of the community.”

Sylvia anak William Endak, agroecology volunteer, Sahabat Alam Malaysia

Sylvia agroecology farming

Sylvia anak William Endak at an agroforestry plot in Sarawak, where crops are grown among native forest trees. Image: Amelia Collins/ Friends of the Earth International.

Sylvia anak William Endak’s farm in Lubok Nibong, a village in Sarawak, Malaysia is located on the banks of the Baram River, on the border with Brunei Darussalam. The 51-year-old lives in a community of 80 residents, most of whom are of indigenous Ibanese descent. Some of the younger generation travel regularly to a nearby town for work, but many in Sylvia’s village have turned to small-scale farming.

Before the pandemic, Sylvia would travel regularly to nearby communities to conduct courses on sustainable farming. She’s a volunteer for environmental non-profit group, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, in its agroecology programme. The programme promotes crop diversity, soil fertility and recycling to lower costs, increase food security and reduce the impact of farming on nature.

“I’ve been able to raise awareness of the benefits of agroecology and train people how to apply organic fertiliser,” Sylvia told Eco-Business in her native Bahasa Melayu. She saw these benefits on her own farm 10 years ago, after taking home lessons from a workshop she attended.

The half-Iban, half-Kadazan farmer used to work on palm oil plantations, rubber estates, and in paddy fields, but in the past decade has turned towards sustainable farming to make a living. She grows crops such as terung asam, cucumbers and long beans on her fields, earning about 300 ringgit (US$72) on a good day.

sylvia at agroecology farm sarawak

Sylvia (right) tending to her crops. Image: Amelia Collins/ Friends of the Earth International.

Most of the people she trains are women who signed up because they saw how the long-term use of chemical fertilisers made their land less fertile. Growing crops sustainably and getting good returns in the long run is a defence against land encroachment by industrial farming firms. Household crop gardens such as Sylvia’s share the landscape with sprawling palm oil plantations, many of which were planted in the last decade.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns sent Sylvia’s workshops into a hiatus for close to two years. She also had bigger issues to face at home. Lockdowns meant no travelling to towns to sell her produce. She tried to arrange deliveries online, but was foiled by unstable internet access. For this interview, Sylvia drove 32 kilometres to a regional Sahabat Alam Malaysia office to get a stable internet connection for a video call.

Women were hit harder during the pandemic, Sylvia said, as they had to juggle work with family duties. Sylvia helped to distribute fertiliser to neighbouring farmers amid the lockdown. Her 10 years of agroecology knowhow has created higher yields for small farmowners, allowing families to be more self-sufficient for food at the height of the pandemic.

Rosemarie Ayos Lujero, senior lead, Criminal Justice System Monitoring and Evaluation, International Justice Mission

Rosemarie Ayos Lujero

Rosemarie Ayos Lujero started working with non-profit International Justice Mission in 2004 as a litigator, prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse in the Philippines. Image: Rosemarie Ayos Lujero

Rosemarie Ayos Lujero is a lawyer by trade who specialises in fighting child sex abuse in the Philippines for non-profit International Justice Mission (IJM). The sexual exploitation of children on the internet has gone on relatively undetected in Southeast Asia, and so the scale of the problem is not well known. According to IJM, child traffickers, who are usually relatives or neighbours of the victims, are paid to live-stream abuse, which is directed by sex offenders, typically from Europe, North America or Australia, in real time. About 80 per cent of victims are girls, who are 12 years old or younger by the time they are rescued. 

Covid-19 lockdowns have created “the perfect storm” for increases in online sexual exploitation of children, according to IJM, as quarantined child sex offenders are spending more time online and vulnerable children are also confined at home, often with their traffickers. Child sexual abuse sites have crashed during the pandemic because of a surge in traffic. During lockdowns in the Philippines, IJM was involved in 20 raids that rescued 76 victims, and arrested 16 traffickers. In one such case, 15 victims were rescued in an operation in Mindanao.

Ruby former cyber sex victim from the Philippines

Ruby is a survivor of the online child sex trade. She was rescued with help from IJM. She now campaigns to raise awareness and action against online sexual exploitation and is considering pursuing a law degree in the future, with the hope of helping other girls who were trapped by similar schemes. Image: IJM

One of the biggest problems in fighting child sex abuse online is the lack of reliable data to help investigators and prosecutors focus their resources. “For the past few years, we’ve been trying to figure out where we’re needed the most,” said Lujero, who is working with the  Department of Justice’s Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) to develop a new system that reliably monitors trafficking data in the Philippines. The system, known as the ProtectPortal Anti-Trafficking Data Harmonization Project, emerged despite delays caused by the pandemic, which Lujero says has taken a heavy toll on many working in her field. 

“My father succumbed to Covid-19 infection in September 2021. Me and my siblings never had time to grieve as a family because of the pandemic. It was very difficult for me to focus on work,” she said. The loss of her father, who had passed on to her a “fervent love for public service”, led to depression and Lujero sought counselling. “If you experience trauma, you usually have friends or family around to comfort you. But during lockdown that support network disappeared. Filipinos are warm. We love to touch and hug each other, cry on one another’s shoulders. Not being able to do that was very hard.”

Lujero takes heart from the work IJM has done to help victims of the online sex trade. “It is always a joy whenever I hear good news about the achievements of my former clients, victim-survivors. Some of them already finished a degree in college and have their own careers while others were survivor advocates who unselfishly help other victims of abuse by being their friend and mentor,” she says.

This story is part of our series on women to mark International Women’s Day 2022.

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