Anissa Taha Arab: Fighting for women and children’s access to education in the Philippines

I am Anissa Taha Arab, the Directress of the IHH Moro Orphanage in Cotabato City in the Philippines.  I grew up in one of the villages of Datu Odin Sinsuat. I was one of nine children and the only one to complete their education. Let me tell you, this was no simple feat. I grew up during the Martial Law years under President Marcos in the 70s and 80s. As the situation declined in Mindanao, my father was adamant that I had to stop going to school out of fear of what would happen to me on the way. You see, I walked to school along a very dangerous route and I had no choice. The ongoing conflict meant that my family soon became IDPs, moving from place and I had to stop my studies for ten years.

My father wished to marry me at 14, to someone I did not know. Our father was a hard man and his decisions were final, meaning that none of the family dared to disobey him, that is, except me. I argued about my rights to study, as Islam had taught me. I tried to reason with my father and asked to move with my cousin in Sultan Kudarat to continue my studies there. I had to prove that I could do this. My parents agreed to let me go and before long, I had graduated as valedictorian of my class.

My parents were proud, and this time my father softened and asked me what is it that I really wanted in life. I told him that I wanted to study so that I would have something to say to Allah on the day of Judgement, to show that I did this as a struggle. Alhamdullilah, he had a huge change of heart.  He finally consented to my wishes and supported my choice to continue my education, on the premise I would stay nearby my family. It wasn’t long until I completed my Arabic studies and a two-year English course.

I believe that women are equal to men, this is what others need to know. Women have the right to be educated, just like men.

Now I work in education at the orphanage, where we provide vulnerable children with shelter, schooling and medicine. When their mothers bring them here, I can see their pain of separation. We try to fill that gap. I remember taking in two sisters who survived the Zamboanga Siege, after their mother, a police officer had died during service. The first time that they came here, they were very withdrawn and the youngest one was aggressive, often biting herself and lashing out. Now, the eldest is in high school and the youngest is already six years old. They have adjusted well to life here with the other children and are invested in completing their education.

I hope our government will one day see the orphans here and institutionalise all orphanages in order to provide access for those in need. This goes the same for widows, there are more than 3,000 along the Liguasan Marsh alone. I wish for the Bangsamoro women to know their rights, we are not low-class citizens who deserve only to be shouted at. No, we are equal citizens, and should all have access to opportunities for education.

Until then, I will keep working with Islamic Relief Philippines to advocate for women and children’s rights.