Moms, grandmas, aunts ‘lose sleep’ for safer Pateros
After washing the dishes and turning over her nightly storekeeping chores to her children, Merlia Balana was on her way, ready in her white uniform.
As Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” played on her smartphone, the 47-year-old housewife took a short walk to meet up with 15 other women in the neighborhood for their volunteer work that starts at 10 p.m.
In the municipality of Pateros, where the mayor has shown the guts to speak publicly against extrajudicial killings (EJKs) attributed to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, Balana and her team are doing their share in keeping the streets clear of drunks, curfew violators and potential troublemakers.
Accompanied by at least two police officers, they have been conducting nightly patrols on foot, armed not with truncheons but only flashlights and a motherly method of keeping peace and order.
‘Go home, son’
Their other “weapon” would be their sheer familiarity with the terrain, since they practically know everyone in Sitio Pagkakaisa in Barangay Sta. Ana, where they inspect every block and alley till 4 a.m.
“Go home, son; the curfew’s in force,” they would tell a minor staying out late. To men going out shirtless in the streets, the gentle instruction would be: “Please put something on; you can’t go around just like that.”
So far, the approach has worked even on men whose drinking binge on the sidewalk has to be cut short. “You know we have an ordinance against that, right?” Balana would tell them.
The drinkers would then stop and comply, addressing the women with a polite “po” and “opo” as they clean up.
Good or bad, they know
“We know all the people here, the good or the bad ones,” Balana told the Inquirer during one recent patrol. “They don’t need to show IDs or birth certificates because we have watched them grow up. We’ve known them since they were toddlers.”
The civic duty performed by the Sitio Pagkakaisa Women Volunteers has emerged as a model for other barangays in Pateros, the smallest local government unit in Metro Manila in terms of land area (1.76 square kilometers) and population (around 64,000).
The job may look easy and the impact light, but this women-led “ronda” is being given credit for a more significant accomplishment, given the recent disturbing incidents in the town.
The police and the local government believe that the patrols have effectively provided the extra eyes and ears to deter attacks perpetrated by so-called “riding in tandem” or motorbike-riding gunmen who may be thinking of finding targets in Pateros.
Senior Insp. Boy Novia, commander of the police precinct covering Sta. Ana, said the community had not recorded any killing since the patrols started in January this year.
Before the project was launched, Sta. Ana witnessed 19 of the 28 killings in Pateros during the first six months of the Duterte administration.
“Of course, the residents were in shock,” Novia recalled. “They were not used to seeing people killed practically every day. In our precinct, before July 2016 (the first month under Duterte), we have been recording only one homicide per year and it was already such a big deal.”
In December, a month after the last street attack, Mayor Ike Ponce III started making headlines as the only local government official at the time to openly condemn EJKs linked to the drug war.
“The people of Pateros support President Duterte’s war on drugs but strongly denounce the EJKs by the bonnet gang (masked gunmen) in different parts of the town,” read a tarpaulin poster that Ponce put up in the street. “We believe that (committing) EJKs is not the right process to stop the proliferation of illegal drugs. We value human life and adhere to the rule of law.”
Ponce then appealed to residents to be more vigilant—and his call was answered by about 200 volunteers, among them the 16 women from Sitio Pagkakaisa.
Awake and safe
Jenny Helo, 36, the youngest of the female patrollers, recalled how they were traumatized by the killings in Sta. Ana. “We are really not used to that here in Pateros.”
“So we thought that maybe it would be better if it’s us women who would stay awake at night; at least we’ll feel safer that way. Otherwise, we would be worried about people trying to kill our loved ones as we sleep,” she said.
The volunteers are provided uniforms—white shirts and blue vests—and occasional money for food from the mayor’s office. They assemble at a makeshift outpost, a tent donated by Ponce, where they plot the night’s route or fight off sleep with hot cups of instant coffee, some ensaymada, or bowls of porridge.
“I wish someone would give us more money for coffee and bread,” joked 59-year-old Clara Sayago, who said they often had to dig into their own pockets for such provisions.
Sometimes, Sayago treats the group to a song or two to keep everyone awake—without a microphone, of course. “I cannot just sing out loud lest we wake up the very neighborhood where we don’t want any violence.”
“At our age, we think we can still run after thugs,” said another volunteer, playing jester to the group.
“But really, our knees can hurt from all that walking, especially when its cold,” said 60-year-old Josefina Arnulfo, the oldest volunteer.
Balana, the sari-sari store owner, said joining the patrol would leave her with only four to five hours of sleep. “But that’s enough for me,” the mother of seven said. “My children understand my work here and they are proud of what I am doing for the community.”
“Who else can neighbors turn to for help but each other?” she said.
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