Philippines: Meet the All-Women Emergency Response Team of Cotabato City

The members of the All-Ladies Emergency Response Team are breaking gender stereotypes as they train to be one of the first all-female emergency response teams in the Philippines. The World Food Programme (WFP) and private sector partner Yum! are helping empower these women so they are fully prepared to respond to emergencies.

Gloves are snapped on. Masks are put in place. The All-Ladies Emergency Response Team (ALERT) are ready to show how quickly they can respond to both natural and man-made emergencies in Cotabato City.

Today, they are demonstrating their rescue skills in response to a bombing simulation, a scenario familiar to the ALERT members, as a real bombing was the source of the idea behind the team.

The All-Ladies Emergency Response Team on standby for their rescue demonstration.

Women helping women

“ALERT is my brainchild. I was actually the one who conceptualized and fought for its creation,” explains Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, the former city administrator of Cotabato.

Cynthia thought of creating an all-women response group after she was wounded in a car bomb incident in 2013 in which 56 other people were injured and seven people were killed, including two members of her security escort.

“One thing that I saw during that incident was that we really need women to help women. In Islamic custom, we do not allow men to touch us unless he is our husband or our father,” explains Cynthia. “So when I was brought to the hospital, while looking at the other victims, I thought, ‘I have to create a team for purposes of disasters like this or even other disasters.’”

Members of ALERT meet with Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi (standing).

About 70% of the population in Cotabato City is composed of Muslims. Cotabato City already has an all-male rescue team called City Emergency Response Team, but with the formation of the all-female response team, the city government aims to provide a gender- and culturally-sensitive lens to their disaster risk reduction initiatives.

Volunteering for public service

ALERT was formally created in 2015, with the approval of Japal Guiani, Jr., mayor of Cotabato City and Cynthia’s brother.

Volunteers from various departments within the city government were recruited to be part of the team. The members are professionals in their field and are composed of a doctor, nurses, teachers, and other city officials. Dr. Edvir Jane Montañer, a medical officer of the Office of Health Services of Cotabato City, is currently the team leader. 

“At first, I questioned myself if I am capable of being a team leader of ALERT. But then, because of the trust and confidence that the city placed in me, my self-confidence was boosted,” shares Dr. Montañer.

As volunteers, the women are not paid to be part of ALERT and the emergency response work is in addition to their current work load for the city government. For these women, being part of the team is a labour of love. “Being a public servant, it is very important that we know and we love our work, not for monetary purposes, but to serve the Cotabateños,” explains Dr. Montañer.

The women of the All-Ladies Emergency Response Team (from L-R): Barangay Health Aid Membai Diar, Revenue Collection Clerk and Registered Nurse Kamille J. Cubelo, Administrative Aide Rohanna L. Juanday, Local Disaster Risk Reduction Management Officer and Registered Nurse Amirah L. Juanday, Medical Officer Dr. Edvir Jane Montañer, Administrative Aide Marianne Mae P. Uy, Revenue Collection Clerk Arja Fe P. Lozada, Administrative Officer Zamrah M. Coro, Metro Aide Chona Toñacao, and Metro Aide Josie A. Escalona. Not included in the picture are Clerk Phil-Am C. Macarate and Economist Jenny Sinsuat.

Capacity building for disaster preparedness and response

Cotabato is a disaster-prone city experiencing both man-made and natural emergencies.

“We are in an area where there are lots of natural disasters such as typhoons, floods, and earthquakes. We are in a conflict-affected area as well. So we see these problems from day-to-day,” explains Dr. Danda Juanday, the current city administrator and vice-chair of the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office.

With funding assistance from Yum!, WFP has partnered with the city government of Cotabato to provide support to its disaster risk reduction initiatives, including ALERT.

ALERT provides cardiopulmonary resuscitation to a female patient.

“We are excited to support ALERT as these women break barriers in gender role stereotypes,” says Blenn Huelgas, National Programme Officer of WFP’s Disaster Preparedness and Response/Climate Change Adaptation project. “We hope to support more initiatives like this so we could strengthen gender in different aspects of our work in disaster risk reduction.”

After just a year, the members of the All-Ladies Emergency Response Team have been trained with first aid, water search and rescue, and rescue boat management.

“It is a very challenging experience for us, but at the same time, also a good learning experience,” says Dr. Montañer.

For today’s bombing rescue demonstration, the women responders of ALERT display confidence and skill as they quickly divide themselves amongst the different scenarios, incorporating the skills they have learned in their training, including first aid and basic life support.  Within 15 minutes from the emergency rescue call, all the “victims” – both women and men – were treated and put in the waiting ambulance.

The women apply first aid to a bombing “victim” during their rescue demonstration.

Future plans

In the pipeline are more capacity building trainings for the ALERT team members as well as provision of additional rescue equipment to the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office.

“We still have a lot of activities and trainings that we need to do this year,” says Dr. Montañer. “We plan to have a lot more trainings with the help of the WFP and Yum so we could enhance our capacities and skills in times of emergencies and disasters.”

Although currently composed of only twelve members, there are also plans to expand ALERT to include other volunteer individuals or groups based in Cotabato City such as the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, members of the traffic management unit, teachers, and barangay (village) officials.

“ALERT now serves as a model and at the same time, they show to other women that it can be done,” says Dr. Juanday.

All photos by Faizza Tanggol

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