Philippine deploys Angels to troubled waters

First ever all-women Coast Guard unit.

The Philippine Coast Guard commissions the first ever all-women unit.  

By Liz Lagniton, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Banking on women’s seemingly innate ability to ease tensions in the male-dominated seafaring world, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has created an all-female unit to help ensure safety in the country’s maritime territory.

Commodore Armando Balilo, the PCG spokesperson, said the new unit will initially consist of 81 specially-trained radio operators who are now being called “Angels of the Sea.”

“It all started with our experience in the southern Philippines,” Balilo said in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, referring to the height of piracy in the Sulu and Celebes Seas at the borders of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

“We noticed that when females were the ones operating radio transmissions, it seemed to reduce the tension,” Balilo added.

“Back then, we noticed that voices get pretty loud when men operated radios, but when women were the ones to communicate, the nervousness seemed to disappear. There was an environment of calmness, and that’s what we’re promoting,” Balilo said.

“When heard, there is a calming effect,” he said. “Like an assurance that everything will be okay. It’s like assuring mariners we’re just here to protect you.”

So, Rear Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan came up with the idea of assigning women to send radio messages to mariners when he became head of the PCG weapons and communications command in April last year, Balilo added.

Women coast guards rise to the occasion

Recently, the first 81 “Angels of the Sea” completed their training and were later assigned to PCG vessels in hotspots in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), the country’s eastern coastal waters adjacent to the South China Sea.

“In the West Philippine Sea, we do not want any (further) tension because of the many ship-to-ship operations taking place there,” Balilo added.

Meanwhile, PCG Vice Admiral Leopoldo Laroya said: “We want our Angels of the Sea to become the voice of peaceful and rules-based order at sea especially in our country’s sensitive maritime frontiers.

 “Having good communication skill boosts one’s self-esteem and confidence. It promotes understanding and is essential in having a successful career. We want all women in the coast guard service to be able to develop their sense of self-worth which will give them their right to influence social change. We hope this course served its purpose of minimizing gender discrimination and highlighting the important role of women in public service.”

All-female class graduated from the first ever Philippine Coast Guard’s radio operator course, dubbed as “Angels of the Sea”. (Photo courtesy: PCG)

Taking a firm stand against Chinese ships

On April 27, a female operator on a PCG ship near the Sabina Shoal endeavored to shoo away Chinese ships in Philippine’s territorial water through a series of radio challenges.

“Unidentified foreign vessel at Sabina Shoal, this is Philippine Coast Guard, you are within the Philippine exclusive economic zone,” said lawyer and PCG Probationary Ensign Gretch Mary Acuario whose voice was smooth but with a commanding tone.

“You are requested to provide the following: name of the vessel, intention, last, and next port of call,” said Acuario who during that time was the only female on duty onboard the Philippine patrol boat BRP Cabra.

Acuario, who was ordered by her commanding officer to conduct the radio challenge, drove away the Chinese vessels in Sabina Shoal, roughly 73 miles from Mapankal Point in Rizal, Palawan in April this year.

Instead of replying by issuing a counter-challenge, which was typical of Chinese vessels straying in the WPS, the ships left the area.

Acuario is just one of the many female members of the PCG protecting the WPS and she has already earned the praise of many Filipinos.

The PCG promotes gender equality

According to Balilo, there are about six ships currently patrolling the WPS, and each of them has two women on board, except the one ship of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, which also patrols there. “So, there are about 10 women [deployed] there,” he said.

The new unit is part of the PCG’s effort to empower women, reduce gender discrimination, and promote gender equality.

But some feminist groups have criticized this PCG’s move saying that instead of empowering them, the program stereotypes the women’s roles.

“We are open to criticism. In fact, we appreciate their point. But we don’t see anything wrong with what we do. In fact, now we are promoting gender equality in the deployment of women in the sea,” Balilo said.

The commodore maintained that Angels of the Sea is one of the initiatives of the command in providing equal opportunities to all members of the uniformed service so they can play their niche roles in securing the nation together as one at sea.

He added that the new women unit is likely to have a second phase of their training, where they will also learn different languages such as Chinese and Vietnamese. “The PCG ships already have probations for women, and we are actually increasing the number of women on the ship to give equal opportunity too.”

SW1 Sarah Jane Dela Rama. (Photo courtesy: PCG)

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