The women are all business inside a tailoring shop a stone’s throw from Ina ng Lupang Pangako church in Payatas, Quezon City.
They work on fabrics and sewing machines to produce bags of all shapes and sizes—totes, “ecobags,” shoe bags, envelope bags, lunch bags, laundry bags. For six days of work a week, they take home P1,800, or P300 a day.
Since 2016, through the organization Solidarity with Orphans and Widows (SOW), the Vincentian priests who run the nearby church have been helping the women start afresh after losing their menfolk to the government’s “war on drugs.”
Giving the women a decent job is part of the priests’ holistic approach that consists of therapy including counseling, art and Bible reading sessions that have later diversified into seminars on mental health, human rights, and financial literacy.
Every second and fourth Saturday of the month, the priests, counselors and formators hold separate sessions with the widows as well as teenagers and toddlers, including those who witnessed masked men shoot their fathers pointblank, to help them cope with the trauma and move forward.
‘The pain goes away’
“Here, we share our problems. The pain goes away,” Violeta Isip, 68, a tailor at the SOW shop on Leyte Street, told CoverStory.ph. “We’re happy here.”
Isip’s son-in-law, Ernesto Godoy, was killed by masked men early in 2017.
Since Godoy’s murder, Isip has taken it upon herself to tend to his widow, her daughter Angelita, and her grandson James. She is helped in her task by her work at the shop.
Now a senior high school student at 22, James enjoys a scholarship from SOW, like most of the orphans.
On Jan. 1, 2017, Godoy went out with two other men and never came home. After a fruitless search in police precincts, his family heard from a jeepney passenger that a man in his 30s was gunned down by masked men the night before. It turned out to be him.
Angelita Godoy, who is afflicted with a lung ailment, was too sick to even attend her husband’s wake. Until now she stays home, still grappling with her loss.
Godoy was one of over 100 men living in the slums of Payatas who were randomly executed in the early years of the drug war.
Trash and drugs
Payatas is a sprawling barangay that is home to an open trash dump. While the dump was shuttered in 2017, the community of scavengers around it thrived on picking recyclables from the trash trucked in from around Quezon City.
Drugs, specifically crystal meth, or shabu, were peddled as easily as the recyclables sold to junk shops. Then President Rodrigo Duterte unleashed a bloody campaign against drug users and dealers as soon as he took office in June 2016.
As the wakes for the victims began spilling into the streets, the Vincentian priests worked round the clock, from officiating at funeral masses for those killed to helping pay for the cost of their burial that went as high as P95,000. It didn’t help that after each killing, scene-of-the-crime operatives supposedly always had a crew from a favored funeral home in tow.
“At its height in October, November, December 2016, we were burying eight to 10 persons a week,” Fr. Danilo Pilario told CoverStory.ph. “There was a time they rounded up 100 in a raid on a drug den; they killed eight people.”
A wave of fear swept through the barangay. Neighbors stayed away from the wakes, leaving the bereaved family alone to deal with the loss of a loved one and also the stigma of having harbored a “drug suspect.”
There was no “sakla” (a card game played by mourners often until the wee hours), and therefore, there was no “tong” (a percentage of the winnings from the game) for the bereaved family.
In the noisy and nosey communities of Payatas, the wakes became quiet family affairs.
Search for justice
When the Vincentians met with 12 families for the first time on Dec. 30, 2016, on the heels of the killings, the widows voiced a common lament: None of our neighbors came to the wake to ask what had happened.
The widows’ main request was for the group to meet regularly.
“So their primary need is about acceptance, a search for justice, for vindication that their loved ones were not criminals,” said Pilario, who ministered to the widows and orphans.
“One of them said, ‘Yes, my husband used shabu, but did they need to kill him?’” the priest said.
The SOW project drew as many as 35 families at its peak. The number has since thinned to 26 families, with some relocating to the provinces and others lying low due to the stigma of the drug war.
The killings, though lessened in number, continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Four families of victims of extrajudicial killings joined SOW during the pandemic, and another one last January.
Authorities have pegged the death toll during Duterte’s watch at more than 6,200, but rights groups claim the number is much higher.
According to Dahas (@DahasPH), which keeps tabs on the killings, 281 men have died in drug-related killings under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as of May 7.
Valuing work and worth
The tailoring shop has been banking on the orders of customers, including Ever Gotesco mall in Quezon City, to become sustainable and thrive.
“We’re just breaking even,” SOW coordinator Diding Libao admitted.
But no one among the staff, trained by couple Tony and Lita Conse who also lost a son-in-law to the drug war, is complaining. Over time, they have learned to value their work and worth.
At the height of the pandemic lockdowns, when many of their neighbors lost their daytime jobs, the widows received bulk orders from the Office of Vice President (OVP) Leni Robredo for personal protective equipment and face masks, for the use of medical front-liners across the country.
The OVP’s orders sustained the shop during the pandemic, entailing overtime work for the widows, But they went home with bigger pay and a realization that they have “a decent standing” in the community, after all.
Pilario said he could not forget what one of the women said during their moments of reflection: “You know, Father, my husband was killed by men wearing face masks (bonnets). Now, we’re the ones sewing face masks to keep people alive.”
Waking up every day to go to the tailoring shop alone “vindicates them in the eyes of the community,” he added.
Where the Church should be
The apparent special treatment for the widows and orphans didn’t go unnoticed in the parish and was the subject of certain complaints.
Pilario was quick to come to their defense. “Where the victims are, there the Church should be,” said the priest, who teaches liberation theology and other courses at St. Vincent de Paul School of Theology in Quezon City.