The Philippine “mermaids” seeking calm in the disputed waters of the China Sea

In the temperate waters of the South China Sea, where China and several other neighboring countries they dispute the sovereignty of atolls and reefs surrounded by large fishing grounds, one of the contenders in the fight, the Philippines, has opted to use an unusual resource with which to appease the growing tensions and try to keep its adversaries at a distance: female voices.

A couple of weeks ago, the Philippine Coast Guard (GCF) held the graduation ceremony for their new unit of 81 radio operators, nicknamed the “Angels of the Sea.” After two weeks of training, his tasks include dealing with the growing number of Chinese ships – mostly fishing boats – that continually call upon its exclusive economic zone, a presence with which Beijing tries to support its territorial claims.

These disputed seas are highly valued for various reasons: contain abundant fish, the subsoil is home to rich deposits of gas and oil and they are a key corridor through which one third of world trade circulates. The states at stake – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia or Brunei, among others – are firm in their demands, but they do not want to enter into open conflict with the Asian giant, which claims for itself most of the territory and has built artificial islands full of missiles and fighter jets to defend them.

Still, both Beijing and the rest tend to limit themselves to making their positions clear. with the presence of fishing boats or coast guards, a way to prevent the conflict from escalating militarily to uncontrollable levels.

Faced with this situation, the Philippine high command believes that the use of female voices can help reduce tensions and avoid direct confrontation. “The GCF recognizes the importance of having radio operators on board its vessels and in its land units so as not to raise the tension. We want our Angels of the Sea to become the voice of a peaceful and rules-based order, ”said Vice Admiral Leopoldo Laroya.

For and against

According to the Coast Guard spokesman, Armando Balilo, the GCF already had several radio operators before. in some of the most conflictive areas. Among them, he cited the Sibutu Passage, a deep channel between the Sulu archipelago (southern Philippines) and Borneo famous for episodes of piracy and kidnapping.

There, he noted, these women “serve as the reassuring voice from a mother to a child, or from a girlfriend or wife to a loved one facing danger. The initiative to create this new exclusively female unit was inspired by an event that took place on April 27.

That day, the radio operator Gretch Mary Acuario, who was sailing aboard the Cabra ship, appealed to seven Chinese ships present in its waters, asking them to identify themselves and state their intentions. Without responding, the ships immediately left the area, an episode that was repeated with the same operator as the protagonist last June.

However, the launch of this unit does not elicit uniform enthusiasm. On the one hand, many are skeptical of the theory that using a female voice can make a difference. According to some, the fact that the Chinese ships have withdrawn a couple of times may rather respond to captains listening to their own authorities, who would ask them for restraint in those tumultuous waters with a view to facilitating a rapprochement with Beijing and its postulates.

Even Marina, the radio operator quoted, recently stated that she believed that it was not important if it was a man or a woman who was heading to the Chinese ships.

On the other hand, there are those who consider that, instead of empowering women, initiatives like this perpetuate discrimination and stereotypes that abound about them. “Reducing women to mere peaceful negotiators is something that at the same time undermines their role in levels such as the military,” said Jean Encinas-Franco, from the University of the Philippines Diliman. In his view, the GCF is not intentionally engaging in sexist behavior, but has shown a “very superficial” understanding of what gender equality is.

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