Ronilda Co: A woman in the face of disaster

Published March 31, 2022, 8:08 PM

by Merlina Hernando-Malipot

· She heads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Service (DRRMS), which is at the forefront of ensuring that the education sector remains resilient amid disasters.

· “Men and women with feminine intuitive characters make holistic leaders. We view and decide from a different standpoint; not just from the practicalities and economics of life, but from what is life-giving and promoting.”

· Advice to the next generation of women leaders, especially those who might see gender as a significant barrier in their careers: “Do not be afraid to be different.”

· Co told future women leaders not to be consumed by the desire for approval. “Strive to hone your intellectual capacities. But remember to nurture your spirit,” she said.

(In celebration of Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country, or their communities.)

Building resilience in the aftermath of a disaster is no small feat — especially in the education sector.

Being in a country that is prone to natural disasters, Philippine schools have gotten used to the suspension of classes whenever a typhoon battered a region or a strong earthquake jolted a specific area.

With the education of millions of Filipino learners at stake, finding the balance between their safety and learning continuity remains a constant challenge for the Department of Education (DepEd).

The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Service (DRRMS) headed by its director, Ronilda Co, is at the forefront of ensuring that the education sector remains resilient amid disasters.

Tasked to lead in strengthening the resilience of the education sector to natural and human-induced hazards, Co has been leading DepEd’s DRRMS one disaster after the other.

Asked if there is greater awareness now of the importance of disaster preparedness, especially among schools, students, and teachers, Co said: “I would like to believe that there is.”

This, she said, is because DepEd has a structure at various levels of governance that is mandated to mainstream disaster risk reduction and management in the department.

Before DepEd, Co was based in Bangkok, Thailand working with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center and World Vision International — focusing on disaster risk reduction in the Asia Pacific.

Co has contributed to the development and implementation of global, regional, and national frameworks, guidelines, tools, and work programs relating to prevention and mitigation, including mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in national and sectoral development planning, particularly on comprehensive school safety.

In the Philippines, Co has more than 15 years of experience in development work — focusing on the fields of watershed and natural resource management, and conflict resolution.

“As to risk reduction, we have a long way to go,” Co said, noting that this is hinged on development paradigms.

“Unless we clarify and build a consensus on what sustainable development is for us as a nation, our initiatives on the environment, infrastructure, industries, minerals, agriculture, etc. would remain piecemeal and at times conflicting,” she added.

Among her fields of study are gender and development, religion/theology, consensus-building, and conflict resolution.

Co also holds a Master’s Degree in City Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with a focus on urban and environmental planning.

In DepEd, Co envisions that disaster risk reduction and management to be institutionalized across and among different offices — yielding to schools and learners and personnel who are prepared, safe, and resilient to natural and human-induced hazards.

As the country celebrates National Women’s Month, Co shares her experiences in working in a field that is usually dominated by men.

In the Manila Bulletin interview, Co also underscores the importance of developing inner resilience, especially among women, and how the next generation of female leaders find their voices.

Being a woman leader

While there have been advances in gender equality, globally and nationally, Co still finds challenges in her field of work because “I am a woman.”

“Gender stereotypes are subtle, everywhere,” Co said. “Disaster risk reduction, borne from the humanitarian field, remains dominated by male leaders,” she added.

As a woman leader, Co said that expectations of behavior amid dealing with a masculine environment remain a challenge.

“My ideas at times could be labelled as simply passionate or radical, and get dismissed,” she said.

In such an environment, Co observed that it is easier for males to agree with one another than with a female with equally strong opinions and character. “A woman is expected to be amicable to get heard.”

Co, however, said that her experience of being “disadvantaged as a woman” does not apply only in her field. Despite this, she takes pride in her ability to “see other aspects that are equally important in decision-making – psychology, culture, spirituality, connection to nature, compassion, gentleness, etc.” because she is a woman.

“Men and women with feminine intuitive characters make holistic leaders,” Co said. “We view and decide from a different standpoint; not just from the practicalities and economics of life, but from what is life-giving and promoting,” she added.

Inner resilience

Aside from the need to have a bigger budget for capacity building and preparedness equipment and supplies, Co said that “what we also urgently need to strengthen now is inner resilience – mental, psychological, and spiritual well-being.”

Inner resilience, she added, also helps one survive and cope with the impacts of the pandemic and the disasters that hit the county annually and recover from them, and thrive post-pandemic.

During challenging times — especially during disasters, calamities, conflicts, and even amid a pandemic — Co said that one can build inner resilience by continuously building self-awareness.

“To be self-aware is to recognize and accept the emotions generated by situations,” she said.

The next step, she said, is to be able to manage them. “And to be able to do this, one has to practice self-care, mindfulness, and reflection, consistently as a way of life,” she explained.

Co said that institutions like DepEd must be able to nurture this practice by supporting them in their systems, policies, and programs.

Finding one’s voice

Meanwhile, Co urged the next generation of women leaders — especially those who might see gender as a significant barrier in their careers — to “find your voice.”

“Do not be afraid to be different,” Co said, noting that leaders are called to accompany real faces of human suffering so policies and programs cannot simply be uniform.

“Challenge others and what’s going on but challenge yourself, too — not only your knowledge and skills but your world view, your assumptions and perspectives of yourself, others, this world, and the planet,” she said.

Co told future women leaders not to be consumed by the desire for approval. “Strive to hone your intellectual capacities. But remember to nurture your spirit,” she said.

She also urged them to appreciate the “feminine qualities of gentleness and compassion” — for these are their strengths. “You have the ability to bring forth their integration into a world that is still very masculine in character.”

Co said that the world needs leaders who are “intelligent and humble; kind and decisive; compassionate and just” so she asked future women leaders “not to give up on this quest” by staying on course.

 
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