Angels of the Sea: The all-female coast guard unit keeping Chinese ships away

Seawoman First Class Sarah Jane Dela Rama demonstrates radio communication during the graduation ceremony of the Philippine Coast Guard’s first-ever all-female radio operators course, Angels of the Sea, in Pasay City on June 28, 2021.
PHOTO/S: Philippine Coast Guard

"Unidentified foreign vessel at Sabina Shoal, this is Philippine Coast Guard, you are within the Philippine exclusive economic zone."

This was how lawyer and member of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Gretch Mary Acuario drove away Chinese vessels in Sabina Shoal in April 2021.

Instead of issuing a counter-challenge, which was typical of Chinese vessels straying in the West Philippine Sea, the ships sailed away.

Acuario is just one of the many female members of the Philippine Coast Guard protecting the West Philippine Sea. There used to be few females in the coast guard. Now, there's a whole unit named "Angels of the Sea."

The Philippine Coast Guard held a graduation ceremony for 81 female radio operators, who will comprise a whole unit. The Angels will be tasked with challenging China's paramilitary vessels that loiter in the West Philippine Sea.

"The command recognizes the evolving unique importance of having female radio operators aboard PCG vessels and shore-based units ... so as not to elevate tension," Vice Admiral Leopoldo Laroya said during the ceremony.

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"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."

But why women?

Acuario's driving away of Chinese vessels in April raised questions among defense planners in the Philippines. What made that radio challenge particularly effective? That was the incident that inspired the Philippines to employ more women in the coast guard.

Rear Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan is the one who came up with the idea. He told the South China Morning Post that female radio operators would evoke "the authority of wives or mothers that pervades the Asian culture."

In a separate interview with This Week in Asia, Commodore Armando Balilo said female radio operators evoked "the reassuring voice of a mother to a child, or a girlfriend or wife to a loved one facing a perceived danger."

But the move has not escaped feminists, who say the coast guard is stereotyping women's roles, even when they're put on the frontline. The Gabriela party list has accused the Philippine Coast Guard of sexism and misogyny.

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"Kahit pa boses ni Moira Dela Torre ang gamitin ng gobyerno, hindi masosolusyonan ang isyu sa West Philippine Sea kung 'piece of paper' lang para kay President Duterte ang historic arbitral ruling laban sa Tsina," said Arlene Brosas, Gabriela party list representative, in a statement.

But the Philippine Coast Guard maintains it is not so, saying it is "providing equal opportunities to all members of the uniformed service so they could play their niche roles in securing the nation together as one at sea."

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Seawoman First Class Sarah Jane Dela Rama demonstrates radio communication during the graduation ceremony of the Philippine Coast Guard’s first-ever all-female radio operators course, Angels of the Sea, in Pasay City on June 28, 2021.
PHOTO/S: Philippine Coast Guard
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