Eldest of seven children, Ruth Dueñas was jolly, honest, and was used to looking after her siblings. The word most often used to describe her was courageous. Marcos had just declared martial law when Ruth entered high school, and dire things were happening around her. Going home from school one day, she saw nine bodies killed in a shooting incident near her school. The bodies were loaded onto a passing jeep and Ruth boarded the same vehicle which brought her and the corpses to Davao City proper.
Ruth’s father was a church worker and her mother a public school teacher. Her parents taught their children to be sympathetic and to serve those in need. Ruth took their lessons to heart and in college, enrolled in social work. In her third year in college, she joined the Concerned Citizens for Justice and Peace (CCJP) in Davao. As an on-the-job trainee she was given the task of coordinating the CCJP’s Labor Assistance Committee.
This started her full involvement with labor. She worked to bring food and basic necessities to workers on strike. She learned tools for organizing labor unions.
The terror effect of martial law had been eroding in Davao by the late 1970s. Protest activities once done covertly were being held in the open. Church groups were becoming involved. As more people joined protest actions, issues being raised in these protest actions were also expanding to include demands for workers, peasants, and students. A common call for the dismantling of martial law was starting to reverberate. (Tiu, Reconstructing History from Text and Memory, 2005).
In 1980, protest groups in Davao planned a city-wide campaign to paint slogans and put up posters that called for the dismantling of the Marcos dictatorship. This event was dubbed “Lumpagon ang Balaod Militar (or LBM).” Dismantle martial law. The campaign led to the arrest of many known activists in the city. Ruth was part of the campaign but she managed to escape arrest.
After graduation, Ruth opted not to take a regular job but to work fulltime as labor organizer with the CCJP and to support the resistance groups in Davao working against the Marcos dictatorship. It was increasingly a dangerous involvement. Militarization continued to rise. She had to leave home and her family. In 1982 on the occasion of her parents’ wedding anniversary, she wrote them: “Although I love you but sorry if someday I will leave you for the sake of others who need me too.”
Ruth’s parents, while respecting her decision, prayed she would be spared from harm. But she would meet her fate just months later.
Soldiers from the Philippine Constabulary had come to raid a house in San Isidro, Bunawan, in Davao City. Ruth was inside, having a meeting with labor leaders. The soldiers fired warning shots. The unionists, all unarmed, came out. Two were shot dead then and there. Ruth and five others were seen herded into a green vehicle.
The following day, Ruth’s body and those of the five were found at a local funeral parlor. Ruth had a gunshot wound to her head and her body bore signs of terrible abuse. The wound was fresh with blood when Ruth’s father and a co-worker came to claim her body. She may have been alive just hours earlier. (The PC later spread the rumor that members of the New People’s Army were killed in a 30-minute gunfight in Bunawan.)
Some 2,000 mourners braved the repressive government in order to come and march in protest at Ruth’s funeral. She was buried at the Panabo Public Cemetery on February 4, 1983. The marchers included residents from the communities Ruth had served, her friends from school and colleagues from CCJP. They recall that rain was pouring in Panabo that afternoon they laid her to rest.