Maria Theresa “Tessa” Constantino: The Heart of and for Indigenous Peoples


In a community vastly populated by Indigenous Peoples (IP), it pays to have one of the IP’s own as local chief executive. An IP’s heart will, without a doubt, always beat for their people. The municipality of Malungon in the province of Sarangani stands testament to this truth, reaping the benefits of Mayor Maria Theresa “Tessa” Constantino’s leadership, hailing from the Blaan ethnolinguistic group.

Mayor Constantino intimately understands the challenges faced by IPs, their struggles, and needs. Leveraging this firsthand knowledge, she spearheaded an IP-centered and inclusive government in Malungon, where nearly half of the population belongs to various minority ethnolinguistic groups — Blaan, Tagakaolo, Mandaya, Subanon, Bagobo, and Kalagan.

Malungon, a first-class municipality in Sarangani province, home to 105,465 residents with a poverty rate of 40.2%, faces unique challenges, notably in Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (GIDAs), where 19 of the 31 barangays are located, hindering access to social services.

Since assuming office in 2016, Mayor Constantino has led Malungon to significant improvements, particularly in Maternal, Neonatal, Child Health, and Nutrition (MNCHN). Despite the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, her focused interventions yielded commendable results, surpassing national benchmarks.

Initiating the Journey: Municipal Leadership and Governance Program

Mayor Constantino’s tenure commenced with critical health indicators in the red, highlighting deficiencies in maternal and infant care. Her participation in Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF)’s Municipal Leadership and Governance Program (MLGP) strengthened her understanding of leadership and governance. This journey aimed to reduce maternal mortality and enhance healthcare delivery, engaging local executives, health officials, and technical staff.

As part of MLGP, Mayor Constantino enacted the “Maternal Neonatal Health and Nutrition Ordinance”, prioritizing maternal and neonatal care. She empowered IP women as barangay health workers (BHWs), established dialogues with tribal leaders, and adopted the Sarangani Indigenous Peoples Comprehensive Welfare and Development Code. Notably, she also tackled early child marriages prevalent among IPs.

Mayor Constantino’s proactive measures led to a substantial increase in pregnant women accessing healthcare, from 60% at the start of her term to 90% by 2018. Her efforts were lauded nationally, earning her the National Nutrition Council’s Nutrition Honor Award in 2018.

Continuing the ZFF Journey: Municipal Nutrition Governance Program 

Mayor Constantino led Malungon to embark on the Municipal Nutrition Governance Program (MNGP), emphasizing the critical First 1,000 Days (F1KD) of infants. Recognizing the multifaceted nature of malnutrition, she increased the nutrition budget, fostered collaborations with the private sector, and engaged communities through behavior-centered interventions. “In the fight against malnutrition, one must put his money where one’s mouth is. There is no shortcut,” she said. In 2022, Mayor Constantino increased the budget for nutrition programs to Php 105 million from Php 95 million in 2021.

Fully aware of the importance of involving the barangay captains in co-owning the problem on nutrition, Mayor Constantino also signed an ordinance that prohibits the termination of barangay workers due to political affiliations. This retention policy enabled the barangays to sustain capacities, which was crucial as barangay health workers are the frontliners of health and nutrition services. Mayor Constantino explained, “Nutrition governance is beyond politics; we should continue empowering BNS staff because they are the ones on the ground. How we prioritize our BNS is how we prioritize our Nutrition Programs.”

A Deeper Commitment

Despite achievements, Mayor Constantino remains vigilant, acknowledging persistent challenges. As part of the MNGP, Mayor Constantino and the Malungon Nutrition Core Team did their Deep Dive, a guided community immersion, in Datal Batung, a far-flung barangay that had a high incidence of adolescent pregnancy. 

The team met a stunted young mother whose young children were diagnosed with Moderately Acute Malnutrition (MAM). The mother, who became pregnant at 16, had never received government assistance despite working hard for a monthly income of around Php 3,000. Taking immediate action, Mayor Constantino provided financial assistance, enrolled the mother in an Alternative Learning System (ALS), and ensured a constant supply of food and milk for the children. This experience gave attention to the persistent intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and poverty, prompting the Mayor to advocate for more aggressive education campaigns to increase awareness and access to municipal services.

Looking Ahead

Reflecting on her MNGP journey, Mayor Constantino expressed sadness that there are still malnutrition cases in the municipality. “We thought that there would be no malnutrition cases in our locality, yet here we are, dissecting another facet of the issue,” she said.

Malungon is eyeing additional partners such as Mahintana Foundation, Inc. and Dole Philippines, Inc. in establishing their Nutri-Bakery to complement their established nutrition and health service delivery with a social enterprise that will heavily promote good nutrition and healthy local produce in the circulation for children and mothers in Malungon.

Looking back at the inception of the MNGP, Mayor Constantino understands that there is still a lot to improve on in her municipality, but she is ready to take on the challenge.

“Political will is critical in the context of indigenous peoples. I am thankful to ZFF for always challenging us and our systems to become better. I am always grateful that I have a good working relationship with my team. I want to serve with a happy heart, but I cannot do this without love. Love is the solid foundation, the encompassing drive of my leadership journey,” she said.

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