Nelia Sancho was a 22-year-old student at the University of the Philippines when she witnessed something no student should see: Two of her professors were shot point-blank by government agents in front of her. They had been considered enemies of the state by the despotic regime of President Ferdinand Marcos for their involvement in the Communist Party.
The incident would have a lasting impact. Ms. Sancho was catapulted into a lifetime of activism protesting the Marcos regime, as well as fighting for women’s rights.
It was an unconventional role for her. Until then, she was better known as a beauty queen traveling the world to compete in pageants.
“It was her first experience with that kind of violence,” her daughter, Anna Liao-Balanquit, said in a phone interview. “And she said that’s how her awakening started.”
In 1972, the year before the execution, Marcos had gone on national television and declared martial law. From 1971 to 1981, about 70,000 people would be imprisoned, 34,000 tortured and more than 3,200 killed. Private media were seized and shuttered, curfews were imposed, and strikes and protests were banned. Religious figures, political opponents, farmers, Indigenous peoples, journalists and student activists became the government’s primary targets.
Ms. Sancho was part of a generation of young people who felt they had no choice but to divert their focus from their own pursuits to rise up against a brutal dictatorship.
She was 71 when she died of tuberculosis on Sept. 1, 2022, at her home in Quezon City, northeast of Manila, her daughter said. The death was not widely reported outside the Philippines.
Ms. Sancho was a pre-med student before she switched her focus to mass communications and began writing for The Manila Bulletin. She was also a member of the Sigma Delta Phi sorority.
Behn Cervantes, a fellow student who would go on to become an entertainer, encouraged her to enter a beauty pageant and mentored her for her first competition, Binibining Pilipinas (Miss Philippines), in 1969. She finished second to Gloria Diaz, who went on to win the country’s first Miss Universe title.
Ms. Sancho took home her first crown in 1971, at the Queen of the Pacific competition in Australia. She took a year off from school to compete and represented her country in a six-week tour across Asia.
During her travels, she met an Australian diplomat at a cocktail party in Hong Kong. He warned her that the Philippine government was leveraging her polished beauty-queen persona as propaganda to distract the world from its human rights violations.
“He told me that I was being used, being exploited,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1981. She decided she would no longer compete in beauty competitions.
“I have no regrets,” she added. “Being a beauty queen was part of my education.”
Her acts of defiance started out small. Ms. Sancho and other beauty queens, including Maita Gomez and Gemma Cruz-Araneta, began staging protests at pageants. When central Luzon was devastated by flooding, she volunteered to help, and when she found out that the flooding was caused by deforestation committed by big lumber companies, she joined campus demonstrations, even though she knew that violence was often used to silence students.
In October 1973, a student activist was arrested during a raid of the University of the Philippines campus, and among her things was found a list of donors and supporters of the Communist Party. Ms. Sancho’s name was on it. She and several of her sorority sisters had been supplying the underground movement with rice and money. Under the Marcos regime, this was a crime punishable by prison, torture and even death.
Ms. Sancho went into hiding at a safe house in the city of Malabon with two of her sorority sisters, but they were arrested soon after. It was during the raid on the safe house that she witnessed the murder of her professors.
After her release, which was secured by family members who were working in government, she spent a year off the radar, working and living simply in Davao City. But she was haunted by the brutality she had witnessed.
“My conscience could not settle down,” she told Asian Journal USA in 2021.
Ms. Sancho joined the New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and rose through its ranks to become chief financial officer. The news media called her “guerrilla queen” or “rebel queen” and wondered why a young woman lauded for her beauty and elegance had chosen a life of struggle over luxury. But for Ms. Sancho, it wasn’t much of a choice at all.
Nelia de los Reyes Sancho was born on Aug. 30, 1951, in Pandan, one of eight children of Rogelio Canimo Sancho Sr., a lawyer, and Rosario Martizano de los Reyes, a homemaker, Nelia came of age in the years after the Philippines gained independence from the United States. Her family moved several times, but she spent much of her childhood in Manila and Davao City.
In 1976, she and seven other Communist Party leaders were arrested and charged with subversion. She never received a trial but was detained as a political prisoner for two and a half years. After her arrest she was stripped of her clothing, doused in water and forced to stand naked in front of an air-conditioner — a torture tactic often used by the Marcos regime to obtain confessions.
While incarcerated, she participated in a hunger strike alongside 65 other prisoners. She also met and married the activist Antonio Liao. She was three months pregnant with her son when she was released in 1978; Mr. Liao would not be released until 1986, after Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from office and exiled from the country. They would have two children together while he remained incarcerated.
As a single mother, she struggled to support her children. While doing so she helped open several care centers for the children of political prisoners and working mothers who were activists.
In 1984, she helped start Gabriela, a national network of grass-roots organizations addressing women’s issues like sex trafficking and reproductive rights. In 2003, the network started the progressive Gabriela Women’s Party, which continues to represent Filipino women in the country’s House of Representatives.
In 1992, Ms. Sancho led the development of a task force, now known as Lila Pilipina, to find so-called comfort women — victims of wartime sexual slavery by the Japanese military — whose stories had been largely unacknowledged. Since then, hundreds of them have come forward.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Sancho is survived by her son, Antonio Karlo Sancho Liao; her sister, Edna Sancho Cervo; and five grandchildren. Her marriage to Mr. Liao was annulled in 1998.
After Ms. Sancho retired in her 50s, she led a quiet life, spending time with her grandchildren, picking up trash during regular walks on the beach and visiting her sorority sisters when she had the opportunity.
She had planned to write a memoir but never finished, though she wrote many academic papers about the systemic disenfranchisement of Filipino women.
“There is a popular Filipino idiomatic expression that aptly describes the plight of the majority of Filipino women and those of other Asian countries,” she wrote in an essay for the British journal Women and Conflict in 1993. “The expression is ‘kapit sa patalim.’ Literally, it means ‘clutching a knife blade.’”
That expression, she wrote, speaks to what people living “in their helplessness” might do in the service of “their human desire to continue living today and, perhaps, for another day.” Ms. Sancho, however, did not live a life of resistance for the sake of surviving another day; she held onto hope for a more just world, as she believed it could be.