Sylvia was sipping her fruit shake when I approached her for an interview that afternoon in a small café. I marveled at her humility and simplicity, despite being Chief Executive Officer of the National Confederation of Cooperatives (NATTCO), a network of over 400 cooperatives in poor communities nationwide. The epitome of woman power, Sylvia is an old friend, and I had this chance to learn about her life and the stuff that this woman of the Higaonon tribe of Bukidnon, Mindanao is made of.
Sylvia’s childhood was fraught with hardship as she grew up struggling through challenges, pain and disillusionment in a tribal community deprived of even the most basic social services. As a “highlander”, Sylvia carried the stigma of being looked down, as one from a “backward civilization”, when she joined mainstream society to pursue her education. To simplify her struggles and minimize societal bias, Sylvia dropped her given Higaonon name and adopted the Christian name Sylvia Okinlay, She later married Paul Richard Paraguya, with whom she has three children.
Now 49 years old, Sylvia’s humble beginnings is the force that drove her to work hard, help others and achieve. A Chemical Engineer, she graduated consistent state scholar and college valedictorian and earned her Masters Degree in Business Management through the Asian Institute of Management scholarship grant.
Sylvia and I were employees of corporate giant National Steel Corporation in 1985. After barely a year as NSC's Engineering Management Trainee, she moved on as Assistant Manager of World Trade Center’s Information and Communications Department in Metropolitan Manila. But her stint in the corporate world was short-lived, as she realized there’s much work to do in her homeland. So in 1991, she joined the Philippine Partnership for the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas and took the cudgels as an agrarian reform activist, carrying her father’s responsibility in the struggle of indigenous peoples and poor tenant farmers to own the land they till. To date, many farmers who used to be tenants now own their lands, while some chose settlements or certain arrangements in favor of their community’s inductrialization and socio-economic pursuits.
In 1993, Sylvia joined the Mindanao Alliance of Self-Help Societies-Southern Philippines Educational Cooperative Center (MASS-SPECC). MASS-SPECC, a non-profit, people-based regional confederation of cooperatives, provides alternative financial system for the poor and aims to save Mindanao from financial hemorrhage. Mindanao’s vast agricultural lands and fishing grounds supply food to the country’s populace and boost its economy through foreign investments and exports – but Mindanao’s income goes elsewhere, leaving its own people hungry and wanting. MASS-SPECC believes that cooperatives are the vehicles of empowerment, advancing Mindanawons struggle for self-determination. It conducts trainings on skills development, livelihood, gender sensitivity and capability-building to women and the youth to strengthen and sustain cooperatives and development in poor communities. Now MASS-SPECC covers 24 out of 27 provinces in Mindanao with over 150 primary cooperatives, substantially addressing socio-economic needs of poor rural communities.
I met Sylvia again in 2004 when she joined our team as government peace negotiator. The youngest and only woman of the five-member Peace Negotiating Panel, she represented women and indigenous peoples in the government’s pursuit to address the armed conflict with Muslim separatist rebels that has wracked Mindanao with so much anguish, casualties, devastation and disillusionment for almost half a century. Many times the peace talks collapsed, but Sylvia relentlessly held on. Massive consultations took her to petrifying and overwhelming ordeals as she struggled to seek logic, meaning and solutions through the protracted sentiment, historical injustice, disillusionment, devastation, violence, internal displacement and collateral damage of the conflict that has held our people hostage even before we were born. When the peace talks collapsed again in 2008, the government peace panel was dissolved. As Sylvia looks back to her 4-year stint as peace negotiator, she remembers with gratitude and hope that the gains we have accomplished in the journey towards a peaceful Mindanao will sustain the ongoing peace talks to a favorable conclusion.
In 2009, Sylvia became the CEO of the NATTCO, the umbrella of MASS-SPECC. As she spearheads NATTCO’s pursuits to provide alternative livelihood and sustainable development to the country’s poor communities, Sylvia also chairs the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW). MCW was established in 2001 by Muslim, Christian and indigenous women leaders of Mindanao in order to influence public policy and public opinion about peace and development from women’s perspective, launching “Mothers for Peace” and “Youth for Peace” as its key movements. The Commission has mobilized, educated, persuaded, and lobbied to make women’s issues central to the decisions about peace, in the belief that peace cannot be sustained without the leadership and participation of women. MCW focuses on three inter-linked areas of work - peace and multiculturalism, poverty reduction, and politics and governance.
Moreover, Sylvia chairs the Mindanao Coalition of Development Non-Government Organizations (NGO) Network or MinCODE. MinCODE serves as the venue and forum among Mindanao networks and NGOs on development programs and its impact to the community, and is the advocacy center on issues related to the development of tri-peoples - Lumad, Moro and Christian settlers, in support to the people’s aspirations of a harmoniously peaceful and progressive Mindanao.
Even after our interview, Sylvia’s powerful words kept echoing in my being, “We will keep improving our services. Excellence never ends.” And this comes from a woman who used to tackle steep climbs on rugged foot paths, wade across rivers and walk through thickets and forests to get to school, in a far-flung tribal community.
Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya is undoubtedly a peace activist by heart, a propeller of sustainable development through the empowerment of the marginalized and perennially taken-for-granted lot; women, the poor rural communities, and the indigenous peoples.
Such awe-inspiring woman power! In the face of global challenges like poverty, armed conflicts, violence against women and children, the ever-challenged rights of the indigenous peoples, and threats of climate change, someone like Sylvia is truly an inspiration. Surely she has demonstrated woman power in a life and journey worth emulating.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard from regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Profiles