Joyous greetings of love and peace! I am sharing with you the first draft of my Module 1 Writing Assignment - profile of a woman activist for your review, reflection and comments. Please feel free to give your feedback, anything you think or feel about the piece. I need your critic very much ... all the best for all of us...
Always, Emie Zozobrado
SYLVIA OKINLAY-PARAGUYA By virtue of womanhood and the power of her birthright
Ten cents to heaven - that’s Bukidnon, the northern highlands of Southern Philippines. The province is home to a rich and diverse indigenous culture in a colorful mix of influences from its neighbors - the Maranaos of Lanao and the Manobos and Talaandigs of Cotabato, mingling with its own tribes-people, the Higaonons. Bukidnon, with its lush hardwood forests, inland lakes and evergreen meadows, derives its name from “bukid”, meaning mountain.
A landlocked plateau, Bukidnon is an expanse of mountain ranges that rise and fall like a roller-coaster pathway to the skies. It cradles the richness and beauty of nature and culture alongside socio-economic diversity brought about by multi-national ventures thriving on its fertile agricultural lands and wide pastures. Dubbed as Mindanao’s food basket, Bukidnon is the region’s major producer of rice and corn. Additionally, foreign companies have invested in pineapple, banana and sugarcane plantations, with livestock, poultry and cattle-raising.
And yet, despite a beautiful cultural heritage and a good economy combined, Bukidnon is the ancestral landscape of a tribal people that has been through so much strife. Through the years, the Higaonon tribe relentlessly survived painful struggles in the preservation and protection of their identity, culture and ancestral domains amidst continuing challenges of migration and economic development.
Bai Mahingpit was born in the tribal village of Impasugong, at the heart of a tribal settlement, through the bloodline of pure Higaonon ancestry. Known to many as Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya, she adopted her name as she made her way into the Christian-dominated mainstream society. Fondly called Ebing, she is Chief Executive Officer of the National Confederation of Cooperatives (NATTCO), a network of over 400 cooperatives nationwide.
Ebing’s humble beginnings is the driving force of her life’s journey. She is a Chemical Engineer by profession, backed up with academic excellence throughout her education. She earned her bachelor’s degree through a state scholarship grant and graduated college valedictorian at the Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City. Four years later, she pursued higher education through a scholarship grant sponsored by the Asian Institute of Management, and earned her Masters Degree in Business Management.
So what is significantly interesting and awe-inspiring in Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya? This thought brings me back to my stint in the corporate world where I first met her in the early stages of our professional life. She started her career path, as would any brilliant and ambitious young woman who aims to make it big in the future, as an Engineering Management Trainee in a corporate giant, the country’s steel monopoly, National Steel Corporation (NSC). After barely a year, however, she moved on to become Assistant Manager of the Information and Communications Department of the World Trade Center in Metro Manila, while I stayed in NSC for the next ten years. After a five-year stint in my country’s power industry, National Power Corporation, in a mysterious twist of destiny I landed in the government’s peace process. And, our paths crossed again, in an awe-inspiring shock of our lives! I was a Secretariat staff in the government’s peace negotiations with the Muslim separatist rebels, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (a thrust to address the armed conflict that spun four decades in Southern Philippines), when Ebing joined our team as one of the government’s peace negotiators. She was the youngest and the only woman of the five-member Peace Negotiating Panel. I could hardly believe it! How could someone who should have been at the heights of the corporate ladder, take the perilous, unpopular and very inconvenient task of being the lone voice for the other half of the stakeholders, women, and at the same time be the mouthpiece of the most disadvantaged sector in the peace process, the tribes-people? Many times the peace talks collapsed but she relentlessly held on. Massive consultations with experts as well as with stakeholders brought her to petrifying and overwhelming ordeals as she struggled to seek logic, meaning and solutions through the protracted sentiments, historical injustices, disillusionments, devastations, violence, internal displacements and collateral damages of the conflict that has held her own people hostage even before she was born!
I learned then that Ebing left a prestigious stint at the World Trade Center, went home to Mindanao as an agrarian reform advocate, and joined the Mindanao Alliance of Self-Help Societies-Southern Philippines Educational Cooperative Center, a non-profit, people-based regional confederation of cooperatives aimed at providing alternative financial system for the poor, cooperatives being a “vehicle of empowerment to advance the Mindanawons struggle for self-determintation”. She seals her commitment into the realms of women empowerment as she chairs the Mindanao Commission on Women and the Mindanao Coalition of Development NGO Networks. Of course! The best place to give your all is in your own homeland … and the best companions to forge your powers with are your own lot – women!
In the small café where I conducted my interview, Ebing’s powerful words echoed in my being, “We will keep improving our services. Excellence never ends.” And that comes from a woman who used to negotiate 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 the world seems to know nothing about and care less of its existence, or not at all.
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 - vanguards of the environment.
As we struggle through myriad forces that deliver humanity into the claws of armed conflicts, violence against women and children, the ever-challenged rights of the indigenous peoples and the glaring threats of climate change, may the likes of Ebing abound and proliferate. Such a remarkable and courageous being who conquers a lowly predicament as a tribeswoman, walks tall in her birthright, and holds fast to her innate woman power in the faith, dedication and vision to move humanity forward and change the world.