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SYLVIA OKINLAY-PARAGUYA – Epitome of Woman Power

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.

Comments

Ruth Beedle's picture

Brava!

Congratulations on completing this first assignment! You worked SO hard on this piece and Anna and I are just so happy for your efforts and your accomplishments!

R

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks a million to you both!

Ruth!!!!! I made it at last, thank high heavens! Actually, what made it so tough to overhaul is the word limit! You just have to re-arrange and re-word sentences and paragraphs for the words to fit in. Oh my, I learned a much greater craft editing my piece every now and then - language engineering! And the next one is a much tougher hurdle - 2,000 words!

Big thanks to you and Anna, really! You have always been with me all the way .... All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Ruth Beedle's picture

Editing....

....is maybe where most of the learning comes in! Through you and your work with Anna, I have learned I would love to have the editing advice in my writing! No question, coming up with the inspiration and intention to write in the first place is a requirement, but having that second set of eyes and advantage of not being so close to the topic is an amazing learning! Thanks for taking me on this journey of yours. I fully intend to improve my writing through watching you grow!

Love you!

R

That's true, Ruth! But editing my piece the way I did was so much a product of reflections from you, Anna .... and the whole community of supportive sisters. With a support system as powerful as WP, it's but natural for the best of each one to come out!

Lots of love,
Emie Zozobrado

Ruun Abdi's picture

Congratulations my dear you

Congratulations my dear you really did a great work and you did it so well, i really enjoyed reading your post and i couldn't stop reading when i saw she was a Chemical engineer i really love women engineers.

Cheers.

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thank you, Ruun!

Big thanks for taking the time and the effort to go through my work, sister! Yes, in the past being an engineer was almost taboo for women because it's considered a "masculine" field. But now, many women engineers have already conquered this arena. And it feels so great that women are making big waves in our society. All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Fungai Machirori's picture

I love the final piece!

I love what you have done with this! Bravo!!!!! You are a star :)

from today i live out of my imagination
i am more than my yesterday
tomorrow i plant a new seed
nothing that lies behind easy
nothing that is ahead real
my within is all i have today
*Napo Masheane*

Emie Zozobrado's picture

We are all stars, Fungai!

Thanks a lot, sister! Of course my piece is our collective work! I could not have worked this out the way it is now without your very valuable comments, suggestions and reflections. It's amazing to have such a powerful support system of loving sisters while doing something you really love to try - citizen journalism! All the best, Fungai...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Emie Zozobrado's picture

We are all stars, Fungai!

Thanks a lot, sister! Of course my piece is our collective work! I could not have worked this out the way it is now without your very valuable comments, suggestions and reflections. It's amazing to have such a powerful support system of loving sisters while doing something you really love to try - citizen journalism! All the best, Fungai...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Sarvina's picture

Hi sister Emie!

Hi sister Emie!

Wow...welldone for thus final one! Really wonderful:)

Love,
Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks, Sarvina!

Sister Sarvina, many thanks to you and the rest of the sisters who took time and exerted effort to go through my write-up. This is our work put together. I could not have worked this out the way it is now if not for your very precious comments, suggestions and reflections .... All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Sarvina's picture

I am happy to do it. Your

I am happy to do it. Your profile has helped me a lot too as I can learn from you more and more. Well-done coz we are on the same boat.

Love,
Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanls Sarvina!

Sister Sarvina, many thanks to you and the rest of the sisters who took time and exerted effort to go through my write-up. This is our work put together. I could not have worked this out the way it is now if not for your very precious comments, suggestions and reflections .... All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

vivian's picture

Congratulation Sister, You

Congratulation Sister, You have a well composed profile of Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya. This is an honour for her and you have brought her to the realm light of World Pulse.

Well done for the good work.

Vivian

''Every woman have a story at every stage of Life''

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thank you, Vivian!

Yes, at last, Sister ... I've worked it out! Thanks a lot to all of you! This piece is a product of your precious comments, suggestions and reflections. All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

aimeeknight's picture

Yay! I love the finished

Yay! I love the finished piece, great job Emie!

Aimee Knight

"One shoe can change a life" ~ Cinderella

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Many thanks, Aimee!!!!

Sister, this is our masterpiece! I'm real proud, happy and grateful on this article because it is the collective ideas and heartbeats of loving sisters in the community! All the best to all of us ...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Potter's picture

"Excellence never ends."

Excellent work, Emie. I do believe "excellence never ends." Can't wait to see what you write next. But first take a well deserved break; sing, dance, do something really nice for yourself!

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Potter, you're an angel!!!!

Thank you, Sister! And big thanks to all the rest in this amazing global sorority who made things convenient for me by putting in their thoughts and feelings on my draft! Really really great!

And yes, of course! We all need a celebration and a good break ... for hurdling the first challenge and preparing for the bigger hurdle - a frontline journal of 2,000 words (double the profile), for Module 2. I'm real excited and a bit nervous on revealing myself at work for the first time in such lengthy narrative! All the best ...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Potter's picture

Soon we meet Emie...

Emie, You have been such a dynamic voice of support and enthusiasm for your VOF sisterhood. You were one of the first to befriend me and I always enjoy contact with you. ONLY 2,000 words for the next assignment? Bah! Easy bees! (Easy for me to say, just a humble editor.) I can't wait to hear more about your world and your work.

I've been reading and trying to respond to all of the Module 1 posts. It is such an honor to have this front row seat meeting some of the most important women of our world. Every post helps me believe I live in a hopeful world. What an amazing journey! (I'm trying not to say "amazing" too often...but I haven't found a truer word.)

Please do go dance and sing!
jp

Emie Zozobrado's picture

My deepest gratitude, Sister!!!

Wow, Potter, you're such a bundle of encouragement, support and inspiration! I was paying it forward when I befriended you and the rest, you know? I recall how elated I was when someone reached out to befriend me from across the globe while I was groping about at World Pulse on my very first attempt to navigate the site - and I could not even remember her name now! Bless her friendly soul!

Oh yes, only 2,000 words!!! You really hit the bull's eye with your "ONLY". When I outlined my piece for the profile I honestly thought, "Oh my ... where could I get 1,000 words to describe one woman?!!!" But when I posted my first draft in the group journal I knew what it is to be in this awe-inspiring online global community! Comments, suggestions and reflections kept coming in and, yes, I was overflowing with words. My biggest hurdle was actually beating the challenge of the 1,000-word limit. And my greatest gain is a good practice in language engineering - merging sentences to intertwine ideas, re-arranging phrases to maintain coherence, lumping descriptions in a word or two. Oh my, it's so exciting and fulfilling! Actually, I have already started outlining my next assignment... This is easier because it's my life, my world, my mission, my power ... I, me, myself, mine!!!!

Again and again and again, thanks a lot for being there .... All the best....

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Potter's picture

Delighted

Delighted to be in contact with one so delightful! You are truly a bright light!

Mursal Hamraz's picture

Wow!!!

Dear Emie,

You have done a great job. I really love the way you introduced the powerful, brave Sylvia and the way you explained her lifetime excellent experiences, challenges and her visions. I really enjoyed reading it, and of course learning from it. Best of luck for your future work,

In friendship,

Mursal

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks a lot, Sister!

Hi Mursal! Thanks a lot for the generous praises and the encouragement! My entry is everybody's masterpiece. I could not have produced something like this if not for the preciously valuable comments, reflections and support from my mentor, midwife, and the rest of the awe-inspiring WP community! Real great to be here! All the best to all of us...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Farona's picture

A round of applause for

A round of applause for Sylvia !
A self-less women in a world full of never-ending greed ;- )

I can understand how you may have struggled with the word limit ...yikesss I faced the same dilemma ;- ) It felt like 100o0 words wont be enough to describe the wonderful and energetic women I was going to profile. Thanks to my mentor Maura and my midwife Potter aka Jana !
They have been a constant support throughout despite the various challenges I faced while editing/ and securing an interview

Good luck with your next assignment, I hope to be more active on pulsewire !

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks, Farona!

Thanks a lot, Sister! Yikes!!!! And I believe we will never run out of words because the comments, suggestions and reflection will give us a lot to write about!!! If we think the Module 2 front line journal is too heavy with 2,000 words .... well .... we may end up doubling it .... wa ha ha ha .... all the best ...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Farona's picture

Happy Christmas and New Year !<3

Hahah when I write something as a draft I always end up exceeding 100 or 99 or 199 words ! it’s been like that throughout all the assignments I have done so far ! those numbers are in love with my assignments I guess this time I will reach 2500 something ! yikesss noooooooo…….

You’re right ! all the comments/suggestions fills our head with more thoughts…..

Writing in word limit is an art ! we are learning !!!!! Woahhhhhhh

Farona, yes.... there's much much more to this training than we ever imagined! I think I'm doing good with language engineering, too .... weeeehhhhhh .... it's real amazing.....

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

One of Many's picture

Ya He!

Hello, Emie:

Those are the first words of a Native American Women's rejoicing song I love to sing ~~ and I love the comradeship and sisterhood that you have gathered around yourself, Emie, evident through this exchange. The whole community of women are rejoicing in their collective initial creations across World Pulse, and I am so grateful to be part of it.

You did a great job in this piece, and it was perfect how you wove yourself in, just a bit. And I got a good sense of Sylvia's motivation and drive, as you lead the reader through her journey.

You are a very skilled and intelligent woman, m'dear. Thank you for the privilege of traveling with you on your journey.

I am not surprised one iota that you are writing your new piece, as you are making clear that writing is your skill and your passion. 2000 words? No problem!

Gratefully,

Anna

Speaking my Peace

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Anna ... you're always there!

Anna, I really can't thank you enough! And I'm so glad, grateful and proud I'm here, in this amazing global sorority!

And, oh... my piece is everybody's masterpiece! If not for you, Ruth, and all the rest giving so much time and effort to review, reflect and comment with such awe-inspiring concern and support, I could not have gone this far!!!!

For now I'm working on my outline for the front line journal. I'm taking my time because the holidays can give me much chances to go about the next writing assignment. All the best for all of us, Anna ... have a Blessed Christmas and a Glorious New Year!

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

usha kc's picture

Dear Emie, Very good

Dear Emie,
Very good one. Knowing the story of struggle and the achievement of the Sylvia's life is really a inspiring .You did very good job by sharing such a great piece.

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thank you, sister!

Hi Usha! Yes, we are on our way to regain the power all women are naturally born with! Like Sylvia, we will take hold of woman power the way it's meant to be! All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Amei's picture

At last --- I got to read yours, Emie :-)

and I am thrilled. This a very inspiring story. You are an inspiration yourself too. Your story and your comments are of passion. I have read some of the comments you give to our friends. It gives me great pleasure to have you as one of my friends.

Thank you for encouraging me to write mine. My challenge too was keeping to the word limit. The next assignment do not look any easier either :-) it is exciting and scary at the same time. All the best for us.

Have a great New Year.

With love
Amei

Emie Zozobrado's picture

It's fun, Amei!

Sister, it can't be scary now that we know many sisters are going to help us ... I'm really enjoying this! All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Paulina Lawsin's picture

Sylvia Paraguya

Hi Emie,

Happy New Year Emie. I am happy to read about Sylvia. We call her Ibing. There is so much to write about her. We've been colleagues, workshop mates and room mates in many occassions and have shared light hearted and funny moments. We both have a song in our heads most times.

Congratulations! you are a prolific writer. I wish I can be like you. Hope to meet you in the near future.

Cheers.

Pauline

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks Pauline!

Thanks a lot for the appreciation and for taking the time to comment, Pauline! Yes, Ibing is so nice to be with! It's cool to know Filipino women are also here at this amazing World Pulse community. Hope to meet you, too! I'm right here...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Lehner's picture

Bravo Emie!!!

Dear Emie,

Now that the Christmas and New Year Holidays in New Hampshire are behind me and I am settled back into Boston, I spent a cozy early morning reading your profile of Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya. Congratulations on your clear, inspirational expository writing that immediately absorbs one in the beautiful, engaging life of Ms. Okinlay-Paraguya. Her clarity of purpose and commitment to the poor and disenfranchised with a lasor-like focus on the needs of women gives me hope and inspiration to followthrough on my own dreams to work with and empower women.

Your own personal vision and commitment to the women of your country shines through in your writing. Bravo on the successful completion of this first module which is clearly the culmination of thorough research, careful prose, and a commitment to telling the world an important story.

With gratitude,

Monica Lehner

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks a lot Monica!

Wow, thanks so much for the very generous compliments, sister! We are now working on the next, and much longer Module 2 writing assignment... a bit tough but it's fun and real amazing, this journey as VOF 2010 correspondent! All the best ...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

marissabrodney's picture

Dear Emie, I have just read

Dear Emie,

I have just read your profile of Sylvia Okinlay-Paraguya, and want to congratulate on completing such a thorough and positive first assignment! You have given me a window into the world of such a strong woman, advocating for great change. Thank you!

-Marissa

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thank you, Maris!

Oh, it's so nice to know i have struck something good into others with my piece. Thank you so much for the appreciation! Actually, this final entry is a masterpiece of so so many sisters, who really took the time to reflect on my draft. This is such an amazing journey!!! All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Well done!

Great job Emie!

Sylvia is obviously a woman who inspires you through her work and her passion, and that shows through in your assignment. To give her story context, it might be nice to give a little bit of history on the Mindanao situation. I would also suggest focusing on just a few things that she does well, and covering them more in detail--that way you could also focus more on the outcomes of some of her work in detail. But this is really good!

Keep up the good work,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks, Rachel!

Yes, I intend to expound on a lot about Sylvia and her achievements and engagements. But since I could not discuss all of them in one piece, I will tackle the more important issues in the coming assignments, that is, the issues I am more oriented and interested about. In fact, I have already dealt with her membership of the Mindanawao Commission on Women and its role in society in the Module 2 writing assignment. You will know more and more about me, my people and my country as we journey along, Rachael. Thanks a lot for being there...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

warona's picture

Once a friend will always be a friend!

Dear Emie,

Its a pleasure for me also to pat you on your shoulder, Silvia has shown you her potential.Indeed its woman power!

Thanks.Great work dear.

Warona

"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks Warona!

Yes, sister. We all have good potentials and each one has Sylvia's woman power. It's just a matter of finding out what we have and how to prove it. All the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Thanks, Warona!

Yes, sister. We all have good potentials and each one has Sylvia's woman power. It's just a matter of finding out what we have and how to prove it. All the best...

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