“Ayuz!” Philippine Governor Kaka Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands exclaims on our first meeting. Offering a sign of peace and grinning from ear to ear, she makes one feel that everything will be all right.
Known as the “dragon slayer”, Kaka is a living testament that anyone can triumph over adversity. Over being a community organizer to becoming a lawyer and now a politician, she’s knocking down doors and breaking down walls and ceilings to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity for a better life.
Slaying the political dragon
Kaka never dreamt of becoming a politician. She always thought that her career would be in mobilizing sectors like the urban poor women community. She was able to enter law school through a scholarship, but instead of pursuing lucrative jobs she practiced alternative lawyering. She took on pro-bono work, including the case of the Sumilao farmers in 2007. Serving as the lead counsel, Bag-ao joined the 1,700-kilometer walk from Bukidnon to Manila to enforce the farmers’ rights over their ancestral land. They won the case.
In 2010, Kaka assumed office in Congress as a party-list representative. In 2013, she ran to become the representative of Dinagat Islands as a member of the Liberal Party. Dinagat is a province in the southern region of Mindanao, where she won against a member of a prominent political clan that had ruled the area since the 1960s. Her victory earned her the nickname “dragon slayer.”
But the real dragons, she says, are not the powerful clans. She describes Dinagat Islands as rich in resources with beautiful seas and mountains, but “shackled by poverty, inequality and underdevelopment.” Dinagat is currently the ninth poorest province in the whole country.
Kaka was reelected for a second term in 2016, simultaneously to Rodrigo Duterte becoming the Philippine president and introducing a sweeping change to the political climate. In 2019 she decided to further focus her work on Dinagat Islands, becoming the first liberal governor of the province.
Even in court, I was not seen as a lawyer or an equal, but merely as a woman standing up in court
Mysogyny overshadowing women's rights
Kaka recalls that when she was still practicing as a lawyer, the most difficult situation was arguing about her background more than the merits of a case. “You’re seen not as a lawyer, but simply as a woman standing up in court. The judge can spend more time in asking why you became a lawyer than in allowing to you to present the evidence in the case you’re handling,” she says.
“When I became congresswoman and even now as governor, I still suffer from the same discrimination. People always tend to look at men as the more responsible leaders and better administrators. A woman in politics is merely seen as a substitute or a benchwarmer until the father, brother, or son can run for office again,” she shares.
This year, the Philippines’ ranking in the Gender Gap Report dropped from 8 to 16 worldwide, attributed to the decline in political empowerment of women. The highest leader in the country vocally treats women as sex objects – a violation of human rights that is creeping into the system and that Kaka is set to dismantle.
Courage, openness and solidarity
All the prejudices that she has experienced, as well as those by others only made her braver. She pledged to create platforms where voices can be amplified.
When she was a member of congress, Kaka sponsored bills that aimed to close the gender gap as one of the pressing liberal issues in the country. She pushed for the Magna Carta for Women which contain laws seeking to eliminate discrimination against women. Another one is the Reproductive Health Bill which secures universal access to information and methods on birth control and maternal care. Both of which were passed into law. She also supported bills that required gender quota in leadership roles.
As governor, Kaka expands avenues in order to ensure that not just many, but all get an opportunity to advance in life. She doesn’t simply hold doors open, she brings the entire dysfunctional structure down through her programs on participatory governance, equity and development, and human rights and dignity.
Kaka sees the potential of today’s youth, including girls who could be strong leaders if given an equal chance. She recognizes the issue that poverty makes families prioritize sending their son to school, leaving the daughter to do household work or to take care of her younger siblings. According to Kaka “this practice should be removed, and this assertion should be made not only by leaders like me, but by all women and girls who want to pursue their own dreams.”
For Kaka, a woman’s strength lies in the strength that they share with others. The openness to listen to another perspective allows for a better evaluation of a situation. Their common anguish of being relegated to smaller roles pushes them to build a base where they can lift each other up. It’s women’s solidarity, not just with other women but with all human beings, that makes them great leaders.
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In the Philippines, women tend to be puppets in political positions that male family members vacated until the men are eligible to run again. Dinagat Islands Governor Kaka Bag-ao proved that this system can be overcome through leadership anchored on people’s participation.