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FEATURE STORY March 6, 2021

Leading the Way in the Philippines: Sha Elijah Dumama-Alba


Can you tell us about your journey to become a laywer?

When I was younger, the peace and order situation was unstable in Cotabato City, but I grew up in a family that made us understand the value of education. The proverbial lesson for us was that when you have good education; the more chances you get in life. My siblings and I were really motivated to study hard and achieve more in life.

I finished high school at fourteen years old, two years ahead of my peers. It felt like I skipped that part where I could find myself. My father is a doctor; he wanted his children to be doctors as well. So I took pre-Med like my elder brother and sister, who are now doctors. At the time, I think I allowed my family to shape my dreams for me.

But in my third year, it took all my courage to talk to my father and confess to him that I wanted to become a lawyer. There was resistance from him at first, but he said, “Ok, we don’t have lawyers in the family. If that’s what you really want to become, if that is your passion, then I’ll support you.”

After I was admitted as a member of the Philippine Bar in 2008, I moved to New York to become a legal officer in a Filipino-owned company in America. I was living the life there for a year, until I was asked to go home when my grandmother was getting weak. When I got home to Cotabato, and after two days, she passed away in my arms.

I was about to go back to New York then. Everything was ready, flight ticket and all, but I realized that family was more important and that I had the chance to give back to my community by staying in my homeland. I also decided to settle down and raise my own family in Cotabato. By then, the Bangsamoro peace process was regaining traction, and I got invited to be part of the Secretariat of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, which was then drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law.  

These circumstances led me into discovering that my purpose was really for the Bangsamoro. God paved the way for me to be where I am today: the Attorney General of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

What are you most proud of?

The Bangsamoro Transition Commission started drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law in 2013 (now known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law). The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) took a chance with me, a young lady lawyer. I presented the BBL to Congress, to the whole country. It was a proud moment for me.

While it took time and many obstacles to get BARMM established by law, I am proud to be part of that milestone in the peace process.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

As the Attorney General, I get to sit at the same table with powerful men. At first, I thought, “Do I belong here?” But the company I keep, the people I have around me; they nurture my potential, support and listen to me. That’s what I enjoy most about being the Bangsamoro Attorney General.

I could feel the shift. You see, they would say Muslim communities are patriarchal and conservative, that women are not listened to. But here, I travel with BARMM Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim and other leaders of the region, where sometimes I am the only woman there. That sends a very strong message to young girls and young women.

I also enjoy representing and bridging all generations; young and old. In that way, I consider myself an instrument that brings up the sentiments of people on the ground. I accommodate visitors even if there’s a lot of work because I know how much time and effort they put in to come to our office to see and talk to us. When they come, we should listen. I have a sense of fulfillment when I can bring up their concerns to our leaders, especially those from women, youth, and the people of the 63 barangays we serve.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced as a leader?      

As chief legal counsel of the BARMM, I was put in charge of facilitating the gradual phasing out of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) employees, which is a provision in the Bangsamoro Organic Law. I had to communicate that to the affected ARMM employees, which was very challenging for me. I received threats that almost broke me apart, especially since my children are so young.

I confided in my bosses, and my mentor, Chair of MILF Peace Panel and now Minister of Basic, Higher and Technical Education Mohagher Iqbal. He reminded me that as long as you go to sleep at night with a clear conscience and as long as you don’t step on other people, you are doing all right. He also advised me to beef up my security. I had to change my lifestyle, I couldn’t go out alone, not even to eat out or get groceries. As Bangsamoro Attorney General, I had to be careful. That was a real challenge for me.

I also have a supportive husband who understands the rigors of it all. Whenever I have doubts, he reassures me of his support, and he reminds me how strongly I feel about making an impact by building the bureaucracy in the BARMM.

I coped with prayers, support from family and colleagues, my fellow women who raise me up.

How has the pandemic challenged women?

The effect of the pandemic is a double-edged sword.

Women have the opportunity to stay at home and take care of the kids, but then there’s home schooling and house chores. While working from home allows us to spend time with family, you cannot make an excuse. The convenience of virtual conferences opens up your evenings and weekends for meetings, which under normal circumstances, you should be able to enjoy.

It also looks like the gains that we achieved as women, the progress that we achieved as women pre-pandemic are now also lost, like in the unemployment rate of women. More women are the ‘caretakers’ and have a more difficult time juggling family and work. They can lose their jobs and will not be able to contribute economically.

As a government servant, I think we need to learn more about the emerging issues concerning women during the pandemic so that we can carve out new policies that can help their conditions today. It is a matter of empowering them, giving them opportunities and allowing them to pursue those opportunities so they do not feel marginalized or not heard. Having that kind of support from the government, from the society, removes the limit for them to be able to really reach their full potential as people.

What advice would you give to other women aiming for leadership roles?

Don’t limit yourself or let society tell you what you can or cannot do. In my case, I started out in medicine because of family, but I decided for myself that I wanted to be a lawyer.

Be confident, believe and trust yourself. The only person who can hold you back from progress, or from opportunities is you.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?      

My dream is a Bangsamoro that is peaceful, self-reliant, progressive, and developed. The BARMM experiences as an autonomous region will really affect and impact the entire country.

As we move for the extension of the transition period, our hope is to leave the BARMM as a functioning and working government. Anybody who gets elected in the regular Bangsamoro government, what they will inherit is a government that works and is functional.

I’m just really happy that I get to live during this time where I am able to contribute to the legacy of peace in the Philippines.