Undying Passion: Sarah Elago champions the youth, the marginalized, and the Filipino

Sarah Elago’s compassionate advocacies translate to how she continuously fights for the youth’s voices to be heard.

“If you’ve heard of mga BS-Org, isa na ako doon nung college. As far as I know, no one else [joined] at least 25 [organizations back then].”

(I was one of them in college.)

While we’ve seen stories of students whose lives revolve around participating in organizations, none can compare to the journey that Kabataan Partylist (KPL) Representative Sarah Jane Elago trailed upon. Just like any college student, she desired to do something outside of academics. Her passion for service was so strong that when she was given the opportunity to run for student councilor for the University of the Philippines Diliman’s (UPD) University Student Council, she took it and made the most out of it.

It was scary for Sarah who had little experience in politics at the time. Yet, after realizing how her leadership could spark change and further amplify the voices of the marginalized, she fought hard and won. Little did she know that her experience as a student leader would prepare her for her biggest challenge yet: being a lawmaker in the Philippine Congress.

Simultaneously juggling and addressing concerns about multiple national issues, she aims to let the youth’s cries be heard by the government and to empower us. “Walang ibang pwede at pinakamalinaw na makapagsalita tungkol sa sitwasyon ng mga kabataan kung ‘di ‘yung mismong mga kabataan,” she passionately declares.

(There is no one who can speak about the youth’s issues more validly and clearly than the youth themselves.)

Finding her voice

Sarah’s run as a lawmaker garnered praise from local and international observers. During her incumbency, she has authored over 700 bills, mostly catered toward underrepresented communities. For championing safer spaces for young people, she was among the Politicians of the Year in 2020 as selected by London-based youth empowerment organization One Young World.

However, she confesses, “Never had I ever imagined that I would become a partylist representative.” The mere idea of public speaking almost seemed impossible for Sarah, who grew up trying to overcome her shyness—which usually manifested as severe stuttering. She recalls that she used to recite in class by writing her answers onto a mini blackboard to mask the stuttering. But friends and family were steadfast in supporting and guiding her. “Magsalita ka lang,” they would always remind her.

(Just speak up.)

As time passed and after overcoming her stutter, she pursued her secondary studies in Parañaque Science High School where she sought more opportunities to further improve her speaking skills: joining their school’s publication, research club, and cheer dance varsity. But her high school life wasn’t all peaches and cream.

Sarah questioned the need to buy two sets of books—with one set being of higher standard than the other. It was a privilege to have access to the quality of instruction under a science high school, but she wonders why it can’t be the same for every student. “I became more aware of how our educational system could somehow sponsor and perpetuate inequality,” she reflects.

Since then, she vowed to use her voice for a newfound advocacy—equal access to quality education and basic resources—even in college. Having attended UPD, Sarah was exposed to the larger problem of the surrounding impoverished communities. “I realized that to be a youth leader in a national university demands that we speak up [for and with the] student sector [and the] citizens of this nation,” she professes.

Shielding her guard

Today, Sarah brings her passion for service to the halls of the Batasang Pambansa, being KPL’s representative for two consecutive terms. But for the 18th Congress, there are only around 87 women out of the 304 legislators in the House of Representatives; in the Senate, there are only seven.

By being a young woman in the male-dominated world of politics, it can mean working her way up from the bottom of the ladder. Her heart for serving the people is often shot down by widespread vilification on social media. “They’d tell me, ‘Start a family instead’, ‘Shut up’, or ‘Don’t you have a love life?’,” she relayed in Filipino. The lawmaker also fears that these sexist and misogynistic remarks would veer attention away from those who fight with morals, discrediting them as capable leaders. “If these [acts of] sexual harassment and threats are done against a member of Congress, what more to citizens who [are] only standing up for their rights?” she stresses.

This holds true, especially after reports of red-tagging of women activists, which resulted in unlawful arrests and even killings. The murder of human rights group Karapatan’s paralegal Zara Alvarez in 2020 underlines how much violence ensues from red-tagging. As such, Sarah implores that we must stand in solidarity against red-tagging and all forms of vilification, especially those targeted toward women. “[‘Yung] makakilos [sana] bilang babae at hindi babae lang, nang malaya sa takot o kahit anumang tipo ng terror,” she insists.

(To act as women, and not “just” as women, free from intimidation or any form of terror.)

Peering into tomorrow

Seeing the “chilling effects” of silencing the outspoken—maiming those who stand—she constantly looks back on the milestones she paved to put the youth and the marginalized at the forefront. “My experience in Congress…is actually an affirmation of how important people’s participation is in crafting inclusive and responsive legislative measures,” she attests.

However, a safe space for the youth to cry out their concerns is still lacking, especially considering how President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has failed to uphold platforms that allow for expanded youth participation. “[This] undermines our representation [as] the youth sector [and as those] who are outspoken in their views, opinions, and insights on various societal issues,” Sarah furthers.

But she assures us that through her leadership, we have another step forward in being represented. One way was through responding to the rising violations against campus press freedom by pushing for the Campus Press Freedom Bill, which aims to repeal the Campus Journalism Act of 1991 by further protecting the critical and independent voice of students within their campuses.

Another bill she lobbied for was one that aims to strengthen the existing Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) Bill, which would provide a monthly honorarium and other benefits to SK officials. Despite being advantageous in giving the youth avenues to be politically involved, as of press time, the Campus Press Freedom Bill awaits approval by the House. Meanwhile, the SK Bill—recently ratified by Congress last February 3—has yet to be signed into law.

Though lobbying for these legislations is tiring, the partylist representative knows that she is not alone in this fight. “We’re seeing more and more young people speaking against red-tagging and attacks on youth and student representation,” she identifies. She hopes this chain can spark political discourse, provide programs, and develop agendas that will benefit and empower the youth of tomorrow.

In our own little ways, we can transform the Philippines into a place where everyone’s voice is respected. “Huwag natin maliitin ‘yung kakayahan at kapasidad ng mga kabataan para tumindig sa sarili nilang desisyon, pananaw, at mga paninindigan” she ends. As she leaves Congress for the next KPL leaders to rise, she feels assured of a better future when we allow succeeding generations to help in “building a truly democratic and humane society”.

(Let’s not belittle the youth’s capability and capacity to uphold their own decisions, views, and beliefs.)

With reports from Miguel Gabrielle Valentino

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