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by Brittany Yap, editor and Christina Failma, Online editor

Padaca was one of nine women who were invited to be guest speakers at the governor’s Third Annual International Women’s Leadership Conference held in August at the Sheraton Waikiki for women of all ages and backgrounds, from Hawai‘i and around the world.

Padaca’s petite stature and limited mobility on crutches give no indication of her inner strength. With sheer willpower, community support, and a grass-root’s campaign, Padaca toppled a corrupt, 30-year-old male dynasty and became governor of the northern province of Isabela, in the Cagayan Valley region in Luzon. This primarily agricultural province is the second largest in the Philippines and the largest on the island of Luzon.

The incumbent had financial resources and the backing of big businesses, two things she didn’t have.
“ My chances of winning were almost nil,” Padaca recalled. “(The dynasty) dismissed me as a nuisance… until it was time to count the votes.”

At the close of the elections, Padaca recounted, the incumbent’s supporters tampered with the votes to make sure he won. The results reported he had won by fewer than 20 votes.

“ I just could not turn my back on the people who voted for me,” Padaca said.

She went to court and asked for a recount or new election. When the results of the new election surfaced, Padaca learned she had won governorship by more than 44,000 votes.

“ I may be crippled, but my spirit is not,” Padaca said. “My physical disability may be the easiest handicap after all. There are people who are handicapped by fear, laziness, and selfishness.”

Women leaders from Hawai‘i, Japan, Iraq, the Philippines, and the mainland, like Padaca, told inspirational stories of their struggles and triumphs in their professional and personal lives. The conference, with the theme Women With No Limits, also featured exclusive video presentations by First Lady Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. Johnetta Cole, president of Bennett College.

In her opening address, Hawai‘i Governor Linda Lingle said that she started the forum in 2004 so that the women of Hawai‘i could talk about the challenges they face professionally and domestically. In her four years as governor, she said, she has met many inspirational women leaders from across the world, and she wanted to invite them to Hawai‘i so they could personally share their stories with island women.

“ This conference is all about inspiring and motivating Hawai‘i’s women,” said Lingle. “I wanted the women across the state not to hear… [but] to actually see them in person, up close.”
Zainab Al-Suwaij, co-founder of the Iraqi Women’s Higher Council, also spoke at the conference. Born in Basra, Iraq, Al-Suwaij participated in the failed 1991 Intifadah uprising against Saddam Hussein.
Al-Suwaij described the horrors she saw and how she had been threatened, silenced, and oppressed under Hussein’s dictatorship.
“ It was unthinkable for a group of women, like this, to gather,” she said, comparing the women’s conference in Hawai‘i to living in Iraq. “At an early age, you learn not to talk or challenge the government.”
Al-Suwaij is currently serving as the executive director of the American Islamic Congress and has met with President Bush and spoken at the Republican National Convention. She has also participated in numerous peace-building projects, including the Revitalization of Iraqi Schools and Stabilization of Education Program and literacy programs for Iraqi women.

“ I feel I represent a bridge between Iraq and America,” Al-Suwaij said.

An advocate of education, she said that there are more than 18 universities in Iraq.

“ I really enjoyed Zainab Al-Suwaij,” said Maile Kawakami, a political science graduate of Houghton College in New York. “I think she has a very different perspective of the war in Iraq. Usually, you only hear the American side.”

Kawakami said that the conference came at an important time in her life.“It’s really good for me to hear these types of things, since I’m a recent graduate,” Kawakami said.

High school students from three all-girl high schools—Sacred Hearts Academy, St. Francis, and La Pietra—attended the conference. Sixteen-year-old Marnie Kazarian, from Sacred Hearts Academy, whose father teaches at HPU, also enjoyed Al-Suwaij’s speech. “Being part Armenian, I saw that some of the same issues exist for me,” Kazarian said. “This conference has made me think about what I can do as a woman, and how I can help other women.”



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