Em was not alone in her fight against Lupus. Now, she’s extending a similar helping hand as DSWD Undersecretary
If there’s anyone who understands the value of a second chance better than anyone else, it’s Emmeline Aglipay-Villar. Having almost lost her life numerous times, she not only cherishes each year but each day, in awareness and whole-hearted acceptance of our mortality.
More known as “Em,” Villar finished with a degree in A.B. Economics at De La Salle University and received her Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of the Philippines. Shortly after graduating, she was formally diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that targets and damages your tissues and organs. Despite an ongoing battle with her illness, which continues to this day, she pushed forward, becoming a representative of the DIWA Party-list and Undersecretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ).
She co-founded the Hope for Lupus Foundation in 2016, and is also director of the Project Inclusion Network, a non-profit organization aiming to offer more opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Recently, she was appointed as the Undersecretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). This came more than a year since she stepped down from her post in the DOJ to assist her husband, Mark Villar, in his 2022 senatorial bid.
In his best-selling novel, “The Time Keeper,” Mitch Albom writes, “Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.” Contrary to Albom’s point, Villar’s perspective on mortality veers towards the value of its acknowledgment—a sobering reminder—a push that forces one to relish each day while they still can.
Trigger warning: This article contains cases concerning the sexual exploitation of minors.
As DSWD Undersecretary
In her new post, Villar is the Undersecretary in charge of the Attached and Supervised Agencies of the DSWD and International Affairs.
According to her, these agencies cover vulnerable sectors: children, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities. She also handles matters concerning violence against women and children (VAWC), as well as human trafficking—from forced labor to online sexual exploitation.
On the international affairs side, she ensures that we are compliant with the conventions that we are signatories to. This includes the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Villar exclaims excitement over her new position, but also sees it as a continuation of what she did before while working with the DOJ.
She explains that under the DOJ, emphasis was placed on prosecution—investigation, arrest, and court. Whereas with the DSWD, their efforts will be directed towards the victim. This includes rescuing and taking care of them physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
She recalls once handling the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), “I found that I was more in touch with that work. During that time, I noticed that on the side of the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of children, there were a lot of gaps that needed to be filled up and given more attention. That’s also why I accepted the position here in the DSWD.”
As for her experience in dealing with cases concerning various vulnerable sectors, she shares that there is more to it than meets the eye.
For children who are victims of exploitation, Villar says, “People don’t realize that it’s also difficult for them because the perpetrators are usually their parents and aunts, people who are close to them, who they trust.” She adds, “They are so innocent that they don’t realize that, so they still continue to love and trust that person. As they saw it, they were just playing, because it was online and there was just a video being taken of them.”
“When we take them away from their parents, from their point of view, it’s not a rescue—we’re taking them away from the people they love. They find it difficult to cooperate with the prosecution during trial because they don’t want to see their parents go to jail,” explains Villar.
“I noticed that on the side of the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of children, there were a lot of gaps that needed to be filled up and given more attention. That’s also why I accepted the position here in the DSWD.”
Is there a way to address that?
“We have to go through a lot of counselling. We don’t want them to become angry at the world because it seems to them that everything has been taken away from them. They’re separated from their parents and they’re put in a facility where they feel alone, and they have to go to trial against the people they love. They’re children. All of this is very overwhelming for them.”
Dealing with various situations that can be very heavy and triggering, how do you navigate these and remain grounded?
“Some of the prosecutors go through counselling as well. As you said, it’s very heavy. Especially the prosecutors, they have to watch all the videos—I don’t, because I can’t take it, I get really affected. But the prosecutors, since they’re the ones handling the case, they watch all the material. They have to go through counselling so that they can process their emotions and thoughts on the matter”
Finding what matters: Navigating through Lupus
To be clear, cherishing and making the most out of each day should not be confused with plain old grind culture. For Villar, the brevity of human life is not only an invitation to do more but a reminder to be appreciative of the people around you. Fulfillment and success can be achieved without sacrificing one for the other—a balance that Villar admits, she had to learn the hard way.
As a young and driven professional, Villar confesses that she was not kind to her body. She shares, “I stayed up late almost every day when I was working in the DOJ. I worked until the wee hours of the morning, even during weekends—I was abusive to my body. That’s basically the reason why I got Lupus in the first place. My body couldn’t take it.”
“Rest and sleep are very important. I didn’t realize that when I was younger. I pushed myself as much as I could to achieve what to me is as close as I could get to perfection. I strive for excellence in anything that I do. But it has a cost. Health is one cost,” Villar adds.
Realizing that the cost she has paid with her health and almost her life was not worth it, Villar shares that she now lives a more balanced and mindful lifestyle—spending more time with her husband, daughter, and parents.
However, taking her foot off the gas and slowing down was no easy decision for a go-getter such as herself. In fact, it is something that she continues to struggle against. After all, it’s a battle against her nature.
During her one-year break from government work, she taught Constitutional Law at the University of the Philippines (UP). While supposedly a period for rest, she recalls regularly staying up late and reading many cases, despite it only being a four-unit class. It even came to the point that her husband had to call her out on it. Villar adds, “It’s my nature. I get obsessive about things, especially about working. I guess that’s what you call being a workaholic.”
“Rest and sleep are very important. I didn’t realize that when I was younger. I pushed myself as much as I could to achieve what to me is as close as I could get to perfection. I strive for excellence in anything that I do. But it has a cost. Health is one cost.”
After everything you’ve gone through, can you tell us who inspires and motivates you?
“My father (Edgar Aglipay) was the Chief of the Philippine National Police. He dedicated basically his life to protecting and helping others.”
“My mother (Marinette Yan Aglipay) was one of the founders of Autism Society Philippines (ASP), because of my sister who has autism. She was also a member of various foundations and was involved in a lot of civic work, and I drew inspiration from her throughout my life.”
“Now it’s my family, my husband and my daughter. I find inspiration and motivation from them. They give purpose to the things that I’m doing.”
On second chances, the Hope for Lupus Foundation, and Project Inclusion
During her battle with Lupus, Villar says that she never had to ask for help. She confesses, “I found that the people around me always offered to help without me having to ask them. I’m lucky in that respect.”
Now, in recognition that the fight against diseases and unconventional conditions is generally a solitary battle, Villar acts in support of those facing a similar situation. Through the Hope for Lupus Foundation and the Project Inclusion Network, she seeks to offer to those struggling the helping hand she once received.
Villar recalls co-founding the Hope for Lupus Foundation after a string of worrisome medical emergencies: a tough pregnancy with her daughter Emma; and a complication following her giving birth. It was a situation that made her come to terms with her mortality, and she thought, “I could die any time. If I want to start the foundation, why not just start now?”
She points to two other reasons that influenced her decision.
Known as the “Great Imitator,” Lupus generally shares similar symptoms with other conditions. In fact, due to its tricky nature, it is often misdiagnosed and it takes an average of six years before the disease is formally identified. Villar shares, “I want to raise awareness about it. The reason why it got worse for me was because I didn’t know that it was Lupus. If people become more aware of the disease and its symptoms, it could be treated at the earliest possible time.”
The second reason, Villar shares, was to build a safe space people could turn to for support and guidance. She explains, “When I was diagnosed with it, I had no one to talk to. I didn’t know anyone with Lupus. I could talk to my doctor, but then, it’s different talking to someone who’s experiencing the same thing you’re going through. I didn’t have that.”
As for the Project Inclusion Network, Villar recalls developing an interest in protecting the rights and interests of those with autism and disabilities, through her parents’ involvement with the Autism Society Philippines. She first worked with Project Inclusion during her stint in Congress, when the group was still under the Unilab Foundation. After they decided to form their own nonprofit organization, she was offered the position of director, which she happily accepted.
Your story is about second chances. What does the New Year mean to you and what are you looking forward to the most in 2024?
“Every day we wake up is another chance to make things right in this world, in our lives, and in our relationships. A new year to me is like any other year because I look at it in a day.”
“Every day we wake up is another chance to make things right in this world, in our lives, and in our relationships.”
“To be honest, after I had almost died in 2021, you’re never really sure how long we’ll get to stay on this earth. That’s why I try to make the most out of each day and make sure that the people I love know that I love them.”
“This new year, I haven’t really made any resolutions, but I am looking forward to getting into the thick of the work in DSWD. I just started, so I’m still in the transition and adjusting period. This 2024, I’ll be more embedded and immersed in the work that I am currently involved with.”
Photography by JT Fernandez
Cover Design by Nimu Muallam-Mirano
Creative Direction by Julia Elaine Lim
Production Assistance by Lala Singian
Video by Colleen Cosme
Editorial Supervision by Sophia Concordia
Produced by Ria Prieto