Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fight Against Human Trafficking in the Philippines: My Brief Journey with the Visayan Forum

Some time ago, I accepted a friend’s offer to work as interpreter for an independent consultant. I felt nervous, yet excited as it was my first time to do so. It was going to be a two-day gig.

A funding organization based in London sent Nadya* to the Philippines to evaluate the programs and services of Visayan Forum (VF).** She and I met several young girls who were rescued either prior to their flight abroad or before their travel to a far-flung province. Their smiles greeted us, but their eyes told a different story. Majority of whom stopped going to school because of poverty. Neither of their parents had a stable job nor completed formal education. 


Visayan Forum - A Brief Profile   

Established in 1991, VF is a non-profit agency that fights against human trafficking, child labor, and abuse of domestic helpers. Its founder, Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, has been a long-time human rights activist and freedom fighter. I have met Cecilia on several occasions and she strikes me as a very caring person who is committed to social justice. She wasn’t around though during the evaluation because of a speaking engagement at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford. 

VF has half-way houses in several key areas nationwide. A house parent and a social worker normally supervise the daily activities and needs of survivors. An administrative staff and a few volunteers assist them in these shelters which were built with the help of the government's fund for gender and development (GAD) and private donations. A notable benefactor of VF is Harry Potter author JK Rowling.  

VF’s rescue operation is done in coordination with different government agencies like the Bureau of Immigration (BI), Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), Philippine Overseas and Employment Administration (POEA), Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD), National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Philippine National Police (PNP), various local government units (LGUs), and domestic and international airports. Likewise, foreign embassies and private shipping companies provide monitoring support.

Aside from these partnerships, VF has collaborated with foreign universities and other institutions. It has also organized a national association of domestic workers and anti-trafficking advocacy groups and networks. It provides assistance to existing community groups for children like Bantay Bata sa Komunidad or BBK (Community Advocates for Children) where parents and community leaders work towards the promotion of child’s rights.  

Young girls and their stories of pain 

The Philippines has been dubbed as one of the world’s poor, developing countries. Yet, life in the islands was egalitarian and economically vibrant during pre-colonial times. Of course there were less people then. But what does this historical snippet have to do with my experience as a VF interpreter? Quite much. The deterioration of the country from its early abundant state has affected generations of Filipinos.

Many of the girls that VF had guided (and continues to help) come from Mindanao. This region is rich with natural resources, even politicians describe it as a “Land of Promise”. Unfortunately, it has been a basket case since Hispanics conquered and divided existing early culture. Many locals were converted to Christianity, alienating generations of early Muslims who lived peacefully in Mindanao.

When Nadya asked Lita*, a Muslim girl, why she chose to go to Kuwait to work as a domestic helper instead of finding a local employer, she said: “Because it’s easy for us to find work there. Many Christians won’t accept us because of our religion.”

“And why do you want to go abroad where you might get abused?” Nadya probed.

Lita gave the most cited reason that Filipino migrant workers say: “Because I want to help my family survive.”

At the age of 15, Lita took the risk to work in the Middle East. Her agency in Manila gave her a fake passport and changed her age to 23. Her Filipino recruiter promised a ready job, but there was none when she arrived in Kuwait. The partner agency owned by a Sri Lankan opted to have her locked up in a small room together with girls from other countries like Nepal, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Weeks later, she was auctioned off to her first employer. She stayed there for a week because her boss attempted to sexually molest her.

Lita is among thousands of young Filipinas who fell prey not just to illegal recruiters, but to cruel employers as well. Sadly, there are also similar cases within the Philippines. Some are given heavy workload and are not fed properly. Due to poverty, parents would accept cash advances from recruiters. Such is the case of Marci* who hails from Leyte. Fortunately, she and other kids were intercepted enroute to Manila.

The opposite happened with Sharon* who comes from Manila. A recruiter asked her and three friends if they would like to work as domestic helpers in a province outside of Manila. However, while traveling, they learned that they were going to work as waitresses in a bar. A port guard noticed them and alerted higher authorities. Consequently, they sued their recruiter and won their case.

The youngest of the girls I met was Roan *, a 10-year old girl from Cebu. She and two pals grew up in a neighborhood notoriously labeled as a cybersex den. A gay friend asked them if they would like to join a “show” where they could individually earn $4 after each performance. They worked for a cybersex site for a year until they were rescued with the help of operatives from a foreign embassy in coordination with VF and local agents. 

Overcoming the odds and living with hope 

Today, young girls like Lita, Marci, Sharon, and Roan are on their way to recovery. Part of VF’s activities is teaching them about their rights as minors, the law on anti-trafficking, and other gender- and labor-related statutes. They are also provided with personality development and livelihood skills training.

Lita and Sharon now serve as VF volunteers and willingly share their stories with fellow survivors. Sharon though plans to serve VF as a social worker later on. Several girls, including Roan, have become VF scholars who are completing their elementary and secondary education, as they await the conclusion of their respective cases. Others like Marci look forward to reuniting with their families and also intend to finish their education.

Certainly, these girls are all grateful to VF for helping them. They all wish that Cecilia and her dedicated team would continue doing so and be able to help more kids like them, especially now that there’s a pending bill to protect the rights of domestic helpers.

My job as an interpreter ended when the girls performed “You Showed Me”, a song about hope that they composed with the help of a volunteer from Australia. Like Nadya, I felt privileged to hear their stories, yet I also felt sad for what they had gone through.

At such a young age, these girls’ lives have been corrupted. Their journey is quite similar to what the Philippines has gone through in the hands of colonizers who lured early Filipinos to embrace a new culture to improve their lives. Indeed, the series of foreign occupations have likewise corrupted what was once an unadulterated group of islands.

The pain caused by social ills like poverty, lack of education, human trafficking, child labor, and exploitative domestic work is entirely human-made. However, nurturing hope that things can still change for the better also rests solely on compassionate human beings like the people behind Visayan Forum.

*Name has been changed for confidential reasons.
**Visit the Visayan Forum's website for more information.

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