Updated 13:57 PM PHT Fri, March 17, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Cecilia Flores-Oebanda’s voice — no matter how seemingly fragile, no matter how close it is to breaking — does not derail the gravity of her cause. Inside the Center of Hope, a safe shelter for victims of human trafficking, the founder and president of the Visayan Forum speaks clearly of her continuing journey of fighting the decades-old problem of modern day slavery — a superhuman burden she has taken upon her shoulders to help bear, even as the experience of seeing thousands of women and children trafficked (sometimes with the consent of their own parents) threatens to take its toll.
Human trafficking in the Philippines is a problem of epic proportions, one which demands the collective effort of the community and not just reliance on institutions. While working on the CNN documentary “The Fighters” — which followed Oebanda and the Visayan Forum as they rescued and cared for victims of trafficking — CNN Philippines president Armie Jarin-Bennett realized how little we know of the complexity and magnitude of the trafficking trail that has left around 400,000 Filipinos considered as “modern day slaves” in its wake, according to the Global Slavery Index.
Among the 400,000 are OFWs as forced laborers, prostitutes and those pushed to commercial sex tourism, child soldiers recruited and exploited online, and fish divers.
As of 2016, the Philippines belongs to Tier 1 of the Trafficking in Persons Report, which means it is compliant with minimum standards to combat trafficking, even as much remains to be done to eradicate the system that allows traffickers to get away with exploitation.
“The one thing that captured me is my lack of real understanding of the problem that exists in the Philippines,” says Jarin-Bennett, who recalled her experiences in 2012, while filming the documentary on Oebanda’s fight against trafficking. “I was so shocked with the reality, because then I’m seeing faces of children who were abused … I was able to talk to children robbed of their childhood. It really broke my heart into many, many pieces.”
In one scene in “The Fighters,” three girls share how they were made to drink juice mixed with urine following the request of an American client behind a computer screen. The girls were also forced to undress and dance, among other things. It is the job of Oebanda and her team to fish out — in a manner of speaking — thousands, maybe millions, of victims in the same boat, who would have been or would have continued being victims of human trafficking if not for their timely intervention.
In the Center of Hope — which stands on a lot in Antipolo, Rizal, bought with funds donated by author J.K. Rowling — the women and children undergo individual case handling and programs, depending on the trauma they have experienced. In the safe haven, away from traffickers, psychologists and social workers help them heal and recover.
“We try for them to continue their schooling,” Oebanda tells CNN Philippines today. She tells the women and children: “This is just time for yourself. Huwag mo muna isipin ‘yung iba. Ito ay time para sa sarili mo, simulan ang mga pangarap mo dito.”
Jarin-Bennett remembers the time she visited the center years ago. “The children I met in the shelter,” she says, “needed very little from me.” A day spent playing, singing, and reading with them already made an impact for their healing process: “’Yung magkaroon lang sila ng interaction with people they can trust and people they know won’t harm them is one day they can heal from what they had gone through,” says Jarin-Bennett.
“The Fighters” is part of the CNN Freedom Project, CNN’s worldwide effort to educate people about modern day slavery and to expose the trade. Today, CNN Philippines takes part in this endeavor through #MyFreedomDay, and will air updates on Oebanda’s continuing crusade in an episode of “The Story of the Filipino.”
Also part of the effort to raise awareness was an outreach program at the Center of Hope, as well as fora and other activities in Far Eastern University Diliman, International School Manila, and Sienna College. Three artists — Sonny Boy Z. Surnit from Cainta, Rizal, John Lord J. Pablo from Tarlac, and Melvin John S. Pollero from Novaliches, Caloocan City — who heeded the call to design a freedom mural, will see their works painted in Maestranza Wall, Intramuros, Manila.
Through the efforts of Oebanda and other anti-human trafficking groups, and the continuing advocacy of programs such as the Freedom Project, traffickers are successfully prosecuted by the government. As of 2016, 259 traffickers have been convicted, even though more needs to be done to address the root of the problem.
“Mas marami pa tayong pwedeng gawin collectively, as a people, as a nation, as Filipinos, to protect the country,” says Jarin-Bennett. “And it’s not just to protect these kids from human traffickers, but to help them so they’re not hungry anymore, and they don’t turn [to trafficking].”
“We can protect them from the traffickers, but we have to think: why did the mother sell their child? Kasi wala silang makain, nagugutom sila,” she adds. “It’s bigger than just human trafficking.”
But until efforts to address the root cause of it all — poverty — finally end trafficking in its tracks, there are people like Oebanda who will remain despite the odds. “Ginagawa ko ngayon ‘yung ginagawa ko ngayon because I love freedom,” says Oebanda. “I am born, and I breathe for freedom. I will not give up until the last drop of blood. [I’ll] keep fighting for freedom.”
Catch Cecilia Flores-Oebanda’s full story on The Story of The Filipino, tonight at 9:30 p.m. on CNN Philippines. Watch the CNN documentary “The Fighters” in full here.
The CNN Philippines outreach program at the Visayan Forum's Center of Hope was made possible with the help of Qualimed and Called to Rescue Foundation, as well as the assistance of MMDA (through their campaign to save the Pasig river), Davies Paints, and the Intramuros Administration for the mural contest.