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How this helpline is assisting Filipinas in crisis

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A screenshot of the Babaeng BiyaHero program website featuring its ambassador Maine Mendoza. The program aims to give Filipina migrant workers psychosocial first aid. Photo from BABAENG BIYAHERO

In 2017, only one in three Filipinas sought help to stop physical or sexual violence, according to that year’s Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey.

In fact, low help-seeking behavior is so common among abused women that the term “shadow pandemic” was coined by coined by UN Women. Over a call with CNN Philippines Life, Charisse Jordan, National Project Officer of UN Women Safe and Fair Programme, defines the phenomenon as “a culture of silence and invisibility” that surrounds domestic violence.

Seeing the need for intervention, the International Labor Organization (ILO), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) established Safe and Fair in 2018. The program’s main goal is to ensure that labor migration is safe and fair for all women OFWs, whether land-based or sea-based, in the ASEAN region. To achieve this, the initiative is focused on guiding Filipinas through every step of the migration process, namely pre-migration, transit, onsite, and return.

At the beginning of 2020, it was reported that there were about 5,000 cases of OFW abuse and around 23,700 cases of contract violations. Globally, domestic violence rose by 20% in that same year. This kind of abuse has been a persisting problem for Filipina domestic workers, and upon the implementation of lockdowns worldwide, only continued to increase in rampancy with victims confined to the same space as their abusers.

To mitigate this, Safe and Fair Philippines launched their Babaeng BiyaHero campaign in 2020. The program aims to give Filipina migrant workers psychosocial first aid, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as immediate humane, practical, and supportive assistance to individuals in distress. The project’s day-to-day operations are executed by a three-woman Psychosocial Support Team: Pacita “Bing” Fortin, Lizette Therese Cinco, and Bernice Joyce Santos, who are all social workers.

Fortin, who leads the team, is a social worker of 20 years. Simultaneously a teacher in the same field, her advocacy has always revolved around gender-based violence, domestic violence, and child protection. Its genesis can be traced to her practicum in college, when she did an observation stint for a month or two in the summer, in a center for sexually abused youth in Bicol. For her, the experience served as a jarring introduction to the violence faced by children. She remembers it clearly: just a few days after her first day, she told her mom that she didn’t want to go back. She recalls over call, “It’s an evil world, you know, listening to five or six-year-old children being raped; abused by a grandfather of 70.” Post-graduation, she went on to work with women in prostitution.

Together with Cinco and Santos, the three work to provide women OFWs with psychosocial support as they access essential health, social, legal, and economic services. A huge part of their commitment revolves around the operation of two helplines (one for Globe and Smart) as well as a dedicated Facebook Messenger channel, via their Facebook page.

The Babaeng Biyahero helpline provides psychosocial first aid to Filipina migrant works. Photo courtesy of BABAENG BIYAHERO

Their occupation has put them in the position of caring for women in crisis. Because some people call the helpline in tears, practicing psychosocial first aid is an imperative. When taking a call, they follow three principles based on WHO's guidelines: Look, Listen, and Link, or the three Ls.

Look means ensuring the safety of the Filipina migrant worker, or the caller. They first confirm that she is safe by asking the questions, How are you, physically and emotionally? Where are you? Where are your perpetrators?

Listen pertains to providing a safe space for the migrant worker to air out her concerns and issues. It’s an opportunity to validate her feelings of distress.

Link refers to the final stage of psychosocial first aid. The first two stages are crucial to arriving at this point, as they are where the migrant worker’s immediate needs and concerns are identified. Once these are established, the team links the migrant worker to embassies, consulates, agencies, and organizations that can provide assistance.

It is only after performing the three Ls that the team begins putting forward plans of action and options for services the migrant worker can avail. “Very, very important to make them feel that there’s someone who’ll be there to help them,” Fortin shares. Since workers are far from home and sometimes have limited access to WiFi, it’s important that they are given utmost compassion and support when they finally choose to seek help.

A Babaeng BiyaHero 'May I help you?' kiosk located at NAIA. Photo courtesy of BABAENG BIYAHERO

Post-psychosocial first aid, the team begins their intake process. If the victim initiates the call, they'll be asked for pertinent information such as their name, background, working history, and recruitment agency. In the case that a relative or loved one reaches out to BiyaHero on behalf of the victim, the team provides their contact details, and waits for the domestic worker herself to communicate. Over text or call, the team assesses the situation and asks the victim to specify the kind of help she needs from them. “Very important yun eh, na sila magsasabi sa amin na, ‘Ito yung tulong na kailangan [ko].’”

When a female OFW successfully comes home to the Philippines, there are opportunities that await her provided that she possesses a Social Security System or SSS membership. Earlier this year, the ILO along with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority-National Capital Region (TESDA-NCR) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration - National Reintegration Center for OFWS (OWWA-NRCO) introduced the #WOMENOFWSCANDOIT Scholarship Programme. The scholarship intends to provide returning, onsite, or potential women migrant workers and their family members with critical soft and technical STEM-related skills, as well as technical-vocational skills. Rex Marlo Varona of the ILO shares over call, “We are also trying to break the glass ceiling… like me and you, [women migrant workers] should have the option to move to other [industries].”

The #WOMENOFWSCANDOIT scholars currently on training in Cebu for bread and pastry production. These women are mostly OFW returnees/repatriates (from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Hong Kong, etc.) displaced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of INDUSTRIAL EDUCATION LEARNING CENTER AND TECHNOLOGIES INC.

The program has proven to be a success, with 350 graduates in the first half of 2021. Class offerings vary from blended to exclusively online. Their baking and pastry classes, for example, require onsite assessment and training. On the other hand, their computer programming classes are held remotely, which is why they even have students from Saudi Arabia and Italy, among others. Depending on the individual, the skills acquired from the program can be used to forge a new career path post-domestic-work, or enrich the ongoing domestic work experience, perhaps through online businesses on the side.

Still, attainment of such opportunities depends on the migrant worker’s willingness to act. Because the team knows that help-seeking behavior is very low, they often regard themselves as a last recourse for victims. For them, when someone calls the helpline, it means that the abuse has moved past the point of endurance. For Fortin, part of their work as psychosocial first aiders is the “ethical commitment and obligation to make sure that etong mga services that we provide will be continued.” When a person calls the helpline, someone has to pick up.

Though the Safe and Fair project ends its run in 2022, the people involved hope to sustain it through institutionalization. To aid in the project’s continuity is a task force within the Babaeng BiyaHero ecosystem — a network of government agencies and organizations that come together each month to discuss key concerns, as well as review existing manuals concerning migrant workers. Their work as a task force is catered toward supporting and strengthening existing work laid out by the government, in order to better the services provided to female OFWs at risk.

Also playing a crucial role in the project’s long-term sustenance is the Gender Responsive and Inclusive Pandemic Management Act, the proposition of which Safe and Fair initiated. Its objective is to target the gender-differentiated needs of marginalized groups, which remain severely overlooked. Such groups include women migrants and survivors of trafficking, and encompass the disability sector, LGBTQIA+ community, indigenous peoples, and those living with HIV, to name a few. Jordan stresses that these groups “aren’t silent,” but rather, “were silenced by the system.”

While the act hasn’t been passed in the Senate and House of Representatives yet, this is what they are actively working towards. The goal is to have the bill enacted into law by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Varona shares that they are hoping to soon ratify the ILO Convention No. 190, or C190 for short. As an international treaty, its goal is to “recognize the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment.” Varona asserts that one of the good things about this convention is that it expands the concept of “world of work.” It doesn’t just pertain to the place one works in, but also includes places where you take a rest, eat your meals, commute to or from work, and even communicate, in cyberspace. “These can constitute spaces where violence can happen. Parang in-eecho niya yung Safe Spaces Act ng Pilipinas.”

The C190’s ratification is spearheaded by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), who has provided a technical working committee. They are currently in the process of securing endorsements from their stakeholders — the workers, employers, government, and other civil society sectors. DOLE and the ILO hope to announce their stakeholders’ confirmed endorsements by this year, either on DOLE’s Anniversary on December 8, or Migrants Day on December 18.

At present, the Babaeng BiyaHero team holds 12 active cases, and since their launch last year, has assisted around 350 clients. Though primarily offering psychosocial first aid, their services extend to information provision, counseling, case management, and referrals. For the team, every form of support matters. Fortin shares, “Sinasabi ko lagi na in itself, your presence, the way you talk to people, the way you interact with them, is in itself a form of help.”