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Skoll Awardee Visit: Cecilia Flores-Oebanda

By Sally Kassab

Every so often, we have the pleasure of a visit from a Skoll Awardee. One of our most recent was Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, founding president and executive director of the Visayan Forum Foundation, a Manila-based organization she started in 1991. Visayan fights against human trafficking, child prostitution, modern-day slavery and child labor. Every year 60,000 to 100,000 Filipino children are trafficked into sexual exploitation or forced labor. Their latest movement, iFight, stemmed from “The Fighters,” the two-hour CNN film about Visayan’s work.

By partnering with key government personnel, faith based groups and academic institutions, the iFight movement seeks to prevent, eradicate, and track down the worst perpetrators and educate youth.

Here is an excerpt from her talk with Skoll Foundation staff.

Why are we doing this? The long-standing reality of Filipinos is that we are a migrant country. There are more than 20 million Filipinos working abroad, and that only includes the documented ones. It makes our economy stable. Because we are the domestic worker export capital of the world, this makes us more vulnerable to trafficking. Children are uprooted for needed cash for their families, which gives rise to online sex exploitation. We have passed laws on domestic work, but there are flaws in the system.

The other emerging reality is armed conflict and political unrest. Because of this, a lot of families are agreeing for their children to work somewhere else. This unfortunately means they go with the traffickers.

There is an emerging problem with Arab Spring and Winter spring. Because of problems with security and safety, the Filipino overseas contract worker is vulnerable. The system is supposed to make sure contract worker has a contract before they leave country, but this isn’t always the case. Workers can go to Saudi Arabia and work there without any regulations. These are the types of things that demonstrate our country’s increasing vulnerability to slavery and human trafficking. 

We have four pillars that we focus on:

1. A mobilized social movement called the iFight movement.  It is a youth movement against human trafficking and modern slavery.  It seeks to raise awareness on the issue and to prevent further incidences of human trafficking. It targets youth, particularly students, by harnessing partnerships with different schools and universities across the country.  Migration shouldn’t be the only way for economic gain. Families should not think it’s okay to be exploited for money. We need to challenge – and change – that assumption. We focus on youth and let them know they are vulnerable and that this is their fight. This is the way we multiply our numbers and create a youth movement, empowering a new generation. If this generation says, “We want contracts and we want our rights,” then they have the capacity to protect themselves and they can multiply this in social media. That’s my dream. You can also see how if one youth is a fighter in their family, you can imagine that others won’t be trafficked. They will protect their own family, their own children, and this is a trend we hope to echo.

2. Policy reforms. We are compiling evidence-based studies and research to be used in our policy and reforms. This allows us to have clear outcomes and impact. If we influence major policy, the fight will be easier. We want government to institutionalize this and own it as an operational mechanism. This will ensure that what we started with will have long-term impact. Very recently, we were instrumental in the lobby for child labor and domestic workers and got a domestic worker law in Philippines. Millions of slaves are now legitimate domestic workers. The good news is, if we start with some groups and industries, there is a chance that others will follow. This has been a 20-year fight. We also have a national strategic plan, a Government Hotline, with a 120M budget. We have trained their people and will continue to train them. This is a 6-year strategic plan and a road map for the country.

3. Intercepting traffickers at airports and ports. The Philippines is on an archipelago, so we try to intercept traffickers by operating in ports and working with airline and shipping companies. As an NGO we have a limited mandate—we can’t apprehend people directly, so our task force includes police, coast guard, the department of labor, and the department of justice. We have a long-term shelter near these ports, and as of now, we have rescued and saved over 11,000 victims.

4. Education and prevention. We do a lot of awareness work through the schools and we integrate slavery and trafficking into curriculum with toolkits. We were also able to help the Catholic Church in the Philippines start an anti-trafficking program. It’s called “Let’s Move.” In our prevention programs, we seek to empower parents, especially mothers. Trafficking isn’t just a human rights issue; it’s about business. It’s economic and it’s about people’s livelihoods. Our community helps communicate choices and alternative opportunities as a way to expand choices so that trafficking isn’t the only option they have. We want them to know that they don’t have to migrate. We are working to change mindsets and help them realize that some of the best opportunities are right here.

Visayan Forum has been aggressively lobbying for the global ratification of ILO Convention 189, or the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

Visayan was instrumental in getting the Philippine government to ratify it in 2012 and enact domestic legislation to fulfill obligations as a state party in 2013: http://www.whitecase.com/awards-11072013/#.VDm7LfldXxo

Cecilia has taken the campaign to Australia this month: http://medianet.com.au/releases/release-details?id=811962 

Learn about two other Visayan campaigns:http://campaigns.walkfree.org/petitions/tell-government-to-prevent-the-exploitation-of-ofws-in-kuwait-2?source=walkfree

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