The Visayan Forum Foundation: Fighting Human Trafficking and a Tarnished Reputation

Child trafficking, a crime pervasive throughout Southeast Asia, is particularly prevalent in the Philippines, coming second only to drug and arms trafficking in crimes of profit. More than 100,000 children are estimated to be involved in the Philippines’ sex trade industry, the majority of them girls between the ages of 12 and 22. The Philippines based Visayan Forum Foundation for anti-trafficking is hoping to rebuild its reputation after allegations of embezzlement and fraud tarnished the once lauded charity in the fall of 2012. The organization’s founder Cecilia Flores-Oebrada, herself a former victim of the child sex trade, has fought tirelessly against the accusations while struggling to keep her organization afloat. It is not clear whether there is any legitimate basis for these allegations or if they are efforts being made by human traffickers to undermine the organization’s work.

36.8% of Filipinos live below the poverty line and as such children in more rural areas of the country are often lured to Manila with promises of better lives as cooks or housekeepers, only to find themselves thrust into modern day slavery upon their arrival in the city. Boys are put to work at the docks of the port city, while girls are forced into the sex trade. The women and children whose personal security is denied to them through their forced participation in the sex trade are also put in extremely unsafe situations with respect to their health. Lacking the power to negotiate safe sexual interactions, they are subject to a litany of health risks, the two most prevalent being HIV/AIDS and Gonorrhea. Without the proper knowledge or tools to protect themselves, these women and girls are placed in extremely vulnerable situations both with regard to their health and their livelihood, which can be greatly diminished when the former is compromised.

In addition to being forced into the sex trade in their own country, many Filipina women are trafficked internationally to countries such as Japan and Nigeria, where they are often exploited in gang-owned nightclubs. There is also a market for Filipina women sold as mail-order brides to men from Canada and the United States, despite the fact that ‘bride agencies’ were officially outlawed by the Filipino government in 1990.

A significant percentage of the Filipino population works abroad (22% of the working age population), with the vast majority of them being women who hope to be employed as child care workers or housekeepers in Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, this number should be even larger. Many women who believe they are going to North America in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families are instead forced into modern day slavery or indentured servitude in order to repay the crooked ‘placement agencies’ which they relied upon to provide them with their visas and travel documents. It is extremely difficult to restrict the activities of such agencies, enforce labour legislation, or ensure legal protection for workers in the Philippines since it is estimated that between 40% and 80% of workers there are unregistered.

The Visayan Forum Foundation works both to raise awareness about the plight of children and women enslaved by the trafficking industry and to provide assistance to those who have been rescued or have managed to escape. The foundation runs a halfway house where those recently released can seek refuge and rehabilitation, as well learn essential skills to regain control over their lives. Those involved in the trafficking of women and children in the Phillippines often hail from powerful sectors of society and use their political and financial clout to prevent retribution for their involvement in such grievous crimes. The unwillingness of Ms. Flores-Oebrada and the Visayan Forum Foundation to acquiesce to the pressures imposed by these powerful individuals is thought by many to be the catalyst for the as of yet unfounded fraud allegations.

The Visayan Forum Foundation was recently featured on CNN in a documentary called The Fighters

Flores-Oebrada’s quest to enlist Manny Pacquiao, famous boxer and elected congressman since 2010, in the struggle to end child trafficking is chronicled in the recent CNN documentary The Fighters. The film focuses both on the Visayan Foundation’s quest to eradicate child trafficking in the Philippines and on the fraud allegations that could prevent them from reaching that goal.

At present, although the allegations are hampering their efforts, no charges have been laid against either the Visayan Forum Foundation or Flores-Oebrada, and they remain fervently committed to the fight to end human trafficking.

About Avery Bruenjes

Avery Bruenjes is a J.D. Candidate (2015) at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University and holds a B.A.(Hons) in Contemporary Studies and English from the University of King's College. Driven by her interest in women's rights, Avery worked this past year to co-design a program educating women who are currently in or recently departed from abusive relationships on issues of custody and legal rights. Her other research interests include international conflict resolution and the changing nature of domestic and international surveillance.