For background information on human trafficking click here.
Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man (1971)
I have immersed myself in the subject of human trafficking (trafficking) for the last four months. My goal: develop an overview of anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Philippines looking specifically for examples of successful programs dealing with prevention, protection of victims, prosecution of traffickers, or rehabilitation and reintegration of victims.
I’ve spent the bulk of my time conducting interviews with NGO staff and victims of trafficking. Other times I attend conferences on trafficking and related subjects (economic development in the Philippines, migrant rights) or furiously peck at my cell phone sending a flurry of text messages to schedule a week’s worth of meetings.
At this point I have developed a slightly-beyond-beginner understanding of trafficking, its causes in the Philippines, and what is being done to stop it. After four months of research I do not feign any level of expertise, but I have had the fortunate opportunity to speak with many knowledgeable individuals who know the ins and outs of trafficking in the Philippines and have dedicated the last decade or more of their lives to combating this terrible injustice. As a result I have developed a trafficking cheat sheet of sorts by gleaning perspectives, facts, and challenges of the NGO community directly from those working in the trenches.
What I am left with is hours of interviews waiting to be transcribed- hours of digital tape documenting anti-trafficking programs ranging from theater groups that perform musicals on trafficking to raise awareness to young men’s camps that teach gender sensitivity to combat the culture of machismo in the Philippines to drop-in centers where victims of trafficking can receive psychosocial counseling. I have recorded victims describing their trafficking experiences. I have recorded frustrated lawyers lamenting on the state of the Filipino justice system. I have recorded grassroots NGOs that do not have the know-how, contacts, or resources to market their work to an international audience for funding, but do excellent work all the same.
I have my work cut out for me
The goal of my research is to showcase promising anti-trafficking programs and NGOs that are making an impact. I am looking for organizations that have been able to develop effective direct services for victims. I am looking for organizations that have been able to develop, advocate, and push through trafficking-related legislation. I am looking for organizations that track data, follow up with clients post-program to gauge effectiveness, and/or network with government and law enforcement agencies to establish relationships that will speed up the process of rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of victims. I am looking for NGOs that perform and achieve in the face of a corrupt system that is often based on payoffs, bribes, and personal connections rather than justice.
Am I searching for the impossible?
Sometimes I ask myself that question. There are dozens of trafficking and migration-related NGOs in the Philippines. Most do incredible work to address a monstrous problem. My admiration only increases when you consider the political and legal context within which they operate. Many of these NGOs are grassroots based operations inconspicuously tucked away on an ordinary street in an ordinary neighborhood, quietly saving the world one victim at a time (ok, maybe I’m being over dramatic, but I like the phrase and it is not entirely untrue).
It is in these often unmarked buildings that these men and women work overtime, get paid a pittance, and face an endless stream of frustrations and challenges interrupted by the rare but significant achievement like the passing of the anti-trafficking law in the Philippines in 2003, the creation of the Interagency Coalition Against Trafficking in 2004 that brings together government agencies and NGOs, or the slow but steady development of productive, collaborative anti-trafficking relationships between NGOs and law enforcement that expedite and improve victim rescues and reintegration.
I want to present the role of anti-trafficking NGOs in the Philippines in relation to other stakeholders: national and international governments, law enforcement, international organizations, and the media. NGOs in the Philippines are in a unique position because, at least concerning trafficking, they have a disproportionate and at times inappropriate level of responsibility due to the government’s inability or unwillingness to implement the country’s comprehensive human trafficking law. In general, the government serves as a referral mechanism to NGOs: instead of having tangible programs and direct services, the government often refers victims of trafficking to NGOs to be rescued, protected, legally represented in court, rehabilitated, and reintegrated. And all this responsibility is dumped on NGOs that are often under funded and understaffed.
I want to raise awareness of trafficking
I want people to know that men, women and children (but mainly women and children in the Philippines) are being recruited from the countryside, deceived into prostitution, domestic servitude, or some other form of forced labor, and from that point on pimped and exploited from every angle, violated physically and mentally, raped, beaten, abused, stripped of their dignity and humanity, and finally, when there is no value left in these human commodities, kicked to the curb to fend for themselves.
It is important to know this, especially for those living in developed countries who have the economic clout to make a difference, because trafficking cannot be effectively addressed unless people are aware of it. It is amazing what the cost of an organic cranberry scone from Whole Foods and a Starbucks grande latte with soy milk and spices (also organic) can get you in the third world. You can do an amazing amount of good or bad in a country like the Philippines for the price of a McDonalds Happy Meal.
The street value of prostitutes in Davao City, Mindanao is $6 a pop, which is split 50/50 with the pimp. Many prostitutes are young girls ages 12 to 24 who have been trafficked from the countryside.
Trafficking is such a powerful, emotionally charged issue that at times it seems mundane. As if my mind has to deceive itself into believing that it is not really that bad, sometimes I think “hey, I’ve seen worse things in Silence of the Lambs.” Hollywood has supplied me with worse terror. I am numb, immune to the horror stories and desperate eyes.
There are other times when I feel Oedipal rage and utter hopelessness. It is often overwhelming, especially if you try and comprehend a system, like the Philippines and its relevant subsystems such as the government, law enforcement, NGOs, the economy, the culture, etc., and the changes that need to be made to effectively address an issue like trafficking.
There are other times when I feel like my eyes have transformed into mini Nile rivers with an endless current that coats a throbbing, heaving chest with the same notes found in Miles Davis’ Green & Blue.
Gil Scott-Heron said the revolution will not be televised
I believe him. I see it every day, but it doesn’t take the form I expected. It doesn’t fulfill my raised-in-the USA ambition, glory, and one-man army-ism expectations at all. It doesn’t even come close.
Instead, I see change like a dripping faucet- small, constant, unending drops. Slow and steady. Drop after drop. Persistent. Dedicated. I see men and women fighting to improve the situation for modern day slaves whether it be through raising awareness, advocating for tougher legislation, pushing the government to live up to its promises, providing temporary shelter for victims, organizing livelihood programs, and so much more.
I see strength and determination that I once relegated to fairytales and idealistic wishful thinking. And all this in the face of obstacles that run so deep, that penetrate the very core of a culture, it’s social rules and organizational behavior that to confront them is like standing in front of a line of hulking tanks armed with nothing but your conviction and stopping them in their tracks- impossible, yet it has been done.
The truth is NGOs in the Philippines are working against widespread systemic corruption and historical cultural biases that promote/influence/encourage trafficking. Despite having the odds stacked against them, NGOs have made progress. It is no coincidence that all women and child rights legislation in the Philippines was created and passed through the grit, determination, and resilience of NGOs. It is no coincidence that the public is beginning to recognize trafficking as a serious issue and that judges and lawyers are learning how to use the trafficking law in their courtrooms while police are being trained to identify victims and collect evidence properly.
At times it seems that change is slow and hard fought, if not impossible, but the truth is things would be so much worse without NGOs: organizations like the Visayan Forum Foundation, Kanlungan Centre Foundation, PREDA, and CATW-AP. Without them, trafficking victims would have no support system and no hope of rescue or rehabilitation while laws protecting their legal rights would not exist. At the very least NGOs are holding the line so that trafficking victims do not slip through the cracks of the system and are given an opportunity, however small, to pick up the pieces and rediscover value in life.
It may take years upon years and lives upon lives to effectively address an issue like trafficking, but even drops of water can eventually cut through a mountain and transform a landscape.
But seriously, beyond the corny metaphors and crafted prose, it is reassuring and inspiring to know that people are plugging away, night and day, whether in the limelight or behind the scenes, in spacious offices or forgotten corners, to end trafficking and abolish slavery once and for all.
Research Project Update
So far I have interviewed staff and observed programs from the following organizations:
Kanlungan Centre Foundation
Scalabrini Migration Center
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women- Asia Pacific
Visayan Forum Foundation
Women’s Crisis Center
Department of Education
*Some NGOs do not currently have websites
My interviews have focused on identifying an organization's mission, goals, programs, evaluative mechanisms, achievements, challenges, needs, and hopes among other things.
Thus far I have focused on NGOs, however, the next phase of my project is to interview relevant government and law enforcement agencies.
Here’s to the remaining six months.