A former victim of child labor spent the last 25 years fighting so no other child has to endure what she did.
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda is the founder of the Visayan Forum Foundation, an organization in the Philippines dedicated to combatting human trafficking. On Wednesday, she was honored at the Child 10 Summit in New York for her lifetime of work helping children exploited in the domestic work and sex industries.
“I myself was a child laborer,” Flores-Oebanda told the Huffington Post. “If you are poor you don’t have any choice. But later I promised myself that whatever I could do to help other children not to suffer, I would do.”
The Visayan Forum tackles trafficking from multiple angles: Through rescue missions and placement in shelters, they’ve rescued and supported more than 18,000 trafficking survivors, according to their data. By training law enforcement and shipping companies to identify victims, they've stopped thousands of women and children from being trafficked. And through advocacy, they’ve negotiated landmark legislation, like the Domestic Workers’ Magna Carta.
But Flores-Oebanda’s work is far from over: In the Philippines, there were up to 100,000 children and 400,000 women trafficked in 2013 alone. Worldwide, that figure jumps to an alarming 2.4 million people, each year.
Flores-Oebanda’s story talked to HuffPost about how she went from child victim to saving thousands of children like herself.
You grew up in poverty, under an oppressive dictatorship. How did that affect your decision to fight the trafficking industry?
I myself was a child laborer. At seven years old, I was selling fish and scavenging. If you are poor you don’t have any choice: Anything you can bring to the family, you do it. But later I promised myself that whatever I could do to help other children not to suffer, I would do.
I was born in a time of martial law in the Philippines, during the Marcos regime. As a teen I was an organizer through the church, organizing communities against the regime, preaching liberation. When the government turned their eyes to the church and started rounding up leaders, I was a target.
My friends were tortured. Two colleagues were murdered in front of me. Almost my entire family was imprisoned at some point or another. At 20 years old, I was captured in a gun battle and imprisoned. My second child was born in prison.
When I got out, I started the Forum. I thought life in prison was the worst possible – but when we started doing rescue operations for trafficked children, I realized my experience was nothing compared to the lives of these young victims.
My friends were tortured. Two colleagues were murdered in front of me.
Your nonprofit rescues victims who are being trafficked through ports. How does that work?
In the Philippines, we have 700 islands, and the men move their victims through shipping. So we worked in the ports, rescuing girls who were being trafficked on ships. But we could not do it alone. As an NGO we cannot apprehend -- we are not the police. So we collaborated with law enforcement.
We also didn’t have access to the boats and buses that transport the victims, so we started working with shipping corporations and the port authority. We trained their staff to identify red flags and then report suspected victims on board.
We then built a halfway house – a processing center where we identify whether someone is a victim or not, and help them take the next steps: Some decide to file a case, others go home, and still others move into our larger shelter, where we have long-term support programs.
But over the years, we realized it was not enough just to do rescue operations. So we started working in the community, building social enterprises so poor families have options other than child labor. We also started advocating for new laws, to change the fact that humans were our biggest export.
In the Philippines, we have 700 islands, and the men move their victims through shipping. We could not do it alone.
Finally we realized that yes, we have to change laws, but we also have to change people’s perspective. We are a migrant country, and people are born into thinking that going away to work is first line of defense against poverty, that it’s okay to send their children away.
So we started a youth movement: The iFight movement. It’s targeted toward youth, because they need to understand that they can protect themselves. We are now in more than 300 schools, teaching students about trafficking, changing their mindset so that they know it’s not okay to sell their body in exchange for a cell phone.
Your work focuses in the Philippines, but do you think there's more that needs to be done in the U.S. and Europe, where demand is?
If the demand side is not addressed, trafficking will continue. We want to send a message that even if you're in another part of the world, you can’t abuse our girls. In the privacy of your room, on the internet, you’re still virtually raping our girls.
Even if you're in another part of the world, you can’t abuse our girls. In the privacy of your room, on the internet, you’re still virtually raping our girls.
I believe that if men or boys are educated and aware of the issue, hopefully they’ll stop clicking.
So we’re organizing a concert in September in the U.S. to raise awareness, with local artists in Oakland -- because Oakland is a hub for trafficking.
Maybe right now, people don’t understand the impact – they see it as just a download, just a live-stream. But I’m hoping that people will start to change their perspective. I’ve learned it’s best to talk about these issues in people’s own backyard -- it’s the only way to shock them.
You’ve done this work for decades, yet trafficking is still a major issue affecting millions worldwide. What keeps you going?
The belief in freedom. It’s just too ingrained into my bones. Sometimes when I feel weak and shattered, I tell myself: How can I forget that other people sacrificed their life for freedom? Here I am, still alive. It’s the motivation that keeps you going. Dreams are free, you know.
It’s a long-haul struggle. But you always go on, because you are a fighter. And because this should end.