Anti-sex-trafficking project sparks active debate about overseas employment
by Gina Mission

Participants in the Philippine-Belgian anti-sex-trafficking seminar pose for a group picture.

abanatuan City -- The two-hour drive from Manila stopped just before an open space of what looks like a rainfed rice field. On the left side of the road was a small multi-purpose hall where Nuevo Ecijanos were to debate the advantages and disadvantages of working abroad. The same hall would later be witness to their strong resolve to fight against the trafficking in women for sex.

___On February 13, around 40 residents from the different towns of Nueva Ecija, mostly women of various ages, came to Bakud Bayan, a barrio in Cabanatuan City, to attend the preventive education/training seminar of the Philippine-Belgian Project Against Sex Trafficking. Organized by Kalayaan and Sarilaya, two Manila-based women’s NGOs, in cooperation with women’s peasant organizations in Nueva Ecija, the seminar introduced participants to an active discussion on sex trafficking. As most participants admitted, it was their "baptism of fire" as far as the issue is concerned.

Participants choose sides in the time-honored tradition of "jack en poy"

___Gregoria Abad, 68, revealed that when her own daughter invited her to the seminar, she immediately decided to participate. "I have two children working overseas," she reasoned. "Whatever I learned from here will be an added information for me, and I think this will help in looking after my daughter," she added. Abad’s son works as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia, while her daughter works as domestic helper in Hong Kong.

___Just before the lecture started, participants were asked what they felt while on their way to the hall. All of them answered that they were inconvenienced by the hot weather, and that they wanted to rest. Asked if they wanted to go abroad so they wouldn’t have to be treading on the same dusty, sun-exposed roads again, all of them said "yes." But thirty minutes after, they changed their minds.

The oldest participant argues animatedly against migration as fellow participants listen intently.

___"I don’t want to go abroad anymore," exclaimed Susan Martinez after the creative presentation on sex trafficking. Though she never really gave migration a serious thought, she admitted to have dreamed of going out of the country someday.

___Sex trafficking as defined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), refers to any illicit transporting of migrant women and/or trading them for economic or personal gain. It includes the following elements: facilitating the illegal movement of migrant women to other countries with or without their consent or knowledge; deceiving migrant women about the purpose of migration -- legal or illegal, physically or sexually abusing migrant women for the purpose of trafficking them; selling women into or trading them for the purpose of employment, marriage, prostitution, or other forms of profit-making abuse.

___Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, according to IOM, is only one part of the wider trade in women and in human beings in general. This include both situations where the women are conscious of the fact that they are being recruited by traffickers for prostitution, and situations where women are being deceived.

___"It is very rampant in Cabanatuan City," explained Angie Magat, referring to sex trafficking. Magat is the representative of EMPOWERMENT, a peasant women’s organization based in the area. "Our organization has helped prostituted women who were made to serve 10-20 customers a day," she continued. "It has to be stopped. And we believe that by holding this kind of activities, people will finally wake up to reality and hopefully, become vigilant to these practices," she added.

___Another important reason why they want to hold the seminar, according to Magat, is the rising number of Nuevo Ecijanos, especially women, working overseas.

___Cherry Cruz, the lecturer from Kalayaan, discussed the different forms of sex trafficking, their definitions, the networks of countries involved, how it can be avoided, and tips on identifying illegal recruiters. She also organized the participants into workshop groups where each group was made to provide ways of preventing sex trafficking at the community level.

___Awareness-raising through the parents, teachers, or even seminars on the issue topped the workshop results on ways of preventing sexual trafficking. After the last group’s presentation, Cruz even encouraged the participants to gossip – a practice of which rural areas like Bakud Bayan are known for – about sex trafficking. "It will be a good consciousness-raising method," quipped Cruz.

___One very interesting activity was the debate on the pros and cons of migration. The participants were group into two and were each assigned a side of the issue. Those who wanted to go abroad have reasons ranging from the serious (to help their family financially, to be able to send their kids to school, to help the country’s economy, to be able to save money for a start-up capital) to the light ones (to marry a foreigner, to tour around the world, to have a lighter skin, to buy imported appliances). Those against migration reasoned that they don’t want to risk their lives in foreign countries, to be separated from their families, and experience racial discrimination, among others.

___To the delight of everybody, the debate turned into a balagtasan (a Filipino poetic exchange of words) of sorts, with the players dramatizing the virtues of overseas migration on one side, and the other, exposing the evils of overseas migration. But as they all agreed afterwards, migration may be an inevitable process for many of them.

___"Whether we like it or not, there’s just not enough opportunities here," said participant Pedro Lopez. "While we definitely would not want to see our daughters, sisters, relatives or even wives sexually trafficked by greedy recruiters, we cannot also stop them from going where they think they would prosper economically," he conceded.

___But that’s not the end of the issue. As Lopez added: "What we can do, however, is to try to demand some form of support from the government, reminding our officials that they are supposed to provide us with job opportunities."

Photos by Gina Mission

CyberDyaryo | 1999.02.18