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June 13, 2011

Combat Human Trafficking through Networking and Partnership - A Philippine Scenario

In the Philippines, older women promising good jobs go into rural areas and lure young ones into labor and sex trafficking networks. Mothers, trusting other women, are pleased to send off their daughters into what seems like a better life, and, since migration in search of work is commonplace in the country, it all seems normal.

But behind these seemingly normal transactions among women are vast shadowy organizations engaging in a trade that amounts to an estimated $8 billion annually in the Philippines alone, Sharon Tiongco told participants in a Living Room Dialogue June 13 at Marymount Manhattan School. Nobody knows who is behind the industry, she said, and the more one finds out about it, the more complex and intractable it seems. And because it can appear to be normal economic activity, government is complicit, with the Dept. of Foreign Affairs, for example, at times issuing passports that enable the traffic.

However, a number of small organizations in the Philippines have begun to tackle the problem together from different angles. At first they found it hard to get together because they disagreed on the best approach. For example, Tiongco's Philippine Agency for Community & Family focuses on prevention and re-integration. Their community organizers go into low-income communities and educate families on how trafficking works and talk to them about basic human rights. At times, when they return a girl or young woman rescued from prostitution to her family, parents are angry. "What are we going to do with her now?" they ask. Because of poverty, such parents do not recognize that treatment of their children as commodities to be bought and sold violates their rights to personal dignity and integrity.

Other organizational activities focusing on prevention and re-integration are lobbying government agencies, offering skills training for victims, and providing training for law enforcement.

Some anti-trafficking organizations put their attention on intervention, seeking ways to rescue the young women from exploitation and offering personal services.

Recent efforts of anti-trafficking organizations to pool their resources have resulted in some successes. One has been to persuade the Philippine Port Authority to permit continuous screening of videos all over the ports that portray the hazards of trafficking, how to recognize it and what to do if you need help. Employees at the ports are also being trained to recognize victims. Other publicity efforts there include striking posters: One all in black picturing a dirty fingernail against a window induces curious passers-by to read the informative small type at the bottom. More broadly, educational programs using MTV are successfully engaging the young.

Another success of collaboration has been to increase pressure on the government when it was put on a UN watch list for failing to keep up with anti-trafficking measures. Advocates noted that between 2003 when anti-trafficking laws were put into place and 2010, 938 violations were reported with 58% of the cases dismissed and only 18 convictions. From the police point of view, traffickers are "just talking to the girls" with no crime committed. The public pressure has resulted in better enforcement with the country recently removed from the UN watchlist.

After Sharon's presentation, participants considered ways they could contribute to collaboration and networking in New York. They formed small groups to reflect on what they had heard and to think about actions they personally might take. Participants were encouraged to use the Network for Peace's blog as a networking site where they could share their thinking about trafficking and information about activities and events. Interns from Media 4 Humanity who were present to help set up the evening promised to promote connections between journalists and anti-trafficking activists using media and face-to-face interactions such as luncheons. The slogan for the evening was "Together we can do it."

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