Rape & Remittances: Modern Day Slavery in the Philippines

This is Part 2 of 2 in a series presenting the research findings of Justin Hakuta (NJ), who won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to the Philippines after graduating from Carnegie Mellon. At the time, Hakuta was interested in pursuing a career in human rights investigation.

Root Causes
Trafficking is the product of many factors including:
– Poverty
– Unemployment
– Feminization of migration
– Organized crime
– Corruption
– Political instability
– War
– Gender bias
– Culture

One of the most striking things I noticed about the Philippines was that everyone I spoke to had at least one relative, and commonly many more, who had spent time abroad as migrant workers. From Dubai to Dublin, Hong Kong to Honolulu, Filipinos can be found in almost every country, state and city across the globe.

In the last 30 years, a “culture of migration” has emerged, with millions of Filipinos eager to work abroad despite the risks and vulnerabilities, including trafficking, they are likely to face. For many Filipinos, migration represents the romantic dream of stable, high-paying employment and being able to provide for one’s family.

Roughly 1 million Filipino workers move abroad each year with an estimated 8 million, or nearly 10 percent of the country’s population, working and/or residing in close to 200 countries and territories around the world1.

According to the World Bank, although in ’07 the Philippines led its Southeast Asian counterparts in terms of real GDP growth at 7.3%, as in previous years more than 60% of this growth was from private consumption fueled by migrant workers’ remittances. Moreover, despite the billions of dollars sent home from immigrants abroad, the Philippines remains a country where, according to the World Bank, 48% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Poverty at this level coupled with a stagnant local economy has created a large population desperate for work and highly vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.

I learn from my interviews with social workers who counsel trafficking survivors that many girls and young women want to go to school, but instead seek employment to help support their families. Sitting on a worn wooden bench in front of a corner store in Manila, Mylene discusses how prostitution is changing. “Nowadays the prostitutes are getting younger” she says. The high demand for young women stems from the belief that they are more pure, that there is a reduced chance of catching an STD. Traffickers increasingly target younger girls because they command a higher price in the sex trade. “Some are as young as 11 years old,” she reveals.

Searching for Solutions
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix, no Achilles heel to halt trafficking in its tracks.

The reality of effectively combating modern day slavery is often messy and resource intensive: at the same time that new laws and anti-trafficking initiatives are being created to protect victims and prosecute traffickers, the government, law enforcement, and criminal justice system all have the potential to be under-equipped, mired by corruption, uninformed or lack the motivation/pressure from the public, the media, and/or the international spotlight to make a lasting impact.

Trafficking is not a simple issue. It is a problem created by a complex stew of social, cultural, economic and political factors and, as would fit the chemistry of the problem, there is no one person, organization or economic sector that can handle the issue on its own.

The situation, however, is far from being all fire and brimstone.

The Visayan Forum Foundation (VFF), a leading anti-trafficking NGO in the Philippines, for example, has created halfway houses at sea ports throughout the country to intercept trafficking victims en route to exploitation. The halfway houses were made possible, and most importantly made effective, in large part due to cross-sector partnerships with the government, law enforcement and businesses. The results are tangible: in six years of operation the VFF halfway houses have rescued nearly 19,000 potential trafficking victims in the Philippines.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific, another innovative NGO, has organized young men and women’s camps in the Philippines in collaboration with high schools and universities to raise awareness of human trafficking and gender issues amongst student leaders. The camps address stereotypes on topics such as the sex industry and gender biases allowing participants to confront the reality of these issues. The results: young advocates are created who then carry these messages back to raise awareness amongst their fellow students.

It is by learning about the collaborative, cross-sector relationships that NGOs have established with stakeholders such as the Philippine Police, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Philippine Port Authority, universities and high schools and private shipping companies (that’s the public, private, and citizen sector working together for those counting) that I see true hope in an otherwise murky situation. True progress requires innovation and collaboration- a holistic approach that combines the expertise and resources of multiple stakeholders to address the myriad of economic, political and cultural factors that allow modern day slavery to flourish.

Be Aware
The thing about trafficking is that within the economic policies, the legislation, the cultural factors, the corruption, the international aid, the media coverage, the statistics and the hype, you have the people that actually go through it all. You have normal people, like Mylene, who are deceived and then forced into exploitative situations and end up being victimized by this terrible injustice.

Stop and think about this for a minute: people right now, this very instant are enslaved around the world and no country, including the U.S., is immune from its global reach.

Everyone stops and stares as I step into the women’s shelter for former prostitutes and survivors of sex trafficking where Mylene lives. It is Mother’s Day. Children peer at me from in between their mothers’ ankles. There are no fathers in sight. The women have formed close ties in the collective pain and trauma they experienced and still share. It is less a group, more a large extended family. The shelter is a place of healing. As a prayer is said giving thanks and asking for continued strength before we eat, the women begin to weep and hug one another. Soon, however, the mood shifts as a popular pop song blares on the radio and the women laugh, tell jokes and dance. The humanity and pain that I encountered in the Philippines amongst these survivors makes it impossible for me to turn a cold shoulder to the issue of trafficking. I decided then and there that I at least have to try to make a difference in whatever small way that I can.

After enduring years of being forced to sell her body, Mylene was able to break free from her exploitative situation and now works as an advocate for women’s and sex workers’ rights. She has lived the equivalent of many lifetimes yet her journey is far from over- unemployment still plagues her as well as the former prostitutes and trafficking survivors she now lives with. For now, however, she has to be content with the inner strength and sheer will to live that allowed her to survive her trafficking experience. It is these attributes that she will have to depend on yet again as she struggles to cope with poverty, unemployment and the uncertainty of each new day.

Learn More
For more information on trafficking please visit the Human Trafficking Project website, the culmination of my Fulbright research and an informational hub on trafficking at

Author’s Biography
Justin is currently assisting the Human Trafficking Project to launch as a registered 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization that works to raise awareness of modern day slavery and create an online network of government agencies, NGOs and other relevant stakeholders to improve communication and collaboration within the global anti-trafficking movement. In the meantime he is focusing his efforts on launching an online health and wellness portal that provides effortless access to complementary and alternative medicine-related information, products and services.

April 21, 2009
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