THE STATISTICS on human trafficking might give you an idea of how widespread the problem is in the Philippines and around the world, but nothing quite prepares you for meeting the rescued victims face to face.
They are no longer just numbers in reports and fact sheets. Most of the victims of human trafficking are women, some of them so young that this writer couldn't help but automatically think of his four-year-old daughter, her friends and cousins -- grateful that they do not have to experience these horrors.
"May we remind the members of media to please refrain from taking pictures and videos," Noel Nieva of Perceptions Inc., the PR consultant of Microsoft Philippines, said before a group of rescued victims came out to present a play depicting some of the hardships they endured.
The short play was one of the activities during the launch of Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of People through Unlimited Potential (step-UP), a partnership between Microsoft Philippines and the Visayan Forum Foundation to provide information technology skills training to former victims of human trafficking, and other underprivileged youth and adults.
The two-year step-UP initiative is part of Microsoft's Unlimited Potential global program, which so far has already seen more than P100 million in investments in different projects in the Philippines. Step-UP is supposed to benefit more than 10, 000 survivors and potential victims of human trafficking in the country.
The launch was held on May 26 at the Filipinas Heritage Library, coinciding with the third anniversary of the signing of Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.
Many in the audience, including this writer and other journalists, could not help but cringe at some of the acts of abuse being simulated in the play and the cries of the victims. Based on the statistics provided by the Visayan Forum Foundation, most victims are between 12 to 22 years old. Since 2001, a total of 10, 523 victims and potential victims of human trafficking in the Philippines have been served in the Port Halfway Houses, which is a partnership program between the Visayan Forum Foundation and the Philippine Ports Authority. The numbers may be even higher, however, because of the difficulty in accurately tracking numbers in all the country's regions.
Globally, the number of victims of human trafficking in 2003 alone has reached 1.2 million, according to statistics from the International Labor Organization.
Some of the victims in the play portrayed domestic helpers who were hit after making a mistake in ironing the clothes or cooking food for their masters. One particularly disturbing scene showed a young girl pleading with a man who was saying, "Wow, sexy, batang-bata!"
Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, president and executive director of the Visayan Forum Foundation, said in response to a question from this writer that IT skills training would have a big impact in helping the Philippines fight human trafficking.
"It is not enough to rescue the victims. After the intervention, you have to help them earn a livelihood by teaching them the right skills," she said, noting that many of those who fall victim to human trafficking have not been able to study or receive any form of skills training.
The Microsoft step-UP IT skills training will be conducted through three of the Visayan Forum's centers in Manila, Batangas City and Davao City. Ten NGOs have also been selected as step-UP partners and will conduct training through the Community Technology Learning Center that they will set up this year, with two more NGOs to be tapped next year.
The initial batch of 10 NGOs includes Religious of Mary Immaculate; Episcopal Commission on Migrant and Itinerant Peoples; Belen ng Batangas; University of Batangas; Philippine Agency for Community and Family; Rizal Memorial Colleges; St. Ma. Goretti Foundation; Share-a-Child Movement, Inc.; Social Action Center of the Diocese of Bacolod; and Lapu-Lapu High School.
"We will also be proactive because we will also reach out to hot spot areas and teach these IT skills to potential victims of trafficking," Oebanda pointed out.
Oebanda is a recipient of the 2005 Anti-Slavery Award for her efforts in the area of child domestic work.
In an interview after the press briefing, Oebanda stressed that poverty and the lack of education are one of the main factors behind the growth of human trafficking.
"Wala silang alam na skills. Kaya nakita ninyo (referring to the short play), ang kinakalakal nila ay ang sarili nila," she said.
She stressed that what is needed to combat human trafficking is "sustainable intervention" that would not just rescue the victims, but provide them skills for gainful employment and successful reintegration in society. This is why IT skills training is important in ensuring that underprivileged Filipinos will have a chance to compete in an increasingly technology-driven world, the step-UP proponents said.
Meanwhile, Severino Gaña Jr., Assistant Chief State Prosecutor of the Department of Justice, stressed the need for a national database to track human trafficking cases in the Philippines. Gaña is the focal person for the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, which is the government body tasked with implementing RA 9208.
"I guess this is where Microsoft Philippines can come in. We need a national database of trafficking cases," Gaña quipped as he gave his presentation.
Asked to comment on Gaña's request and whether a national database was part of the current partnership program, Microsoft Philippines marketing director Karrie Ilagan replied: "It's something that we can discuss. It's not one of the things under the partnership at this point, but it's something we can talk about."
In an interview, Ilagan said Microsoft Philippines and its step-UP partners will focus first on IT skills training for this two-year project. She pointed out that the beauty of the project is that Microsoft already has an existing Unlimited Potential program, which can be tailor-fit to the needs of specific beneficiaries in the Philippines.
"This is not just computer training. We have a readily available list of services and the type of skills training that we can provide. They just have to pick from the program. Another area where we can really help is awareness. We need to make more people aware of the problem of human trafficking in the Philippines," Ilagan said.
In a separate interview, Gaña said that the Philippines has made headway in the fight against human trafficking, noting with pride that the Philippines was the first in Asean to comply with international standards with the passage of RA 9028, following the adoption of the United Nations in 2000 of the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, more popularly known as the Palermo Convention, and two protocols, namely Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children and Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air.
Gaña, however, stressed that a national database would further help the government and private sector in coordinating efforts to fight human trafficking.
"We will be able to update our statistics more immediately and get a more accurate idea of how bad trafficking is," Gaña said.
"For instance, we would know if there has already been a conviction in Region 8 and update our records. We would have better coordination between different agencies and local courts," he said, pointing out that sometimes it takes weeks or even months for convictions in remote areas to be reported.
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