A fight for freedom from modern-day slavery | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

What I love most about the Filipino spirit is how we always come together in prayer  when we hear devastating issues. I was reminded of this when I interviewed Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, founder and director of Visayan Forum Foundation, at the first-ever National Creative Youth Summit for the Movement of Anti-Trafficking Advocates last October.

MTV Exit (End Exploitation and Trafficking) partnered with The Visayan Forum Foundation, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Australian Government Aid Program (AusAid).

Visayan Forum Foundation is globally recognized for its work to empower victims of human trafficking, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation. It started in 1991.

It helps victims to know their rights, and empowers them to fight and express themselves.

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery affecting 2.5 million people worldwide, majority coming from Asia and the Pacific. Often preying on the weak and hopeful poor, traffickers lure them with promises of a better life in another country. The Philippines is still far from being trafficking-free.

“The youth are the vulnerable group,” said Flores-Oebanda. The youth are hungry to succeed, and are tricked—or forced—by false promises that their dreams can come true.

“We still need to challenge the culture of migration for the youth,” explained Flores-Oebanda.  “They need to be involved and informed that women and children are actually snatched from underneath our noses,” she added.

According to Flores-Oebanda, even though they have increased the conviction rate, there are still a lot of pending cases in court. Human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry; criminals have profited from the buying and selling of human beings.

“The youngest we have in the Visayan Forum is eight years old, trafficked for prostitution and pornography,” revealed Flores-Oebanda. “Our children are not for sale. We really need an international partner to help us tell the world that our girls are not for sale.”

Working on solutions

Visayan Forum Foundation spearheads programs to help victims of human trafficking. Apart from checking bus companies and conducting rescue operations, it has halfway houses and centers of hope.

Often victims take a long time to address the problem and speak up because of the stigma attached to it, so it is necessary to engage them in activities to help them tell their story and recover.

Visayan Forum Foundation is also developing training programs to help the girls learn skills, from technology to the culinary arts; it hopes the girls can gain the confidence to find good jobs.

The National Creative Youth Summit brought together 110 youth participants from across the Philippines, from over 25 provinces. The youth participants attended a series of inspirational workshops and discussions for the first two days. They also explored various methods that can contribute to the anti-trafficking movement.

Forty selected youth leaders continued the summit with a three-day media camp, held at Ateneo de Manila University. In an effort to strengthen these youth leaders’ creative skills, members of Dakila, together with Filipino talents from the film, theater and music industries, taught a series of creative workshops. They challenged the youth leaders to produce relevant media campaigns to spread the critical message in their communities.

The weeklong event was concluded with a free concert from MTV Exit, which was hosted by MTV VJ Holly and featured Korean pop sensation Jay Park. This organization has continually been working on raising awareness on the issue of human trafficking and exploitation by producing TV programs, short films, music videos, animated drama, documentaries and public-service announcements.

Park learned more about the cause when he came to Manila. “I just feel very proud to be a part of something like this,” he said.

The concert also featured acts like Californian alternative-rock band Evaline and local talents Parokya Ni Edgar, Pupil, Ebe Dancel and Itchyworms. With over 25,000 people showing up in full support, the concert wasn’t just for sheer entertainment, but about inspiring young people to really be a part of this cause.

Music as a medium

A big surprise at the concert was a brief cameo by American singer Jason Mraz, who spoke briefly onstage about the cause. For artists like Mraz, music has become an effective platform to reach the minds of the youth.

“I just want to keep making songs that are fun and love-filled and joyous,” Mraz says.

“Music lightens the spirit; you lose yourself in it. I don’t want to annoy people with activism in every song,” he adds.

“But as a songwriter, I’m sneaking that in. As you’re enjoying the music that’s light and love-filled, and you’re drinking it down, you’re not realizing you’re also drinking a powerful medicine, and hopefully you’ll become somewhat of an advocate, activist yourself,” he explains.

According to Mraz, it’s important for every musician to take what they believe in, and fuse it with their gift of melody, which transcends language itself.

“I can get up on stage and give a speech, but when I start singing it creates a completely different reaction,” he shares.

For our country, Flores-Oebanda explained, despite the efforts made to reach more people, it’s still only the tip of the iceberg. “The road ahead is still an uphill battle, but it isn’t so hard,” she says.

Flores-Oebanda’s dedication to this cause earned her global recognition as a freedom fighter. She travels around the world to spread awareness and help rescue victims.

For the next generation, we can definitely look at Flores-Oebanda as a role model of selfless action and love for her people. She keeps her mind focused on reaching out to more and more Filipinos. She is what Jason Mraz described as “a real-life superhero.”

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