by Katie Palmer
Child sex trafficking is rampant throughout the Philippines. Both anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government agencies estimate that 60,000 to 100,000 Filipino children, a majority between the ages of 14 and 17, are trafficked each year for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Contrast this to Sweden, a high-income country that espouses gender equality, where national authorities estimate that between 400 and 600 children and women are trafficked annually.
NGOs’ responses to trafficking typically include three integrated steps of assistance – the rescue, the rehabilitation, and the reintegration of trafficked minorities. Most anti-trafficking NGOs have ‘human rights committees’ that frequent disco bars and brothels in search of underage victims. Once an underage girl is found, the committee develops a plan of action to rescue her. Oftentimes a male committee member poses as a john, pays the girl’s bar fee, and then takes her to a rehabilitation shelter. At the shelter, she has access to a formal education, healthy food, and rehabilitation services aimed to help her recover from the consequences of being repeatedly neglected, beaten, and raped.
Reintegration is the final process of recovery. In an effort to help girl survivors prepare for their new lives outside the rehabilitation shelters, the staff of NGOs teach them how to earn a livelihood that does not involve returning to the red-light districts. Typically, livelihood training involves the implementation of crafting programs. The girls learn how to sew pillowcases, crochet bags, and weave scarves. These products are then sold both locally and internationally. Some NGOs forge partnerships with local street vendors who sell the products at nearby markets. Many NGOs also make the products available online so that socially conscious foreigners can buy the products and simultaneously support the movement against child sex trafficking.
Over the past three years, I have traveled throughout Southeast Asia multiple times to conduct research on how NGOs help empower girl survivors. I found the trend of employing crafting programs as part of the reintegration process all too ubiquitous for multiple reasons. It does not cost underfunded NGOs much to buy the materials needed to sew pretty scarves. The crafting programs are also ‘safe.’ They do not shake the foundations of traditional gender roles. While sewing scarves is more reputable for girl survivors than selling their bodies, the crafting programs do not enable them to exit their economic status in life. Thus, at best, the crafting programs help transform the society’s view of the survivor from ‘whorish youth’ to ‘respectable local entrepreneur.’ Implementing ‘safe’ livelihood projects is important for many NGOs in that it ensures that they receive funding from both state and non-state donors who do not feel threatened by these small-scale initiatives.
I am not trying to imply that NGOs who use the crafting programs model as a platform for personal transformation are bad or they do not care about changing the status quo. Rather, I am arguing that such programs rarely lift the girls out of their ‘lot in life.’ I have met too many girl survivors who were once enrolled in these programs and have since returned to the red-lights, knowing that more money is to be made in the sex industry.
Money is what the girl survivors need. And in order to increase their earning capacity, the girls need transferable, market-oriented skills. Until NGOs can provide girl survivors with real economic and social opportunities, many of these underage girls will keep returning to prostitution and a life where they are vulnerable to exploitation, disease, and ultimately death.
Of all the NGOs I visited – I have met with over 50 directors from different NGOs – the Visayan Forum (VF), located in Metro Manila, is one of the few that recognizes this need for girls to learn skills that are not so inherently and restrictively gendered.
The VF teaches computer skills in order to prepare girl survivors for relatively well-paying IT jobs as clerical workers. While some might correctly argue that clerical types of employment are low-skilled, low-waged, pink-collared jobs, it is important to note that the Philippines is an overpopulated country with a high unemployment rate. The majority of the population earns less than 1 USD per day and does not have access to a high school education. Until major economic, political, and social changes are made, the girl survivors are ‘fortunate’ to receive IT training and also receive employment that pays 4 USD to 6 USD an hour.
Jerome Alcantara, policy head of the Visayan Forum, explains, “Initially the girls learned how to make beaded products; however, we found that there was no real market for these goods, except among a small percentage of people who felt ‘bad’ for these girls. So we partnered with Microsoft Philippines and developed ‘Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of People through Unlimited Potential’ – what we call the ‘step-UP Training’, which teaches girls IT skills.”
In 2006, Microsoft Philippines and Visayan Forum partnered to design and implement step-UP, a program that provides technical skills training, confidence building, and direction setting to survivors of trafficking. The aim is to equip this vulnerable population with opportunities for economic reintegration into industries that are less exploitative than the sex trade. Since its inception, Microsoft has invested nearly 2 million USD in the program.
Before girls can enroll in the step-UP Training program, staff must consider and assess the girls’ capabilities and also be privy to the girls’ long-term career goals once they are to be reintegrated into the communities. If the staff members feel that the girls are suited for clerical work, they will enroll them in the step-Up Training program. However, for girls who are more inclined to choose self-employment, the staff places them in programs that teach how to make jewelry and crochet bags.
Since the establishment of the step-UP training program in May 2010, 43 girls have graduated. With the English language assistance of the lead social worker, Dina, a recent graduate, shares her feedback about the success of the program with me: “Before I attended step-UP Training, I don’t have any knowledge about computers and I’ve never seen one. But after I completed the training, I gain so much learning and knowledge. I learn to type different letters. I learn how to make a resumé, which is useful for after my stay in the shelter.”
Marie, another graduate of the program, asserts, “step-UP helped me gain more self-confidence. Nowadays, if you have better knowledge on how to use the computer, you are more likely to get better employment. Through step-UP, I was able to realize that I can share what I have learned with the other girls in the shelter and encourage them to enroll in the program.”
Once the girls have completed the program, Visayan Forum helps them find work in their home communities. The organization has a Memorandum of Agreement with multiple IT companies to ensure that the girls have secure employment. Most of the graduates land jobs as administrative assistants, Internet shop attendants, encoders, and as representatives at call centers.
The organization’s partnership with community companies also helps ensure that the girls are not forced back into the sex trade. The partnership ensures this by helping the girls find secure employment with credible employers who are not in the business of handing girls over to pimps in exchange for money.
Microsoft Philippines and Visayan Forum are leading the way in helping other non-profit organizations design and implement their own sustainable training centers. This trend of teaching vulnerable populations IT skills is one that needs to continue if we are serious about providing them with real opportunities so that they too can make empowered choices.
In the words of one youth survivor from Visayan Forum, “We are like everybody else. We want to make good money, have families, and feel good about our jobs and ourselves. Microsoft and [the Visayan Forum] help us reach our goals. For that we are always grateful.”
About the author:
Katie Palmer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She recently earned a graduate degree in Geography from the University of Toronto. She earned her bachelor’s degree in geography and gender studies also from the University of Toronto. In the past few years, Katie has traveled to Southeast Asia multiple times to research the effects of and responses to the flesh trade in women and children. She lived in the Philippines for five months where she completed a Canadian-government funded internship at the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA). In her spare time, she volunteered at ECPAT-Philippines – an anti-trafficking NGO that provides rehabilitation and residential services to girl survivors of trafficking and forced prostitution. Aside from The WIP, she has written for Gender Across Borders, Herizons, and the University of Toronto Magazine on topics relating to gender, migration, development, and women and children in prostitution. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Geography with a focus on children and development in Southeast Asia.