CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – Seven years after IJM Cebu rescued five young women in our very first operation in the city, two traffickers have been convicted. Both pimps pled guilty, admitting that they had tried to traffic teenage girls and young women for sex.
IJM Cebu’s First Rescue
In 2007, IJM opened an office in Cebu, the Philippines, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was easy to find children being sold and exploited for sex, but it was difficult to mobilize rescue. Though there were laws against trafficking on the books, criminals knew no one was enforcing them.
In this first case, IJM documented a street-based trafficking ring that loosely operated from a pier in the heart of Cebu City. Our team presented the case to the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation (similar to the FBI), and NBI agents followed up on the report to confirm children were in fact being sold for sex.
Five young women were rescued in back-to-back undercover operations. IJM worked with the NBI to ensure the survivors understood what was happening—that they were not in trouble, but that they were being rescued.
The NBI arrested three suspects, and IJM helped interview the survivors and gather evidence necessary for filing charges in court
Two of the girls rescued that night were young teens. 15-year-old Fiona* had dropped out of school at 12 to work and help feed her family of 14. She had been deceived by a friend of a friend—who turned out to be a pimp and no friend at all. Thankfully, Fiona was rescued before she was abused.
The other 15-year-old was named Charina.* She was first sold when she was just 13, and she was all too familiar with the harsh routine at the pier. A pimp would arrange the sale, then send her with a customer to a nearby hotel.
That night she met IJM was the first step into freedom, but restoration would take years. When she was rescued, Charina was three months pregnant, struggling with drug addiction and very hesitant to trust anyone. But as one IJM social worker reflected, “We knew we did not want to give up.”
From Rescue to Restoration
As the case moved to trial, it highlighted what was broken in the justice system. Hearings were frequently cancelled when a key party—the judge, the defense counsel, a witness—failed to show up. The courts were back-logged, and hearings would be rescheduled three or four months apart.
The trial was painstakingly slow, but IJM social workers were encouraged by the progress they saw in the lives of Fiona and Charina. After spending time in aftercare homes for sex trafficking survivors, both young women moved back into supportive communities where they are now thriving.
Fiona’s social worker acknowledges the challenges that remain, but says: “time and time again I have seen her rise up to these challenges with even bigger courage. Her heart is big, and I know her future is big too.”
The changes in Charina’s life have been profound; she is a pioneer member of an innovative program IJM developed with the Philippine government for survivors who have moved back into their communities. Charina has not only processed the trauma she endured, she is helping other survivors move forward.
Signs of Transformation
Both Charina and Fiona courageously chose to testify in the trial against the traffickers. When two of the three suspects entered a plea bargain this year, IJM called the survivors to make sure they would support the terms. The trial was finally coming to a close.
“This case was incredibly frustrating,” says Andrey Sawchenko, who has served as IJM Cebu Field Office Director since 2007. He adds, “But it is also incredibly hopeful. It used to take the NBI an entire month to mobilize a rescue operation; today, it takes law enforcement a few days or less—or they are the ones who initiate the case. Half way through the life of this case, the Supreme Court passed a new order to prioritize sex trafficking cases, and cases since then have moved twice, three, four times more quickly in many parts of the country. When we started working, aftercare homes were grossly under-funded and ill-equipped; today, Cebu is a city that offers a range of services to survivors. And it’s a city that is leading the fight to end trafficking once and for all.”
On June 10, the two traffickers who pled guilty were convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The trial against the third suspect continues.
One of the young women rescued along with Charina said, “We get a chance to have transformed lives because of IJM, and it’s good that the accused gets the same chance too.”
Learn more about our work in Cebu—where outside researchers documented a stunning 79% decrease in the availability of children for sexual exploitation after just three years of IJM’s work with local authorities.
*A pseudonym has been used for the protection of this IJM client; she has given consent to share her image.