MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES – College students around the world are serious about ending modern-day slavery in their lifetime. In the Philippines, about 800 students gathered for the first-ever Justice Forum at Manila’s Polytechnic University to brainstorm new ways to stop trafficking in their country.
One of the most powerful speakers was a young woman named Rowena.* She addressed the crowd as peers—and from her unique perspective as a survivor of sex trafficking.
Rowena says she chooses to share her story so others will wake up to the massive reality of human trafficking.
A Brave Survivor Shares Her Story
When Rowena was 15, she and her 12-year-old sister were trafficked from their small island community to the capital city of Manila.
Like any parent would be, their mother was desperate to find her daughters. She traveled to Manila and insisted on going with police as they investigated leads. In a city of 21 million people, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed.
Amazingly, one day the trafficker sent Rowena out to run an errand. It happened to be a day that her mother and police were combing the streets for leads; Rowena spotted her mother inside a fast food restaurant. She led police back to the apartment to arrest the trafficker and rescue her little sister, who was found hiding in a closet.
Rescue is Just the Beginning
That divine moment of rescue was seven years ago. But as Rowena told the Filipino students at the Justice Forum this summer, getting justice takes a long time. Sex trafficking cases in the Philippines take an average of three or four years to complete, even with a dedicated IJM lawyer.
Rowena and her little sister decided to participate in both trials against the traffickers. She explains why it was an incredibly brave decision: “At first it was so hard for me and also to my little sister because we are scared. What if they will find us and kill us and my family…”
“But my mom convinced me to fight; she made me strong and always supported me,” Rowena adds.
Changing a Global Epidemic
Rowena and her sister are hardly alone in their story. Nearly 2 million children are exploited in the commercial sex trade every year, according to UNICEF. A new ILO report shows that human trafficking generates $150 billion a year—with two-thirds from sex trafficking.
Though sex trafficking persists in the Philippines, the will to end it is rising. IJM’s pilot project in Cebu documented 79% fewer children available in the commercial sex industry in Metro Cebu after four years of working alongside local police to enforce anti-trafficking laws. The U.S. State Department ranks countries on their effort to combat the crime in the annual Trafficking in Persons report; the Philippines was upgraded a level in 2011, after showing a sustained commitment to fight the crime.
Last year, the Philippines government nearly doubled its funding for the Inter Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), a council of government agencies that investigates and prosecutes sex trafficking cases, and sponsors campaigns to prevent children and women from being tricked by traffickers. (IJM is one of just three NGO representatives nominated to serve within the IACAT to represent children’s interests.)
Now is the Time to Join the Movement
“We’ve seen remarkable change since IJM first started working in the Philippines,” says IJM National Director of the Philippines Jesse Rudy. “This event at a premier university in the nation’s capital is yet another sign that social demand for justice is growing. We are working alongside dedicated law enforcement officers and other officials to combat trafficking, and things are changing. The momentum is building, both here in the Philippines and around the world, and it feels like this is the time to join this movement to end human trafficking.”
At the end of the rally in Manila, the auditorium glittered as the students waved lit cell phones in the air. Wearing matching t-shirts emblazoned with the bold directive Stop Human Trafficking, they recited a pledge to use their talents and abilities to protect their communities from trafficking.
Rowena’s closing words urged everyone to get involved—no matter your story: “I also decided to be involved because this is not only for myself. I want to give justice for all the victims of human trafficking.”