CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – This week, two traffickers were sentenced to life in prison for selling girls and women for commercial sexual exploitation. Two of the 15 young women who were rescued nearly four years ago were present for the court's ruling.
After waiting for 45 months, both trafficking survivors were overjoyed that justice had finally been done. "I realized the dream that I longed for – that those people who abused us will be punished by the law," said one of the survivors. She added, "We were right in our decision to fight for the case because they might be victimizing a lot of children if we did not fight for it."
In 2008, IJM Cebu received a case referral from a local NGO. Two mothers were frantic for help. IJM responded and helped the women report their case to the National Bureau of Investigation. They told the authorities that they believed their daughters had been recruited to work at a karaoke bar where they were actually being sold for sex.
An investigation soon confirmed the mothers' suspicions: girls and women had been trafficked to the bar, where they were forced to have sex with the bar's customers.
Of the 15 trafficking survivors rescued in the IJM-supported government operation, three were girls under 18 years old. Many of the survivors shared similar stories with the social workers. They said that the bar owner claimed they owed him money for their transportation to the island, rent and food – and that the only way they were allowed to pay back this alleged debt was to be "taken out" by the bar's customers. The abuse became a routine nightmare: A customer selected a girl from a lineup, then took her out of the bar to rape her.
Since the night they were rescued, IJM social workers have walked with the survivors on the up-and-down journey of restoration, offering counseling and helping them establish independent lives in supportive communities.
"I realized the dream that I longed for – that those people who abused us will be punished by the law. We were right in our decision to fight for the case because they might be victimizing a lot of children if we did not fight for it."
– Trafficking Survivor
The trial against the traffickers finished in just 8 months, a fast trial relative to other trafficking cases in the back-logged Philippines court system. But 37 months passed before the court finally issued the verdict.
On May 17, 2012, the courtroom was packed. Two of the trafficking survivors sat beside IJM staff. Reporters and journalists crammed into the benches. It took two hours to read the lengthy, 18-page judgment. Finally, after hours and months and years of waiting, the just verdict was delivered: both traffickers were sentenced to life in prison for qualified trafficking in persons, each fined two million pesos.
Although the delay in justice was incredibly frustrating, IJM's Mark del Mundo explained that the case that "came from a sincere and spirited cry from two mothers trying to find their daughters" will set strong precedents for other trafficking cases. He said, "The decision was written well with details, one we will study and use in future cases."
"As months turned into years, we knew this would be a long battle for justice. But my team never gave up," said IJM's Regional Director of Southeast Asia, Andrey Sawchenko. Most importantly, he added: "These convictions are a milestone for the girls we have been representing in court and walking with in their journey of restoration."