IJM Cebu: On Their Night of Rescue, Victims of Sex Trafficking Empowered by Survivor Testimonies

The morning after they were rescued, the survivors watch a video and hear Julita tell her story—how she was rescued from traffickers years ago and is now thriving in freedom.
The morning after they were rescued, the survivors watch a video and hear Julita tell her story—how she was rescued from traffickers years ago and is now thriving in freedom.

CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – In a covert sting operation on Friday night, IJM helped anti-trafficking police rescue a boy and several young women, including three 16-year-old girls. The pimp who had arranged the sale was arrested and is now facing sex trafficking charges.

The survivors had been recruited from impoverished neighborhoods in or around Cebu. Some of the girls said they thought they were just going to have dinner with "foreigners," and they were horrified and confused when they realized that the man who had offered them the job intended to sell them to customers for sex.

A Safe Place

The survivors went to HerSpace, an innovative government center specifically for survivors of sex trafficking. When IJM started working in Cebu in 2006, victims of trafficking were taken to the police station and often interviewed in the very same room as their traffickers. The set-up was uncomfortable for victims, who often feared telling the truth about the abuse they had suffered with their traffickers nearby.

In 2007, IJM worked with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development to create HerSpace, a separate space that is more victim-friendly, comfortable and secure. The survivors can take turns resting, and IJM and government social workers can remain on site to provide crisis care. Trained police officers conduct interviews with the survivors that may be used as evidence of trafficking.

Powerful Testimonies

Last year, IJM Cebu helped produce videos that are now shown to survivors on the night they are rescued and brought to HerSpace. The narrators are young women like Julita,* a trafficking survivor who was rescued from a massage parlor in 2007. She is now part of IJM's mentor program, and helps younger survivors of sex trafficking rebuild dreams for their future.

"The survivors who share their stories on this video are speaking from a place of hope," explains Andrey Sawchenko, "But these brave young women have also been sitting exactly where the victims are now. These powerful testimonies break through the lies that so many victims are told by their trafficker—that they don't matter, that no one will believe them, that the police are going to hurt them."

Hope and Excitement for a New Future

The survivors rescued on Friday, February 7, 2014, watched the video testimonies with visible excitement; at one point two of the girls started clapping when another survivor in the video named Nonita* started sharing her story.

IJM Cebu attorney Liz Tan explained that this kind of enthusiasm is not the norm immediately after a rescue. It usually takes time for the survivors to sort through the lies they have been told by their traffickers and come to a place of hope.

Liza said she was struck by one girl who approached and asked if there was a dress-making program she could join. "This may sound like an ordinary inquiry, but it is not," she said. Many survivors are not ready to think about plans for the future before they have really processed the trauma from their past. Liza added, "The smile on her face was just different. I could read hope and excitement with the question."

IJM will continue to support the legal case as it develops, and social workers will help the survivors get the aftercare services they need—including exploring opportunities for the young woman interested in dress-making. The teens will go to an aftercare home for trafficking survivors, so they can get counseling and opportunities to restore their hope and fuel their dreams for a new future.

Rescue, Sex Trafficking, Southeast Asia