Supporting women to unlock their infinite potential and create meaningful change

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Cecilia Flores-Oebanda is a globally celebrated social entrepreneur and human rights activist, renowned for her courage in relentlessly fighting against human trafficking.

She was a political prisoner for four years under the Marcos dictatorship. Pregnant when captured, she eventually gave birth and raised two children while incarcerated. Released in 1986 she founded Visayan Forum, dedicating her life to ending modern-day slavery and pursuing freedom for all. Among all the awards she has received, Cecilia most appreciates the love and affection of the women and girls that she cares for at Visayan Forum’s shelters.

She was a political prisoner for four years under the Marcos dictatorship. Pregnant when captured, she eventually gave birth and raised two children while incarcerated. Released in 1986 she founded Visayan Forum, dedicating her life to ending modern-day slavery and pursuing freedom for all. Among all the awards she has received, Cecilia most appreciates the love and affection of the women and girls that she cares for at Visayan Forum’s shelters.

Organisation: Visayan Forum (VF) – Innovative solutions to end modern slavery (
Category: Human Trafficking
Country: Philippines

What was the problem, issue or need that had to be resolved?

In December 2007, 14 year old Maita was recruited for a job as a domestic worker in Manila by a woman named Julia who convinced Maita’s family that working in Manila would be beneficial for her. Soon after Maita started her job, she was sexually assaulted by her employer’s nephew who sexually abused her on several other occasions when her employers were out of the house. Maita was too scared to tell her employers because she thought they might not believe her and would beat her instead. In February 2008, Maita escaped after she was alone in the house. She was referred to the Visayan Forum, where she is receiving counselling, training and legal assistance.



The Philippines is primarily a source country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. The Global Slavery Index of 2014 report estimates that 261,200 Filipinos are presently enslaved. Many work overseas as migrants. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas estimated in 2012 that there were around 10.5 million Filipinos living overseas and 1.34 million of these are irregular or undocumented migrants.

Within the Philippines, many are subjected to sexual exploitation and child and adult forced labor in various industries, such as domestic work, prostitution & cybersex, fisheries, agriculture, construction and manufacturing. Very young Filipino children are coerced to perform sex acts for live internet broadcast to paying foreigners; this typically occurs in private residences or internet cafes.

Sources: Transparency International & UN

Sources: Transparency International & UN

The lack of measures to mitigate vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples, overseas Filipino workers (especially those in distress), children, survivors of armed conflict and natural disasters, and specific labor sectors such as domestic workers, fisherfolk, and farmers, cultivate a fertile ground for traffickers to source victims.

The slow pace of justice, complicity of law enforcers and government, lack of program mainstreaming and inefficient service delivery, not only enables perpetrators to effect their crimes with impunity but also discourages the people to come forward and act.

In the end, trafficking and modern slavery remains a profitable business that preys on the weak and disenfranchised and hijacks dreams and aspirations, bolstered by a landscape teeming with dysfunctional social orientations, economic marginalization, political ineffectiveness and inefficiency, and a web of exploitative norms and systemic decrepitude.



Visayan Forum at a glance

Established in 1991, Visayan Forum Foundation, Inc. is a duly licensed and registered Philippine NGO known for innovations in addressing modern-day slavery, especially human trafficking and domestic servitude.
VF has partnered with over 400 local & international socio-civic groups, NGOs, government agencies, and private institutions.
VF was featured in a two-hour CNN Freedom Project documentary entitled “The Fighters”, which became instrumental in busting a child pornography ring. It has also been featured by major global networks including NHK World, Arirang, CCTV Asia, BBC3 and PBS Newshour.

Metro Manila – Serving on a national scale, including the National Capital Region and Luzon Region of the Philippines
Bacolod City – catering to the Western Visayas Region
Dumaguete City – catering to the Central and Eastern Visayas Region
Zamboanga City – catering to the Western Mindanao Region and the Zamboanga-Sulu-Basilan-Tawi-Tawi Peninsula
Genera Santos City – catering to the Central and Southern Mindanao Region

Project Areas
Through partnerships and social movement building, VF has projects or activities in almost all regions of the Philippines.

Development Partners
Anti-Slavery International · Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines
CNN Freedom Project · Katie Ford Foundation/Freedom for All Foundation
Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (Philippines) · International Labor Organization Maranatha Trust · Philippine Presidential Taskforce Against Illegal Recruitment · Skoll Foundation · The World’s Children’s Prize · Thomson Reuters Foundation · Walk Free · Holistic Transformation Resource Center


What is/was your goal?

VF envisions a society where people are free, protected and empowered to explore opportunities without the risk of exploitation and slavery.

Our goal is to develop strategic interventions and best practice models that can be replicated and institutionalized by government and civil society organizations.


What was your solution to the problem? How did you do it? Describe all the steps you took. What worked and why?

For over two decades, VF has been at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery in the Philippines and the world. We have capitalized on our wealth of comprehensive experience and knowledge and remained committed to our mission to institutionalize proven innovative models that reduce people’s vulnerability to slavery, human trafficking and any form of exploitation. VF has a network mindset focused on strategic collaboration with national and international partners, government, the corporate sector, various civil society organizations, faith based groups and other stakeholders.

VF’s idea of engendering social change hinges on the vision of ending modern slavery in this generation. Hence, our interventions, encompassing the four (4) key result areas (Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnership) identified by the UNODC, are largely premised on the potentiality of driving systemic change. VF has established four core strategies as our “pillars” of innovative solutions based on lessons from years of globally celebrated best practices and interventions. Anchored on the principle of multi-stakeholdership, each pillar capitalizes on a strong partnership base to achieve its goals.

Policy and Advocacy Resource Center Pillar

At the core is the generation of much needed knowledge to inform the development of best practice models and formulation of policies. This will ensure then that programming of anti-trafficking initiatives, especially direct interventions and preventive approaches, uphold the tenets of human rights and total human development while remaining responsive to an ever-evolving landscape.

Knowing that policy reform is a potent tool for large-scale and sustainable social change, we conduct evidence and solutions-based research and studies to identify gaps in public policy. We undertook advocacy works and campaigns to ensure the implementation of relevant laws and policies and expose emerging issues affecting vulnerable populations. We shared knowledge and inspired national and international stakeholders to scale up best practices, institutionalize policy reforms, and support strategic programs. We have also developed monitoring tools to measure the effectiveness of our intervention models.

iFIGHT Movement Pillar

Using both direct outreach and social media platforms, iFight focuses on mobilizing young people to fight human trafficking. The goal is to ensure that young people are empowered to protect themselves through adequate information on how to identify, check and report trafficking red flags. iFight seeks to create a counter culture to youth apathy and helplessness by positioning the youth as first line of defense among their peers, communities and families. While the youth are the most vulnerable to human trafficking, they also have the unlimited capacity and unmatched idealism to fight any exploitation. The movement is built to be sustainable. Chapter-building and partnerships with local government, academic institutions, and faith-based groups are an integral part of the movement.

Protective Care Services Pillar

This Pillar provides “U-turn services” that transform victims from a state of vulnerability to a state of empowerment. While victims are safe at our Center of Hope, the shelter where we house at least 40 to a maximum 50 the survivors, we also prepare them for reintegration in broader society by building their resiliency through psychosocial services for healing and providing them access to education and skills training to improve their employment readiness or entrepreneurship prospects. These significantly reduce the risk of re-trafficking.

VF has formed taskforce teams and placed halfway houses in strategic points – The Manila International Airport, Manila North Harbor, Zamboanga Port Area – to intercept potential human trafficking cases in transit areas like ports and airports in partnership with law enforcers, government agencies and corporate transport groups. VF participates in two to three rescue operations in a month with rescue victims ranging from 1 to 24 years old.

At the moment, we are building the capacity of other stakeholders to improve the implementation of the globally recognized task force model in ports and airports. We are also investing in building robust knowledge sharing and information systems and referral and case management systems.

The Ventures for Freedom

Ventures for Freedom is an innovative multi-tiered community-based model anchored on building community watch networks that monitor cases of child abuse and youth vulnerability, providing them with access to economic opportunities, and conducting parenting orientations to change mindsets on unsafe migration and child exploitation.

Focusing on highly vulnerable sectors like domestic workers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, and farmers, VF are scaling community-based interventions that will engender change at the economic, socio-cultural, and governance levels with the end in view of empowering communities to a first line of defense against human trafficking and modern slavery.

Community ownership is a crucial component of the model because the parenting sessions are led by them and the social ventures are co-managed by community members, increasing the community’s social and economic capital. They are incentivized to invest in preventing abuse and exploitation in their areas.

Furthermore, VF will facilitate access to economic opportunities for the community through enterprise development, purposefully increasing income at the household level.

This model, once complete, will be advanced at a national level, capitalizing on VF’s leadership position in policy formulation and programming, to persuade government and civil society to replicate in other hotspot communities and sectors.


What did not work and why?

With over 20 years of experience in fighting modern slavery, Visayan Forum is the country’s foremost authority in championing anti-slavery interventions. This, however, did not come without adversities and “hits-and-misses.”

Initially, we framed trafficking as an issue that affects only women and children. But over the years, we have changed our approach and we’ve started recognizing the vulnerability of men, too, especially in agriculture and fishing. We’ve also viewed trafficking in isolation from other problems when in reality, it is connected to many other issues like disaster management, climate change, access to health care and reproductive rights, migration policies, etc.

We are also now more cautious in conflating voluntary sex work with trafficking and are now more careful in directly or indirectly participating in raids and rescue operations that target adult women who do not consider themselves victims and violate their rights – we have become more conscientious in respecting the agency, privacy, and consent of adult women (Note: this is a big debate in the anti-trafficking community and Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Anti-Slavery International, etc. which all argue that we must respect people’s rights to self-determination and we shouldn’t rescue adults who do not want to be rescued.)

However, despite these challenges, VF remains to be committed in its mission to innovating lasting solutions to end exploitation and slavery.

Impact & accomplishments

• VF’s anti-trafficking strategy in ports and airports where potential victims are proactively identified and rescued through a partnership with private transport companies, law enforcement agencies, and civil society, have been so successful that the government has institutionalized the intervention. There are now Anti-Trafficking Task Forces in major airports and seaports across the country. This intervention is well-entrenched in the government’s national strategic action plan.

• VF played a critical role in the development and passage in 2013 of a landmark national legislation protecting the rights of domestic workers, the National Domestic Workers’ Act; and of the Philippines’ ratification of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 which caused the instrument’s enforcement in 2012. Prior to this, VF has also helped advanced the country’s anti-child labor law, and the ratification of ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor.

• Since its inception, VF’s anti-trafficking strategies have protected and empowered an estimated 70,000 at-risk individuals, and rescued approximately 15,000 victims.

• The 2013 CNN documentary “The Fighters” chronicled VF’s work in the fight against modern-day slavery up to the launch of its iFIGHT Movement, giving new impetus to the cause.

• The church has always been one of VF’s strongest partners:

• VF’s community-based prevention programs such as the Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of People through Unlimited Potential (STEP-UP) which empowered over 40,000 at-risk youth and children all over the country through life skills building, values transformation, and information technology training, relied significantly on partnerships with the church through its social action centers.

• VF’s campaigns that brought about major policy change in the government was met with critical support by the church through its many religious congregations, and church-based commissions such as the commission on migrants and social action. Nuns and lay leaders have always been a significant figure in VF’s campaigns and movements.

• Most recently, VF and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) Commission on Women worked together in training over 500 bishops, clergy, religious and lay leaders from the different dioceses across the country on combating trafficking and modern slavery. Taking from His Holiness’ Pope Francis’ exhortation on human trafficking as a crime against humanity, VF and the CBCP Commission on Women, together with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena with the support of the other CBCP commissions launched Let’s Move!, a grassroots movement of church workers and stakeholders to fight the exploitation of Filipinos trapped in human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Its mission is to collectively respond to the call of Pope Francis to condemn human trafficking as a social sin and a crime against humanity. The 2-day national seminar-workshop, held in February 2014, yielded the creation of a national statement/agenda for the catholic church on human trafficking and a consolidated plan of action. Since its creation, Let’s Move has been implementing localized anti-trafficking initiatives in the different dioceses across the country. Similar capacity-building workshops have been activated by the church in major dioceses such as in Bukidnon, Samar, Iloilo, and Palawan. A website and various social media platforms have been created to facilitate a continuing exchange of information and critical support for localized actions. Similarly, brought about by the success of Let’s Move, several catholic educational institutions have integrated anti-human trafficking efforts especially advocacy and education in their programs. VF currently serves as the Movement and Program Secretariat.