#KeepThemSafe: Counter-trafficking after Yolanda

By Romina "Beng" Sta. Clara

Almost a year has gone by and I haven’t even unpacked the stuff we accumulated from Bangkok, Bali and Yangon. I was just supposed to chill when I returned to my home country to follow my love. 2013 is really remarkable for my return to the Philippines and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

From writing humanitarian appeal proposals and raising funds for the Filipino IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Mindanao and the Yolanda-affected areas, I ended up as national gender and counter-trafficking focal person and leading the Protection Programme.

I am very pleased that as of October 2014 data across our Yolanda Response areas (Cebu, Guiuan, Ormoc, Roxas and Tacloban), we have provided GBV (gender-based violence) prevention and counter-trafficking information to over 100,000 plus individuals through community-based advocacy events, and IEC (information, education, communication) materials, and additional outreach to 1.5 million individuals through the partnership with Rappler’s social media network during the Social Good Summit. Of these populations, 56% are women and 44% men. We also provided referral services, psychosocial support and protection NFIs (non-food items such as solar light with radio) to 2,474 individuals, of which, 51% are women; 49% are men. And to sustain the local protective environment, we have updated the knowledge and skills of 2,766 individuals (ranging from the youth, women, community leaders and educators) on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) checklist on GBV, and the inter-agency anti-trafficking in persons for local councils against trafficking and violence against women and children (LCAT-VAWC), including local law enforcers.

Let me trace the key steps that helped us support and expand the reach of local efforts against GBV and human trafficking. Human trafficking is a grave form of gender-based violence, however, it requires a distinct response given that the perpetrators tend to be part of organized crime, criminal groups or syndicates, unlike in most GBV situations where abusers are unorganized.

1. Respect the community. One cannot serve effectively when respect is absent. I’ve seen this many times when so-called external experts alienated disaster-affected communities. IDP women and men, young and old, have a stake and critical role in crafting and implementing durable solutions for their communities. For the Philippines, despite the yearly alphabet soup of typhoons, it is the first time for a category 5 super typhoon and a Level 3 global humanitarian response for a natural disaster. No experience from other contexts, or degree from other countries would have prepared anyone to the fury of an over 300 kph wind and storm surges beyond 5meters. The local silence over the deafening excitement of international workers is not a reflection of acceptance nor stupidity. If you’ve read enough of Michael Foucault or Ileto’s “Pasyon and Rebolusyon”, resistance comes in many forms. We are neither saving Filipinos from hell (whatever that is) nor replacing existing governance mechanisms and democratic space.

2. Saving lives and protection support is a combo. Most emergency responders and humanitarian workers tend to focus on saving lives via relief goods and rescue operations. Providing protection support in terms of timely and accurate information on where and how to
get help (e.g. referral pathways) including services for rape, domestic violence, human trafficking and the like save lives of the most vulnerable. In my four decades in the Philippines, I have never witnessed massive movements of people and so much devastation as aftermath of a typhoon until Yolanda. More displaced people, both women and men, have become more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse due to promises of a better life with more relief goods or temporary shelter or even with free transportation just to get out of the disaster-affected areas. A protective environment facilitates exercise of basic rights even when you are homeless.

3. Train your field teams. I started alone giving paralegal tips to my colleagues deployed as surge teams in the Yolanda-affected areas who encountered a number of GBV incidents including providing accompaniment even to potential human trafficking victims. Slowly, as field access to affected areas logistically and security-wise improved, my dedicated team grew to 11 members. To stay true to the humanitarian principle of do no harm, we developed key messages and common learning modules and materials suitable for an hour or two-day sessions for IDPs, for duty-bearers i.e. local governments, law enforcers. We expanded the IOM mandatory course on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) to ensure understanding of gender and rights-based approaches (GRBA) and the institutional policies against prostitution and trafficking. We held retreats to reflect on our processes (as Protection Team, and as we relate to other IOM Programmes and humanitarian actors) and progress to our protective environment goals committed in the strategic response plan (SRP) of the government and humanitarian community for Yolanda.

4. Beyond sex and age disaggregated data. Having these data as baseline helps, periodically collecting or updating them is an indicator of good governance and sound project management. Gender mainstreaming requires sex and age disaggregated data. However, gender and rightsbased analysis is critical in crunching what the numbers mean to vulnerability, access to services, and sectoral gaps through different phases of the humanitarian response. As the saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. The same holds true for information management tools and checklists without analysis. We will be missing the most vulnerable and the most urgent humanitarian needs during times of crisis, when we do not recognize prevailing inequalities and discriminatory practices in the field.

5. Inclusivity in mobilizing local resources. I am grateful to the speed and diversity of support from institutional donors, private sector, and the diaspora communities, at the start of the emergency response which fast-tracked distribution of much needed protection NFIs such as blankets, towels, solar lights and radio. We must recognize though all the IDPs who experienced primary trauma and became survivors of the super typhoon - they selflessly shared their local knowledge and time in assisting in rescue operations, relief distribution, clearing up the roads, installing and fixing temporary shelters while they recover from their own losses. Since we are a mixed organization and an inter-governmental body, we purposely included the oft-blamed part of the gender dynamics – men, particularly the male-centered thinking and privileging in many societies and cultures. Not all men are violent and the abusers. We want to facilitate a safe space for them to stand up and speak out against GBV and human trafficking, be it in the “tambayan” or activity centers in the bunkhouses, or in the helpdesks at the port areas.

6. Multistakeholder partnerships. We reached more people than we initially targeted since we worked together with other UN agencies, local civil society groups, and the media. In tandem with the UNFPA and UNICEF, and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) we conducted the joint sessions on GBV prevention and counter-trafficking in emergency contexts for the members of the LCAT-VAWC and the local disaster risk reduction management councils (DRRMCs) in regions VI, VII and VIII. With the UNHCR field-based promotion of the rights of the IDPs to law enforcers, we provided the gender and rights-based messages on violence prevention and counter-trafficking. The young and adult women and men in the bunkhouses, the schools, and in the host communities were developed and tapped as community educators for GBV prevention and counter-trafficking. The Bureau of Immigration (BI) helped us put up in all international airports the banners with the 3 elements of human trafficking under the amended law (RA 9208 as amended by RA 10364 in 2013) and the national helpline (1343) against human trafficking. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) shared their 1343 materials for our tweaking and printing as part of the community awareness raising events. Local artists such as The Jerks, Gary Granada, Cooky Chua, Lolita Carbon, Bayang Barrios even created and dedicated a song (“Sandugo”) for the Yolanda survivors during their concert-tribute in the six-months after the super typhoon.

7. Engage the media. Harnessing the media is neither about getting press coverage nor investing on media technology. It’s about sharing key messages, compelling human stories to save lives and keep them safe throughout the response phases, from crisis to post-crisis. Content is key in any relationship. Once the story is out, we have to be ready to be a reliable resource person (i.e. open for interviews, and no editorial control etc.) to continue our advocacy for a humane treatment and safer world for all IDPs, regardless of their affiliations (religious or political ones), age, sex, identity and disability.

I hope to share my reflections to as many leaders and change makers as possible, to remember the dead and the missing, and most of all to honor the living heroes and heroines of Yolanda.

(This article also came out in Rappler.com)


Romina "Beng" Sta. Clara is the national gender focal person and national protection programme coordinator for the International Organization for Migration