Trafficking of Women and Children

by Jean Enriquez, Manila, Philippines, April 2003

First, let me thank the Netherlands Embassy for allowing me the honor of sharing with you our information and analyses on this very important issue of human rights, particularly that of women and children.

Discussion on this takes an interesting turn as the Philippine Senate passed on third reading the proposed anti-trafficking bill, on March 19, 2003. It has been more or less 8 years since the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women started working on the draft bill with legislators and other advocates, particularly in the Lower House. To us, it showed a historical lack of appreciation of women’s human rights in general, and the urgency to criminalize trafficking in women and children, in particular.

Let me first define trafficking in persons. The UN Protocol on to Prevent, Suppress and punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children defines trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

In the Philippines, there remains a lack of national baseline information on the trafficking of Filipino women and children. Several factors that contribute to the dearth of data on the issue are: the underground nature of trafficking; the stigma placed on victims of sexual exploitation; the absence of a law on trafficking that defines the acts; the lack of a name for the problem in the community level and awareness of acts of trafficking as violations of human rights, thus the low rate of reporting; and the same lack of awareness among many government agencies and NGOs, thus the few interventions and documentation of cases.

However, victims and the media report sporadically on cases of trafficking. There are also qualitative studies on cases. The testimonies are alarming in that each victim talk of about 50 to 100 more victims that were exploited along with her in Malaysia, Korea, Japan and countries in Europe and the US. The forms of trafficking also range from the trafficking in the guise of employment, the bride trade, trafficking to sexual exploitation, particularly prostitution and pornography, trafficking of children to armed conflict and others.

Trafficking of women and children happens within and across borders.

The context of trafficking in the Philippines, similar to many countries in the South, is poverty. As the country struggles amid globalization efforts, Filipinos migrate in thousands daily, 72% of those going overseas being women. Women particularly bear the pressure of finding alternatives for their families’ survival. Thus, migration for work – to the cities or overseas – is an option for the desperate – “kapit sa patalim”. Then, as migration continues to be exploited by many sectors, especially recruitment agencies, it becomes the easiest channel for trafficking women and children.

In our studies, we are shocked by the high rate of internal or domestic trafficking, where most victims come from the rural areas and are brought to the cities of the country. The women and children are promised jobs as domestic helpers or salesladies, yet brought to brothels or bars.

In Cebu, Brgy. Camagayan is one of the red light districts within Cebu where almost 90% of the women and children (bars and streets) were trafficked. A large portion of these women came from the different provinces of Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, and Davao) and some came from Pampanga, Bulacan and other provinces within Luzon region. Davao City, Angeles City, Olongapo City, La Union and Baguio City are also destination spots.

The victims are as young as 14 years old, have not finished high school and come from poor families. Many are also victims of abuse early in their lives. The recruiters pay the parents an amount of P2,000. Afterwards, the parents don’t hear of their children anymore.

In January 2002 alone, during the height of the US troops’ “Balikatan” exercises, 35 cases of trafficking in women and children from Davao to Zamboanga were recorded by Talikala, Inc. Their ages range from 15 years old to early 20s. According to the victims, the recruiters went to the places where they (children and street freelancers) could usually be found, telling them that there were customers awaiting them in Zamboanga and that they would be paid in dollars.

In Datu Odin Sinsuat however, there are about 10 videokebars that basically cater to the members of the Philippine Army in Camp Siongco, the marines in Matanog and to the Philippine National Police in Parang. In these bars, there are about 50 women and children from such towns as Marbel, Itulan, Pagadian etc. Some of these children had been prostituted in the streets of Cotabato City and had been sent back to their hometowns by the local government, but could now be found in the bars in Datu Odin Sinsuat.

On crossborder trafficking, the profile of victims are the same: they are young, mostly single, did not finish high school, and come from very poor familes where they are expected to help earn.

Trafficking from Zamboanga del Sur to Malaysia is rampant. Mondays and Wednesdays, 4:00 p.m. is the regular trip for the boat going to Sandakan, Malaysia. “Backdoor trafficking” phenomenon is most prevalent in Bungao, Tawi-tawi. Leaving the country by means of the “backdoor route” is so possible because in Bungao there are available speedboats that will not require any documents and boat ride will only take you 4 hours unlike in Zamboanga where legal documents such as passport are required and the trip usually last for about 16 to 18 hours.

Among the countries where Filipino women and children are abused and prostituted are Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Cyprus, Greece, Germany, Italy, the US and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.

Filipino women are also found in the bars of Saipan, but according to a recent study conducted by CATW, some had been abused in prostitution. Entry before 2001 had been easy in spite of the fact that the women only held tourist visas as recruiters from the Philippines had contacts in said US territory that arrange working permits and await the women at the airport. The women are then taken to the clubs and videoke bars as strippers and entertainers.

Majority of the women prostituted in the streets of Hong Kong are locals, Thai and women from Mainland China. Nightclubs are mostly consist of about 70% Filipina and 30%Thai who have entertainer visas for six months. Majority of the women did not realize that they would have to offer escort service when they came to work in the bars of Hong Kong for the first time. While it was not compulsory for the women to engage in escort service, without it they would not be able to pay back the fees they owed agencies that brought them to Hong Kong which amount to HK$20,000 or US$2,565.00. However, some women claimed that in case they refuse to do escort service they would be sent back to their agents. This would mean that the women would either have to pay the unserved portion of their contracts or they would not be allowed to sign another contract to work abroad (Action for REACH OUT, 2001).

Japan has the largest sex market for Asian women with over 150.000 non-Japanese women involved, mainly from the Philippines and Thailand (IOM, 1997). Slightly over half of the female migrants in Japan are Filipino; 40 percent are Thais and the rest are from Thailand, Korea, Columbia and other. It is estimated that foreign women’s earnings in the sex industry account for one to three percent of Japan’s GNP, which equals the military budget.

In a study conducted in 1997 on 2,502 Japanese respondents on why men buy women, the most common reasons given were because they were encouraged by friends or acquaintances (50%), followed by curiosity (46%), psychological needs (29%) and not having a partner (20%). However, information regarding prostitution was obtained not only through word-of –mouth, porn videos and pornographic materials but also from weekly magazines and sports newspapers. The majority of women with whom the Japanese respondents had had sex with were from the Philippines, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the United States, France, Spain and the Netherlands (“Why Do Men Buy Women in Prostitution? Research Project on Men and Prostitution in Japan”, Making the Harm Visible, CATW, 1999)

In Korea, the economic crisis in 1997 led to further feminization of migrant labor, and there has been an expansion of the number of women who have entered the sex industry in Korea. Foreign entertainers have been chiefly recruited by agencies. The number of agencies increased from 27 in 1998 to 48 in 1999. Most of the women come from the Philippines and Central Asia. There are 4,726 foreigners with entertainer visas working in the clubs around US military bases such as Tongduchon as well as entertainment venues in Seoul. However, KCWU estimates that prostituted Filipinas number around 5,000 at any given time in the camptowns around 99 military bases and installations in Korea.

The women in the bars are supposed to drink more than 200 glasses of juice per month. As it is impossible to do this, they have to “sell tickets” (barfine) to make up for the shortage in their quota. Each “ticket” sold corresponds to a number of juice or lady’s drink. In either case, the women are given only 30% of the drinks and/or 30% of the barfine. If the drinks or tickets fall below the 200 quota, the women receive severe verbal abuse or sometimes beaten or even sold to another club. The women are closely watched and sometimes even forbidden to go out. Their passports are often confiscated and held by the club owners. The foreign women do not want to go out on barfines, particularly with Korean men as they brutally abuse the women (Chu, Soo-ja, The Reality of Immigrant Prostituted Women in South Korea, Saewoomtuh, 2001).

Websites such as sell not just Filipino but Chinese women as well on the Internet. The charge of 14.95 pounds for a 30-day membership allows access to the name, postal address and full description of the women. Big Apple Oriental Tours in New York advertise the Philippines as a sex tourist spot and organize sex tours for American men to Angeles City (Big Apple Oriental Tours Information and Sign-up Sheet).

Routes of trafficking in the region show that the women and children come mostly from countries in the South, such as the Philippines, and are brought to countries in the North. This is an illustration of the economic power of men in developed countries, as well as their concept of women and children in the South.

However, underdeveloped countries the Philippines are also destination countries. A common variable therefore, is the existence of a demand side, where men expect to be given sexual services and where businesses and other establishments capitalize on the vulnerability brought about by poverty and gender inequality.

Forms of trafficking that can be gleaned from the various national data in Asia are the bride trade, sex tourism, military prostitution, and trafficking in the guise of overseas employment or adoption.

While the victim is the one often seen in trafficking, there are several actors, who exploit that have to be named – recruiter, pimp, conniving airport officials, immigration officials, establishment owner in destination countries, buyers, governments that consider overseas migration as primary employment strategy, and governments that earn from the sex industry.

The above trends also show that:

  • Trafficking happens mainly in conjunction with prostitution.
  • The ‘consent’ of the victim is immaterial. And this is affirmed by the UN Protocol on Trafficking.
  • Gender inequality, racism and impoverishment of women are the core of the trafficking phenomenon.
  • There are conscious actors in trafficking, as named, that should be held accountable for it as a crime.

Trafficking is a violation of the following fundamental rights:

  • Right to liberty and security of person;
  • Right not to be subjected from cruel , inhuman and degrading treatment;
  • Right to freedom of movement;
  • Right to freedom from discrimination;
  • Right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health;
  • Right to equal protection under the law;
  • Right to sexual integrity and autonomy;

Following are the acts of trafficking as embodied in the proposed law:

  • To recruit a person for purposes of prostitution or forced labor and slavery-like practices, under any pretext of lawful domestic or overseas employment;
  • To offer or contract marriage with women and minors for purposes of offering, selling, or trading him or her to engage in prostitution, or to subject him or her to forced labor or slavery-like practices;
  • To introduce or match for a fee, profit, or any other material or economic consideration, any Filipino woman to a foreign national for marriage under a mail-order-bride scheme as provided under Republic Act No. 6955, otherwise known as the “Mail-Order-Bride Law”, for prostitution or forced labor or slavery-like practices, making the preceding as aggravating circumstance, thereby making it punishable under this Act;
  • To entice, encourage, or persuade a person by fraud or by deceit, coercion, intimidation, or by abuse of any position of confidence or authority, or having legal charge, including use of parental, sibling, and other authority by family relationship, to engage in prostitution or forced labor and slavery-like practices;
  • To maintain or hire a person to engage in prostitution under the pretext of tours and travel plans to the Philippines;
  • To recruit persons especially women and minors to engage in prostitution with military forces;
  • To recruit through fraud, coercion, violence or deception a child, aged 15 years and below, to engage in armed activities here and abroad;
  • To adopt or facilitate the adoption of Filipino minor pursuant to Republic Act No. 8043, otherwise known as the “Inter-Country Adoption Act of 1995”, or employ other similar practices for purposes of forced labor and slavery-like practices or prostitution;
  • To send persons abroad under the guise of training or apprenticeship, for prostitution, forced labor or slavery-like practices;
  • To produce, print and issue or distribute un-issued, tampered or fake counseling certificates, registration stickers and certificates of any government agency which issues these certificates and stickers as proof of compliance with government regulatory and pre-departure requirements;
  • To advertise, publish, print or distribute or cause the advertisement, publication, printing, broadcasting or distribution of any brochure, flyer or any propaganda material, including through information technology, like the internet, that promotes trafficking in persons through marriage or other similar relationships with foreign nationals;
  • To facilitate, assist and help in the exit and entry from or to the country at airports and seaports, of persons who are in possession of un-issued, tampered or fake travel documents;
  • To confiscate the passport, travel documents and other personal documents of victims of trafficking to prevent them from leaving the country or seeking redress from the government or appropriate agencies.

Recommendations in the local level:

  • Lobby for the passage of the anti-trafficking bill.
  • Passage of a local ordinance adopting the framework of the proposed anti-trafficking law.
  • Operationalization of a Bantay-Recruiter/Bugaw Mechanism
  • Inter-agency network that includes NGOs and survivors representatives
  • Education in local communities on how to spot a “bugaw”, illegal recruiter or trafficker
  • Institutionalization of services by agencies that are responsive to reports on illegal recruitment and trafficking, and are also accessible to the communities.


  • Addressing the demand side
  • Providing alternatives to survivors

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