PHILIPPINES – Survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in the Philippines are making their community safer for themselves and others, drawing strength from one another as they meet regularly and blazing new trails to bring creative solutions. Since COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe and in their community, members have taken to social media platforms to encourage one another and find ways to recreate that critical sense of support.
Charito* is a leader of the Cebu group called SMART, an acronym for Survivors Mentoring and Advocating for Restorative Transformation. She is also a founding member of the Global Survivor Network (GSN) Leadership Council. Even as Charito works long hours in a hospital in Cebu as a frontline medical social worker, she is thinking about children who are highly vulnerable during the lockdown and how she might invite other survivors into a community during this time.
“Opening up to share my story to others can be hard, but my desire to help other survivors made me decide to get involved in local advocacy and seek out ways of giving encouragement to other survivors in their fight to healing and recovery,” she says.
In Manila, the group of survivors calls themselves the STARS, an acronym for Standing Together Advocating Rights. They are also young professionals, students and parents, most of them having moved out of aftercare homes and living back in their communities. They are also advocates who want to protect others from enduring the traumatic impacts of human trafficking.
A group of STARs consulted with IJM two years ago as the NGO developed a Trauma-Informed Crisis Intervention training module geared toward practitioners, like police and government social workers. Their input strengthened the training by identifying gaps and critical areas of need, and it has had a profound ripple effect as many officials have since been trained. This training laid the foundation for the development of a global Trauma-Informed Care training that will be replicated across many contexts.
“Others need this training. They need to know how to manage stress,” said one survivor named Trish*, referring to the module on stress relief in crisis. “If I see others going through stress, I now know what to say to help them.”
Last year, the STAR leaders gathered for their annual retreat and a series of workshops led by SheWORKS, a critical partner and NGO, and IJM. In one session they learned how to use puppet shows to raise awareness about online sexual exploitation, a form of trafficking that is on the rise in the Philippines and preys upon young children. One survivor shared, “Learning about advocacy is important as we can serve the community in bringing awareness for the safety of children.”
The possibilities for creative and critical intervention are endless if survivors come together. Charito has shared that the transformation she has witnessed in her own life and the lives of her peers fuels her desire to scale the GSN. She says, “I have a vision for the Global Survivor Network – that we would be able to reach the ears of girls and boys who think they are alone and who need to know they are part of something much bigger.”