Cecilia Flores-Oebanda has experienced a remarkable turn of events in her life. At aged 18 she joined communist rebels in the Philippines, at 26 she was imprisoned with a life sentence and now at 55 she has helped more than 12,000 people escape the horrors of human trafficking. She has even been awarded international accolades including the World’s Children’s Prize.
Growing up in impoverished circumstances, Cecilia lived day-to-day against the backdrop of President Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal regime.
The former president of the Philippines employed a strict military rule. He hampered down on any political dissidents. The staunch opponent to communism received backing from the United States and enjoyed the fruits of Cold War support.
Ranging from firing squads, to death threats and contemporary challenges such as rife corruption, Celia has beaten the odds as she strives to help her fellow citizens. After meeting her at a conference in Canberra, I sat down with Cecilia whilst she was in Australia to discuss her life story.
What was life under President Marcos and martial law like?
During the martial law days it was all about the fears, the injustice, the lies, the censorship, the poverty and the corruption. There was a strong fear of being jailed if you openly spoke and criticized the government policies. The government was run by a dictator that only insisted on what he wanted without considering the voice of the people. It was tough times in the Philippines during the Marcos regime.
You decided to join a rebel group in opposition to President Marcos. Why did you decide to join it?
I was part of the New People’s Army, a revolutionary communist group who wanted to fight for injustice in the country.
What sacrifices were you prepared to make for your country?
I was and always am ready to die for the cause of fighting for the good of my country. I see myself giving everything until the last drop of my blood to continue to fight against injustice. I was captured after joining the New People’s Army where I saw many of my former comrades killed in the field of battle. I am committed to pursue my work against injustice so that one day we have a free society.
Following your arrest you received an indefinite life sentence. What was life in prison like?
Life in prison was very difficult. Recalling it all makes me realize the pain of being put into jail and the life that I experienced inside the cell. I gave birth to my two children while in prison. The hardest part of being inside was seeing my kids suffer and not able to grow up like normal children. I remember asking my son what he wanted for Christmas and he replied that he wanted to see the world outside of the prison gates.
In 1986 you were released from prison as a political dissident after the first democratic election in the Philippines for decades. You then decided to establish the Visayan Forum Foundation, an organization that fights the horrors of human trafficking. Why did you establish the forum?
I decided to establish the forum because I wanted to continue fighting against injustice in the Philippines. I carried on with the vision and hope of giving women the opportunity to regain their life back. It has become my motivation in every rescue work we do. The rehabilitation and restoration of survivors is my driving force. We want abused sex workers to rediscover their life with a rekindled heart to dream again.
How are young women and men groomed as sex workers? What incentives are they promised for work?
The common reason why young people are victimized is because of the desire to bring their families out of poverty. They are promised by their oppressors of a better life in exchange for work. In actuality they are subsequently locked in a house by their captives and do undesirable things for customers.
What conditions are sex workers subject to?
The traffickers do not care about their workers so long as they satisfy all the needs of their clients. Workers have no choice about anything. They are put in a room and they cannot leave that place without the permission of their oppressors. They are sometimes drugged and are subject to inhumane situations at the hands of the traffickers.
What do you believe are the root causes of human trafficking, not only in the Philippines but also worldwide?
It is poverty, the lack of opportunity to learn and have a future that we all deserve. It is a lack of education and wanting to help a struggling family, all combined. It is this reality that brings women into the hands of oppressors. Many countries worldwide face similar problems due to extreme poverty and a lack of work opportunities. We need improved living conditions and improved education so that young people are not lured into a false sense of employment.
How can we help stop the spread human trafficking in South East Asia?
Advocacy is the main role that you can play. Speaking about the danger of trafficking and the life of victims is what is required. You must bring that awareness to everyone. Together we can end human trafficking and modern slavery.
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda currently is the President and Executive Director of the Visayan Forum Foundation, Inc.
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