Cecilia Flores-Oebanda was a child worker and was detained for four years for opposing the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She raised her children in prison. In 1991 she founded the Visayan Forum, which fights human trafficking in the Philippines. AsiaNews interviewed her on the eve of her speech to "Voices of Faith", symposium organized at the Vatican, to mark International Women's Day.
Rome (AsiaNews) – She was exploited, imprisoned, suffered an attempted rape and saw her friends killed, but an encounter with the mercy of God has made her a witness to the dignity of women and a tireless fighter against human trafficking. This is the story of Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, a Catholic Filipino who has dedicated her life to the fight against human trafficking in the Philippines. AsiaNews interviewed her on the eve of her speech to "What do women want" Voices of Faith, a conference organized by the Jesuit Refugee Service and other organizations, that takes place at the Vatican today.
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda was born into a very poor Catholic family and began working as a child "because we needed". Growing up during the turbulent years of martial law under the dictator Marcos - President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 - at the age of 13-14 she became a catechist: "In those years - she says - the military began to attack the parishes and Catholics . Some of my colleagues were kidnapped, my best friend was raped and murdered. Forced to flee and hide, I became a mother for the first time in the mountains, while I opposed the dictatorship".
To protect her child, Cecilia gave him to some relatives: "My husband and I we were in the mountains and after five years we too were captured by the military. I was eight months pregnant with my second son. My three companions were killed in front of me. I begged the soldiers to save their lives, but they said: 'We are under martial law, this is a merciful murder!' ".
Brought to prison, she was subjected to an attempted rape before being interrogated: "I was eight months pregnant, and I rebelled. I said to myself: 'I will die today, I am ready to fight'. Fortunately, for some reason, the soldier let me go ... perhaps because they saw that I was combative. In the following years I gave birth to a son and a daughter in prison. You can imagine how it was to have a family in those conditions. We were in a chamber formed by a bathroom, with bamboo beds. "
While in detention, which lasted four years, Cecilia was filled with hatred and guilt: "I asked God why I was alive, in spite of all my badness, while my friends were dead. But God has been so good to me that He touched my life even in prison. I began to find gratitude in small things that were happening to me. I rejoiced in the fact of being together with my family, to be able to take care of my children ".
In 1986, the Filipino people overturned the dictator Marcos, and Cecilia's family was freed: "Even then, though, it was not easy: we did not know where to go, we could not return to our province [Visayas, the central part of the archipelago the Philippines, ed] because it was still under military control. So we decided to go to Manila, together with my brother. It may sound funny but my children took a lot of time to get used to their new freedom. My son, for example, would not go to sleep until he saw a soldier in uniform ordering him to. My brother had to put on a uniform to make him sleep! "
The Visayan Forum
After searching for years for a way to serve others, in 1991 Cecilia decided to found the Visayan Forum: "Our mission is to one day see that Filipinos have the opportunity to work without running the risk of falling into the hands of human traffickers, exploitation and modern slavery [i]. We currently have four different programs for this: to intercept traffickers at ports and airports, to save the victims before they leave".
After 20 years of activities, however, she realized that nothing was changing: "The problem was actually growing in dimension, so we started a prevention program that we carry along with other religious groups (mostly Catholics and a few Muslims) . We go into schools to create a counterculture, which teaches that material things are not everything and that dignity is more important than the promise of riches. This movement we call 'iFight Movement' and the members are the 'iFighters' ".
Nowadays, she explains, there are new forms of exploitation, such as the virtual sex, where children are abused online: "Another serious problem involves the fishermen who are kidnapped and exploited, people who come from Syria and are held captive on the boats, indigenous people forced into prostitution, children working as domestic servants, and are not paid ... it is a business worth billions of dollars and the traffickers are evolving. So must we. "
"I learned to forgive because God has had mercy on me"
Cecilia tells of how she managed to forgive her tormentors: "I think it's very easy for me to be angry after what I went through. Eventually, though, looking at everything that has happened to me, I recognize that God has been good to me. People often say to me: 'How brave you are to have done what you did!'. I don’t think I could be brave without forgiving, and looking back I found that my story is the path that God has prepared for me. I could not be merciful if I did not feel God's mercy on me. "
Her major concern is to "not be defined by my pain and my suffering. I do not know if I would be able to hug my captors if I met them, but I know I would not judge them, because it's not up to me to do it, but to God. "
After so many years of struggle, she says, "I discovered that its not enough for me to just save people from human trafficking and that's it. I often ask myself: How can I bring these people closer to Christ? This changes the whole perspective. Obviously they are not yet able to completely forgive, they are still on their way".
Signs of hope
According to Cecilia, the Philippine Church has a great role in the fight against human trafficking, "because it is not just the poorest, but also of the rich, who have a lot of influence on the culture and mentality of the country. The Pope has described human trafficking as a crime against humanity. These calls need to be translated into practice”.
Fortunately, there are positive signs: "There are many examples that say that something is changing. The Philippines has made some progress in the fight against human trafficking, in the arrest and punishment of the guilty. But the problem is far from solved. "
"I am very happy that the Vatican has opened its doors to women like us - she says, referring to the meeting today - I fought as Catholic all my life and I think that the Church has something to hear from me. I hope there will be more and more space in which women can express themselves. Our fight is to contribute to the bigger picture, which is the mission of the Church. "
[i]  In addition to human trafficking abroad (they are 10 million Filipinos working in other countries), the exploitation of minors is a widespread phenomenon in the Philippines, which covers many areas, from domestic labor to the mining. According to a study by the Organization for the Ecumenical Institute for Labour Education and Research (Eiler), there are two child laborers every 10 households in the mining areas.