(Vatican Radio) A child labourer who grew up learning to scavenge for food. A freedom fighter and political prisoner who raised two children in jail. The indomitable founder and president of a forum fighting to combat human trafficking in the Philippines.
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda is all these things and has been recognized globally as a human rights activist whose foundation has helped save at least 17.000 men, women and children trapped by different forms of modern slavery.
She will be telling her story at the Voices of Faith event taking place in the Vatican on Tuesday to mark the March 8th International Women’s Day.
Cecilia sat down with Philippa Hitchen to talk about her childhood, her work and her inspirational journey of faith….
Cecilia begins by describing the Visayan Forum Foundation which has been working for 25 years in the Philippines to intercept the traffickers at ports and airports, to offer protection to victims and to educate young people through a project called the iFIGHT movement.
She talks about the wide variety of situations where people are enslaved, through domestic work, prostitution and through the flourishing cyber-sex industry. Poor families are tempted by the quick money they can make and do not realise how children are abused and traumatized by the traffickers, she says.
From child labourer to freedom fighter
Cecilia tells her own story of poverty, learning to sell fish and scavenge for food from seven years old, before becoming a catechist and then, when Church workers were attacked by the military, joining the rebel army fighting against Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She recounts how she was eight months pregnant with her second child when she was captured by the military, alongside two young recruits who were shot in front of her.
Finding faith in prison
Cecilia endured an attempted rape during her interrogation, before giving birth a few days later. She was one of the longest serving political prisoners and was only released when the dictatorship was toppled in 1986. Yet in jail, she says, she also found the compassion of others, discovered the strength of her faith and learnt to appreciate the small pleasures of breastfeeding her babies, planting vegetables or teaching her children to write with stones on the prison walls.
Fighting for freedom from human trafficking
Mercy and compassion are not easy, Cecilia admits, especially as she can still see the faces of her comrades who were killed. But she insists that forgiveness is also a process of healing for herself and for the girls she helps to escape from the traffickers. “I think God wanted me to be strong and to be a freedom fighter for the girls”, she says, teaching them to forgive and embrace the future”.