Trafficking foe Cecilia Flores-Oebanda fights to clear her name

by Lisa Anderson | https://twitter.com/LisaAndersonNYC | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 May 2013 08:14 GMT

Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, founding president and executive director of Manila-based Visayan Forum, has battled human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of modern day slavery since 1991. Photo courtesy of CNN.

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Oebanda’s Visayan Forum fought trafficking in the Philippines for decades, but after allegations of embezzlement, her battleground shifted - CNN documents her work, the fallout and her comeback

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - What do you do when your life’s work - a highly regarded NGO that has saved more than 80,000 girls from traffickers or the threat of trafficking - is suddenly besmirched with allegations of corruption, your reputation is in question and your donor pool dries up?

First, you cry. Then, you fight.

And you keep on fighting if you are Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, founding president and executive director of Manila-based Visayan Forum, which has battled human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of modern day slavery since 1991.

For the last nine months Oebanda has struggled to absorb and repair the damage done by allegations made last fall that Visayan Forum misappropriated funds by falsifying receipts and other documentation for $1.5 million of the $2.1 million it received from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) between 2005 and 2011.

“I can’t give up,” Oebanda told Thomson Reuters Foundation on a recent trip to New York.

At 54, she is a tiny woman, dressed in a quilted brown jacket, striped top and black pants. The stress of the fight shows on her face and in the tears that often well in her eyes during a two-hour interview.

No formal legal charges have been filed against Oebanda or Visayan Forum.

"No further details are available at this point, as the investigation into VFF is ongoing," was the response of a USAID spokesperson to queries from the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the status of the case.

The damage, however, has been extensive. After 21 years of an unblemished record, Visayan Forum lost 80 percent of its staff, closed down its shelter for girls rescued from trafficking at the port of Manila, drastically reduced the frequency of its rescues and lost the bulk of its funding after the allegations of fraud were made.

“They just lobbed a grenade,” said Leif Coorlim, executive producer of “The Fighters”, a two-hour documentary focused on Oebanda, that unexpectedly swerved with the allegations from a feature story into an investigative report.

“I think the documentary shows what happened in the two years we followed this woman’s fight against human trafficking. It shows how difficult working on this issue really is,” Coorlim told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in New York.

FIGHT AGAINST SHIFTING BATTLES

A product of CNN’s Freedom Project: Ending Modern-Day Slavery, the documentary chronicles Oebanda’s internationally recognized work with trafficked girls and her travails in dealing with the uncertainties currently challenging her and Visayan Forum’s future.

The title of the documentary refers not only to Oebanda’s fight against human trafficking and corruption allegations, but also to her alliance with Filipino world champion boxer and elected congressman Manny Pacquiao.

At the start of the documentary, we see Oebanda’s staff rescuing girls in three police trafficking raids in one day. We see the most damaged of the girls transferred to a cheerful, if sparsely furnished, Center of Hope safehouse outside Manila to receive counseling and care. We listen as three girls under the age of 12 tell a weeping Oebanda about having to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam for a cybersex client.

We also meet the boxer Pacquiao, a Filipino celebrity, who takes on the cause of human trafficking and, after a year, is convinced by Oebanda to make a speech against it on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Six months later in the fall of 2012, allegations of wrongdoing turn Oebanda’s world upside down. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) raid the Visayan Forum’s offices and cart off dozens of boxes of records and computers. Rescues of girls all but end as Oebanda grapples with oceans of paperwork, searching for the alleged falsified documents.

“For me, the battleground now has actually shifted. It’s shifted from the port. It’s shifted from the battlefield of trafficking to all this paper. To hell with all this paper,” she said in the documentary as the camera pans around a room where every surface and chair stacked of paperwork.

LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED

What happened to Oebanda and Visayan Forum is made clear in the documentary. In June 2012, we see Oebanda joined by 10,000 people in a Walk for Freedom against modern slavery in the streets of Manila.

In February 2013, no more than a handful of people show up to hear her speak about human trafficking at the University of the Philippines in Manila.

Faced with the allegations, Coorlim investigated Oebanda and her personal and organisational financial records with a zeal that horrified her. “There’s a point in my life when I hated him. He was like kicking me in the stomach,” she said. “I understand now… He was the only person who asked and left no stone unturned.”

While the NBI claimed Oebanda had personally profited from graft, they also claimed they had no access to her bank records.

“But, as I would find out, it was simply a matter of asking,” Coorlim said in the documentary. “She didn’t hesitate and at the bank I saw no evidence of embezzlement.”

In February 2013, with the assistance of the Skoll Foundation of which she was a fellow, Oebanda filed perjury charges against her former bookkeeper and the independent auditor hired by USAID. Oebanda believes the case will soon come to trial.

Since then, with help from Pacquiao and some loyal donors, Visayan Forum has reopened part of its port area facility for trafficked girls, regained 25 of a staff that used to number more than 80, kept its Center of Hope safehouse open and resumed rescues in strategic strikes on a monthly, rather than weekly, basis.

“What is important to me now is I need to go back to my own battlefield. I need to save the children. I need to continue to do prevention work,” said Oebanda.

ACCUSED, BUT NO TRIAL OR CHARGES

After an extensive investigation, Coorlim came to this conclusion in the documentary: “No matter what the truth is, these facts remain. There’s been no trial. No charges even filed and no indication either is coming anytime soon.”

Asked what he hopes the documentary will achieve, Coorlim told Thomson Reuters Foundation, “I hope people see this as a realistic and authoritative look into what it really takes to fight human trafficking, how dangerous yet vitally important the work is and that people join the cause and support the work that Cecilia and Manny Pacquiao are doing around the world without publicity.”

Asked the same question, Oebanda said, “First, it will show the reality of fighting human trafficking on the ground, the challenges we face, our successes, our failures.

“It shows also the complexity of complying with all the requirements. For me, on top of everything, it’s to show the truth about Visayan Forum and that the accusations are not true.”

“The Fighters” airs globally on May 17 and 18. Find the times in your region here.

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