Full circle for Visayan Forum head with new global awards

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Nov 18 2015 01:52 AM | Updated as of Nov 18 2015 01:54 AM

Cecilia Oebanda (middle) stands with fellow Child10 Awardees at the Child10 Summit and Awarding Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden

Anti-trafficking advocate reaps awards after fraud complaint rocked her world

Three years after her life's work was almost upended by USAID officials' request for a fraud investigation by the Philippine Justice Department, anti-human trafficking advocate Cecilia Oebanda received a succession of awards for the Visayan Forum.

For the former child worker, activist, guerrilla, and political detainee, the awards start a new cycle in a life that has seen many ups and downs, including the 2012 scandal that scared away funders and allies and led to the loss of 70% of its staff.

Oebanda received the Child10 Award in Stockholm, Sweden last week and days after, she was also named one of 11 finalists in the Trust Women Anti-Trafficking Award sponsored by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The first award, co-founded by the Sophie Stenbeck Family Foundation and Reach for Change, celebrates ten global leaders who fight against child trafficking.

The Trust Women award recognizes an “exceptional individual from the frontlines who has made significant progress in the fight against human trafficking.”

“This is great recognition for the anti-trafficking efforts of the Philippines, 2 awards in one month from two globally recognized organizations; this is the Filipino pride!” Oebanda said.

The trauma of the fraud allegations still haunts her. Three years after the raids and press conferences, no charge has been filed against her.

Setbacks are nothing new to Oebanda, who grew up around the docks of Bacolod City. Poverty and social injustice in her home province, then known as the country's "social volcano" led her to rebellion. She was captured while pregnant and brought up two children in prison, still grieving for the three young men who sacrificed their lives trying to shield her from enemy fire. She took up her anti-trafficking mission after release from detention.

In September 2012, NGOs, government and international bodies were shocked when the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) announced it will file charges against Oebanda and other colleagues for alleged fraud involving falsified receipts for USAID funds.

The NBI said USAID officials had sought the agency’s help in probing P210 million of allegedly misused funds, after external auditors found anomalies.

The Visayas Forum by then had reaped national and international awards for its work rescuing, sheltering and re-training human trafficking victims and also for launching prevention programs across the country’s most impoverished regions.

The US Department of Labor made her the recipient of its first “Iqbal Masih” award for the elimination of child labor and the US State Department had also named her a hero in the fight against modern-day slavery.

The charges were sensational. Oebanda, the founding president and executive director of the NGO, called the accusations “false and unfounded.”

In tears, Oebanda told journalists she and her colleagues felt “betrayed by the lack of due process and the rush to judgment.”

“We are shocked by the malicious attack to our reputation--built for 20 years with blood, sweat and tears,” a Visayan Forum statement added.

READ: NGO denies issuing fake receipts to US embassy

Oebanda told ABS-CBNNews via email that rebounding from those blows was a slow process. After dragging her reputation through the mud, neither the NBI nor USAID have followed up on their initial accusations.

“I want to tell you that after three years of accusing us, until now there's no case filed against me or VF,” she said.

“We struggled to continue our work for a while but we were also able to rebound and slowly pick up ourselves up from the unjust accusation,” Oebanda added.