Bali, Indonesia – More than 20 Southeast Asian women narrated their personal stories of exploitation and abuse during the first Southeast Asian Court of Women on HIV and Human Trafficking held yesterday in this island resort. The women were among the estimated 250,000 victims of trafficking, violence, exploitation and HIV in Asia. Subtitled From Vulnerability to Free, Just, and Safe Movement,” the conference is being held as part of the 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP 9) that will begin here on August 9. The Court of Women was organized by the United Nations Development Programme, Asian Women’s Human Rights Council and Yakeba, a Japanese NGO funded by Japan, as well as other UN and civil society partners.
The Philippine contingent included Katherine, a 29-year-old Muslim who lives in Taguig. She worked as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia, separated from her sister who arrived with her from Manila. She was forced to sleep on the floor of the living room and almost had no food to eat. Her employers would eat in the house of relatives or ate outside the house. One day she fainted from hunger, and her female employer threw water at her and kicked her back to revive her. She was locked for one more day in the house, with neither food nor water. When she was returned to her agency’s representative in Saudi Arabia, he made sexual advances to her which she resisted. She was raped and was later rescued by a Philippine human rights group in Saudi Arabia along with embassy officials. Upon her return from Manila, she learned that her sister was also raped in Saudi Arabia, and they worked to bring her back. They filed cases against their foreign and local agencies, so they could be blacklisted and they could get back the wages that were never paid to them.
On the other hand. Amalia was a call-center agent in Manila who wanted a better life for her child, who has learning difficulties, and herself. She was being beaten up by her husband, so she left him and raised her child alone. She applied for work in Australia as a Restaurant Duty Manager on a 457 visa. Her sister told her that it was a lopsided visa, since she could work for only one employer, her sponsor, and could not leave even if they were maltreating her. But she did not listen to her sister. She flew to Australia, only to discover that she is more of waitress and janitor than manager of the restaurant. She stayed in a cramped apartment with three other Filipinas and had many mysterious deductions in her paycheck. When she and her fellow Filipinas banded together with the help of Migrante and Buhay Foundation and asked for better treatment and just wages, the restaurant management fired them, citing the economic crunch as a reason. She returned to Manila and has filed a case against her employer, speaking out against the ills of not getting full information about the contract, culture and context of one’s foreign employment.
Jocelyn was the daughter of a poor family in Davao. She auditioned for a job in Malaysia by singing on the cell phone so her prospective employer could hear her. Her supposed salary was P60,000 a month. She went to Malaysia by taking a ship from Zamboanga to Sandakan, thence to Sabah, and by bus to Kuching in Sumatra. Her employer got her passport and forced her to prostitution. “I asked the Philippine embassy to help me get back my passport and to rescue me, but they said there was no budget.” Later she met a kind Malaysia by the name of Agustin. He helped her pay for a new passport, return to Manila, and start a new life. She is now taking college on a small scholarship and raising their son, giving a voice to the numerous silenced voices of the Filipina diaspora. (All names were changed for this article)
The Court of Women utilized a unique format of weaving the objective and the subjective, as well as the personal and the political. It is in keeping with the way women have told their stories since time memorial – facts laced with song and poetry and prayer, the better to bring out the intensity of the experience at hand. The Court also featured in-depth analysis of the issue from the region and outside. Ms. Corinne Kumar, International Coordinator of the Courts of Women, said that “the testimonies were presented before an eminent jury of wise women and men validating their experiences, legitimizing their memories, and seeking new ways of justice.”
Caitlin Wiesen, Regional HIV/AIDS Practice Leader, Asia-Pacific, of UNDP said that “the Women’s Court is both a call for action against human trafficking and HIV, and a testament to the resilience and courage of women from the region who have survived unspeakable exploitation and violence. Asian countries are the sources, transit points, and destination areas for human trafficking.
Wiesen added that the Court of Women is not a one-off event, but is part of a process to make a difference in the lives of the man women who are subject to trafficking, violence, and exploitation. These abuses make them vulnerable to sexual abuse and unprotected sex, leading them to contract HIV.
Ms. Kumar added that “the concepts and categories that we use are unable to grasp the violation against women. The existing jurisprudence is gender-blind and we need to move towards a justice [system] that is restorative and healing of individuals and communities. It is essential that the linkages between HIV and human trafficking are viewed and addressed through the prism of dignity, access to justice, health and the human security of individuals and communities.”
Indonesian Minister for Women’s Empowerment Meutia Hatta officially opened the Court, while Dr. Nadis Sadik, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV-AIDS in Asia and the Pacific Region delivered the keynote address.
The event was a major partnership that involved the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, United Nations Development Fund for Women, United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking and the Asia Pacifc Network of People Living with HIV +, with funding from the Government of Japan. The Court brought together more than 400 leaders, politicians, activists and communities who are working to empower Southeast Asian women and make them less vulnerable to trafficking and HIV.
The eminent jury included Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, Professor of Law at Chulalongkorn University and former Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Thailand; Marina Mahathir, Steering Committee Member, Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development, Malaysia; Annette Sykes, a lawyer from New Zealand; Sylvia Marcos, Director of the Center for Psycho-Ethnological Research, Mexico; Mieke Kamar Kantaatmadja, a Justice of the Supreme Court, Indonesia; and Ezperanza I. Cabral, Secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Philippines.
The Women’s Court had for sessions: human rights of vulnerable communities; public health impact of anti-trafficking legislation; and responses from communities that celebrated the women’s successes in overcoming various difficulties. The sessions of the Court were introduced by a group of “Expert Witnesses,” composed of Mabel Bianco, Argentina; Professor Iwanto, Indonesia; Irene Fernandez, Malaysia; Vichuta Ly, Cambodia; and Eni Lestari, Hong Kong.
Despite the many tales of woe, the Court ended on a note of celebration. A Talking Poleng made by the participants of the Court that expressed hope, strength, solidarity and commitment was unveiled by distinguished guests and speakers. In addition, a traditional Balinese dance called Mulat Sarira was performed by a group based in Bali. As one of the women participants said, “I am happy that I now have a voice. We have the power, the ability, to change things.”
A multi-stakeholder conference was also held yesterday to solidify the gains of the Court of Women and to create a space that will honor the testimonies of the women. Among the concrete suggestions was the inclusion of the voices of children who are also victims of trafficking, filling the gaps in data, as well as the inclusion of politicians and bureaucrats in the loop, along with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The need to mobilize public opinion was also stressed, especially by Marina Mahathir of Malaysia, since trafficking is seen by some people as a perception problem. And in the end, the need to sink deeper roots in both policy and community was emphasized, the better to change mind-sets, the way dirty windows are washed clean by a dash of soap, water, and dry cloth.