Sexual Slavery in the 21st Century:
C. Case Study:
The Philippines: Misogyny, Microeconomics, Migration, and Mistreatment
Let us now turn to a real-world example of these forces in action.
In "The Philippines: Migration and Trafficking in Women,"
Aida Santos explores the history and causes of sex trafficking in
the Philippines. Her account, which follows, highlights the connections
between a depressed economy, government policies favoring women's
migration, a highly gender-segregated labor market, gender-role
stereotypes and the widespread sexual exploitation of women :
The Philippines has had a long history of migration. During the
American colonial years, Filipinos worked the plantations in Hawaii
and other parts of the United States ,and Filipino intellectuals
and professionals entered foreign universities for higher degrees
and specialization. It wasn't until the 1970s under the Marcos administration,
however, that Filipinos were deployed as overseas contract workers
(OFWs) with official state sanction.
Overseas contract work was promoted as a supposed "interim
strategy " to address two major problems: unemployment and
the balance of payments. Since then, through the administrations
of Corazon C. Aquino, Fidel V. Ramos and Ejercito Estrada, overseas
contract workers have been called the "new heroes." Their
remittances keep the Philippines economy afloat, and support millions
of households affected by the economic hardships of the country.
As the country enters the new century, hundreds of thousands of
Filipinos, now predominantly female, continue to leave the country
in search of proverbial greener pastures.
Migration, which was originally planned as a short-term economic
alternative, has now become a major economic strategy that continues
to be promoted as an official mechanism for addressing under-and
unemployment of millions of Filipinos.
In the period 1991-1995, an annual average of 700,000 Filipinos
were deployed for overseas work, bringing those migrating abroad
(hire and re-hires) to a total of 3.5 million. Two thousand overseas
contract workers are legally processed daily in the Philippines,
and women account for approximately 60 percent of all these legal
migrants. As of December 1999, overseas Filipinos. (OFs) reached
7.29 million, scattered in 187 countries and destinations around
"Overseas Filipinos " is the general category to describe
Filipinos who are either temporarily or permanently living and working
abroad. OFs also include undocumented Filipinos abroad, as well
as brides or spouses of foreign nationals. Overseas Filipinos make
up 13.4 percent of the country 's total population, aged 15 and
above, and 19 percent of its labor force. Sixty-six percent of overseas
Filipinos are in the United States (2,083,517). Other countries
having large populations of overseas Filipinos are: Saudi Arabia
(855,230), Malaysia (594,682), Canada (302,172), Australia (202,223),
Japan (197,701), Hong Kong (160,484), Taiwan (141,505), Italy (121,319)
and Singapore (120,154). The United States, Canada and Australia
are the three top countries of choice for Filipinos wishing to migrate.
Statistics from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) show
that there has been a steady increase of female OFWs from 12 percent
in 1975, to 47 percent in 1987, to 58 percent in 1995. From January
- December 1999, women constituted 64 percent of new hires abroad,
with only 36 percent being male. Service workers comprised the biggest
number (35.46 percent) of deployed land-based (as opposed to sea-based)
new hires in 1999.
The latest statistics from the Philippines Overseas Employment
Agency (POEA) show that of the 7.29 million overseas Filipinos,
1.94 million are reported to be undocumented. Undocumented Filipino
migrants constitute a large percentage of Filipino foreign workers
abroad. For example in Singapore,95 percent of Filipino migrant
workers-mostly women domestic helpers-did not have permits from
the POEA in 1995.
Estimating the number of undocumented workers leaving the Philippines
is a difficult task. The archipelago of the Philippines has many
ports of exit and entry, and its wide shoreline is nearly impossible
to monitor. Undocumented workers leave the country by various means,
some acquiring tourist visas and others utilizing "backdoor
" migration routes through the southern Philippines and then
traveling by sea to Sabah, Brunei and Malaysia.
International migration has been the anchor of trafficking, not
only for labor, but for sex as well. Although it is difficult to
ascertain how many women have been trafficked, it is easy to see
how both undocumented and documented migrant women are especially
vulnerable to sex trafficking, as mechanisms for the sex trade become
more sophisticated, even making use of official channels and processes.
The complicity of some government officials and agencies has
made trafficking easier and monitoring more difficult.
Factors Promoting Female Migration
The percentage of women OFWs steadily increased from a low 12 percent
in 1975 to an estimated 60 percent in the late 1990s. An estimated
600,000 documented female OFWs are domestic helpers in 19 major
worldwide destination. In 1998,at least 47,017 Filipino "entertainers,"
a euphemism for women in the sex industry, were in five countries:
namely Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Saipan (U.S.) and Japan, with
Japan accounting for 95 percent of Filipino "entertainers "
The rise in female overseas migration has been a historical product
of the following factors: 1) official migration policies of the
Philippines government in which recruitment of women is actively
promoted through its various government units, with the collaboration
of recruitment agencies; 2) gender stereotyping of women in work
situations which traditionally echo their roles as caregivers and
"entertainers," i.e., sexual objects; 3) growing poverty
in the context of structural adjustment programs that produce landlessness
and impoverishment among rural populations, and push more women
to join the labor force; 4) rise in female-headed households, much
of it due to breakdown in traditional family structures and support
systems; 5) lack of opportunities for local employment that would
allow women to explore better jobs, acquire greater skills, and
obtain a more secure future; 6) growing family dependence on women
for income, especially among poorer households; 7) the demand for
female migrant workers in more developed economies; 8) economic
boom in destination countries; 9) women 's expanding sense of financial/economic
and personal autonomy, both in origin and destination countries;
10) a growing number of women and men in destination countries relegate
domestic work to hired help from abroad; 11) normalization of prostitution
and other activities in the sex industry such as stripping, often
disguised as "entertainment " jobs in destination countries.
Regional Socio-economic Context: Impact of the Asian Crisis
Currently, Asia-Pacific is one of the most dynamic regions of the
world. New democracies are on the rise, as authoritarian regimes
come under scrutiny from citizens. In some cases, popular uprisings
and/or military interventions have removed governments from power,
such as in Indonesia and the Philippines, although the contexts
and causes may not be the same. Conflict situations, including wars
of liberation, abound in the region, e.g., in East Timor, Indonesia,
and the Southern Philippines.
The Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s affected the Philippines,
although in a less a dramatic sense than in neighboring countries.
One of its first immediate impacts was unemployment.
In 1998,there was a substantial increase in company closures, retrenchment
and layoffs. Young male workers in both urban and rural areas, and
young female workers in rural areas had the highest increase in
unemployment rates. At the same time, more young people were pushed
by financial need into entering the labor force earlier, especially
in the age groups of 15-19 and 20-24. In the 20-24 age group, it
was mainly females in both urban and rural areas who entered the
labor market in increasing numbers.
The effects of severe weather disturbances and other environmental
disasters joined with the financial crisis of the 1990s to cause
severe economic and social dislocation . When Bicol's Mount Mayon
in the Southern Tagalog region erupted in 1998, the worst hit were
women and children. Interviews with Bicolano women revealed that
families encouraged young daughters, as young as13 and 14, to obtain
employment as domestic helpers in nearby Legazpi or Albay or in
In developed countries, the social security system is the traditional
safety net for unemployment and decline in incomes. The Philippines,
handicapped by very limited funds, cannot even adequately compensate
the emergency health needs of its citizens. Extended families are
expected to provide social safety nets. The contributions of overseas
contract workers to family incomes become even more urgently needed.
During such times, additional burdens are placed on women. These
burdens are often invisible because women are traditionally expected
to be domestic keepers and saviors, finding ways to provide for
more people and satisfy basic needs, with meager resources. A woman's
childcare and household work multiplies because additional members
of the clan rely on her.
Overseas contract work becomes an attraction for women, despite
negative reports of risks and problems. Pressures mount on women
to work overseas as family members increasingly rely on their remittances.
Unscrupulous recruiters take advantage of these conditions to lure
women into sex trafficking networks. However, opportunities and
wages are dwindling in East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Remittances
to the Philippines from the three world regions are decreasing,
compared with the last decade, and the number of OFWs going to the
Middle East has also declined in the last few years. The only increased
remittances are from North America, and these come not from contract
workers but from immigrants and Filipino Americans already residing
in the United States.
The massive corruption and cronyism under the Estrada administration
has emptied the coffers of the Philippines. Millions of pesos are
being spent to pursue several economic sabotage and corruption cases
against the ousted administration. The aborted impeachment trial
cost millions of pesos. Estrada also launched an all-out war against
the Muslim separatists that diverted resources from other sectors,
especially from social services. A national election in May 2001
further burdens the already sagging economy.
Gendered Dimensions of Migration Policies: a Profile of Filipina
Government policies on migration put Filipino women at risk when
government agencies promote jobs for women overseas workers that
carry low pay, low status, and exposure to sexual exploitation and
trafficking. Most Filipino overseas workers are employed either
as domestic helpers or "entertainers." Regulating the
"entertainment "-oriented employment of Filipino women
in Japan, for example, essentially promotes racist and sexist stereotypes
and treatment, since mainly Filipino women perform what are widely
regarded as demeaning, socially unacceptable and economically non-viable
Most women new hires in 1999 took jobs as domestic helpers and
caretakers, reflecting the sociocultural biases against women. These
categories constituted 48.3 percent of the total women new hires
totaling 73,329. Ironically, the number of households without mothers
in the Philippines is increasing at the same time that Filipino
women are migrating for care-taking jobs abroad. "Entertainers
" constituted 28.4 percent or 43,092 of the total women new
Women OFWs are generally younger than their Filipino male counterparts.
Data show that more than three out of five women OFWs are between
20-34 years old, while the majority (52.6 percent) of male OFWs
are between 30-44 years old. Sarah Balabagan, the girl whose Saudi
employer attempted to rape her and whose story attracted international
attention, was only 14 years old when she was recruited for work
as a domestic helper. Women are also illegally recruited at a younger
age. Many of the respondents interviewed in several studies were
under 18 years of age, or in their early twenties, when they were
illegally recruited and eventually trafficked. Even legally documented
women migrants have been able to fake their real ages and make themselves
appear older than they really are). In the "entertainment "or
sex industry, women in their late 20s or early 30s are generally
considered old for the trade.
Conditions of Work and Sexual Exploitation
The conditions of overseas Filipino migrant workers in destination
countries are fraught with problems and risks. In general, the literature
refers to "culture shock " to cover a wide range of problems
faced by migrants, including language barriers, differential expectations
between employer and OFWs, and actual maltreatment and sexual abuse.
Imprisonment, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS,
and death are other tribulations that OFWs face.
Women-specific abuses have been documented, and a growing number
of non-governmental organizations and academic institutions have
begun to focus on preventive strategies to address this abuse and
exploitation. Handbooks, manuals, and other information materials
have been published especially to assist female migrants as they
leave the country and are on site abroad, addressing labor violations
In 1998, 84 percent of OFWs assisted for repatriation by the Overseas
Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) were women. The women encountered
problems of maltreatment, physical and/or mental illness, sexual
abuse, early termination of contract, over-staying, becoming runaways,
imprisonment, death,and family troubles. In the 1980s, a survey
found that most of the 46,000 women domestic workers in the Middle
East suffered from "extreme degradation, humiliation, sexual
harassment and even rape." They were faced with "hazardous
working conditions, including contract substitution, wage discrimination,
ill-treatment by employers, and other forms of harassment."
Among migrant workers, it is the women who are most vulnerable
to violence. In 1994, the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency
(POEA) estimated that 68 percent of women OFWs had been subjected
to physical and sexual violence and exploitation. These POEA figures
do not include cases of sex trafficking, because official mechanisms
are not able to monitor backdoor trafficking via Mindanao, for example,
where transport to neighboring countries of Sabah, Indonesia and
Malaysia is easily facilitated, costs around US $100,and requires
documentation. Twenty-two percent (22 percent) of Filipinos with
HIV/AIDS were OFWs. Out of 1,336 HIV/AIDS victims in the National
AIDS Registry from 1984 to 1999, 298 were former OFWs.
The national coffers benefit enormously from income generated from
overseas contract workers. From 1995 to 1999, 2,360,011 OFWs contributed
US $59,002,750 or PhP 2.06 billion (US$1 =PhP 35) in membership
fees to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration alone. Additionally,
the POEA is estimated to have collected US $83,702,000 from OFWs
it has deployed in 1999 alone, based on a US $100 processing fee
per worker. Remittances from OFWs that pass through official channels
of designated banks are not included in the estimates given above.
Door-to-door remittances using private financial outfits, and through
relatives or friends coming home to visit, as well as money brought
home by the OFWs themselves, are difficult to ascertain since these
are private transactions beyond official monitoring mechanisms.
Women OFWs who are employed as domestic helpers earn between US
$300 to US $500 a month. Those in the entertainment industry in
Japan earn from 3,500 yen and higher. OFWs have bought several small
businesses for their families and households. Especially in the
1970s - 80s, migrants' earnings from the Middle East enabled Filipino
relatives to buy pedicabs, jeepneys, and set up convenience stores.
More recently, Filipinas who have worked in Japan are known in their
communities as lavish spenders and, in some instances, for their
ability to purchase a small property for their families.
The Philippines is one of the major sources of women for marriage
marketing. Hundreds of marriage agencies advertise through pen pal
columns, classified ads, the Internet and other means, peddling
Filipinas and other Asian women as exotic virgins, innocent, submissive,
"traditional and supportive
whose grandest dream is to
meet, marry and make [a prospective husband] the happiest man on
Filipino culture tends to see unattached, maturing women as "kawawa,"
or pitiful. Women are expected to be married, have children and
grow old with a family. The pressure to marry before their mid-twenties,
the stigma attached to spinsterhood and the remnant of a long colonial
mentality that regards marriage to foreign men as a good choice
have all contributed to the growing number of Filipino women seeking
foreign spouses. Many Filipino brides have admitted that marrying
foreign spouses assures them of a more materially comfortable life
overseas, not just for themselves but also for their families of
origin. They expect that their husbands would understand the Filipino
culture of married children helping out their elderly parents and
siblings who are in less fortunate circumstances. 1989-1996 data
revealed that the average age of a Filipino fiancée/spouse
is 29, while that of the foreign partner is 37 years old. Only 35.2
percent of the Filipino fiancées/spouses belonged to the
30 and above age bracket, compared to 74.6 percent of their foreign
partners in the same age bracket. 93.5 percent of Filipino fiancées/spouses
of foreign nationals were single prior to marriage, whereas 63.1
percent of their male foreign partners were single. One-third of
foreign partners had been divorced prior to marrying Filipino women.
From 1989-1996, the CFO provided guidance and counseling to 130,972
Filipino fiancées/spouses of foreign nationals. Of these
emigrants, 41.4 percent went to the United States while 30.5 percent
went to Japan. Other destination countries for fiancées/spouses
of foreign nationals were Australia with 9.1 percent, Germany with
4.1 percent, Canada with 3.6 percent, and the United Kingdom with
Violence against Mail Order Brides
In 1996,an Australian report on "Violence Against Filipino
Women " revealed that many Filipino women between the ages
of 20-39 who emigrate to Australia are victims of domestic violence.
They are six times more likely to be killed than Australian women
of the same age group. The report also found that over 70 percent
of women who migrated to Australia have been sponsored as the fiancées
or spouses of Australian male residents. A 1992 study of Australian
male sponsors shows 111 serial sponsors: 53 men sponsored twice;
57 men sponsored on three occasions; and one had sponsored over
seven women. Furthermore, the Australian Immigration Department
found that 80 of the 110 serial sponsorship cases involved domestic
violence. More often than not, results are disastrous for the women
who become victims of violence. Foreign men are quoted as saying
that Filipino wives are subservient and exotic, and that getting
them into their countries on six month visitors' visas is cheaper
than using women in prostitution.
Racism and sexism predominate in many mail-order bride arrangements.
In an article in the Manila Chronicle (Feb.4,1996), a Philippines
governmental representative said that when Filipinas are married
to Korean men, they do not "
assume their place as wives
of their Korean partners, but rather as domestic helpers, factory
workers or even prostitutes, but not before satisfying the sexual
needs of their husbands and their friends. Worse, they are denied
the use of telephone, letters and all forms of communication to
tell authorities of their plight." To some future foreign husbands,
getting a Filipino wife is no less than a commercial transaction.
More documentation on Filipino mail-order brides is necessary. However,
the level of physical and emotional violence that is currently reported
by women calls for national and international interventions.
Go on to Part II - Internet and the Sex Industry
Return to VAW Module III