Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
Berkman Online Lectures & Discussions

Harvard Law School > Berkman Center > Open Education >


Violence Against Women on the Internet

Campus Sexual Assault Policies
(opens: 4.16.02)
(opens: 4.23.02)
Sex Trafficking
(opens: 4.30.02)
The Internet as a Site of Resistance
(opens: 5.7.02)
(opens: 5.14.02)
NOTE: Modules will launch by 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on the date listed.


Sexual Slavery in the 21st Century: An Overview

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 :

International Migration

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 the world.

"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 " in Asia.

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 on Migration

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 Manila.

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 Migrants

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 activities.

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 hires.

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 and trafficking.

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 no official
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.

Marriage Marketing

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 earth. "

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 1.6 percent.

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



Please send all inquiries to:

Welcome | Registration | Discussion | Resources

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society