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#IWD2024: 'Finding my purpose, fighting for women'

Marking International Women's Day later this week, Tes Marfil (Arise Philippines Coordinator) reflects on her career as an advocate for women's rights. Arise is also marking International Women's Day with a donation partnership from the Natori fashion brand.

Above: Tes Marfil addresses an Arise conference in Manila in 2023.

'I found my purpose in life when I joined the Legislative Advocates for Women — a professional lobby group pushing for the enactment of the Violence Against Women Law in 1988. We campaigned for equal opportunities for the fisherfolks, protection of sex workers, and the protection of women and children who were being beaten and abused in their own homes. 

We organised rallies, forums, and got first-hand accounts and perspectives from talking with sex workers. I was further moved when we visited a shelter for the abused children. That visit continued to play over and over in my head, and I made a promise to myself – that I’d take action on such issues, and not ignore the people I’d met.

At first, I just went with the flow. The issues were of great interest to me, but they were not my profession. But twelve years later, I found myself on the other side of the fence, working for a progressive Senator, and the Committee on Women and Children. It was in 1993 that the UN released the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I knew, around this time, that I wanted to work on safeguarding and the protection of women and children.

After working in the Senate, I followed this path. This issue became the beacon of my career moving forward – and there was (and remains) a great deal of work to do in the Philippines. When I was working for a non-government organisation in 1998, I saw what poverty was like for an urban community living in squalor, fighting for their survival and becoming an easy target for predators who take advantage of their poverty. I saw how children were deprived of their childhood, being abused in different, horrifying ways.

I feel privileged to have been able to work on anti-exploitation projects and policies for as long as I have. I have tried to combine my understanding of the Filipino culture and my advocacy on women and children, working alongside communities to help better protect those at risk.

I have seen how about the exploitation of women and children has continued to evolve – the level of online exploitation, for instance, is a huge concern for many of us. Technologies employed as tools of abuse make it even more dangerous for vulnerable group to be alone, without support or protection from government and civil society.

Sadly, millions of Filipino children are still suffering exploitation, including those working in hazardous conditions in mines and factories, being forced to beg on the streets, and being sexually exploited, often online. There are more than 50,000 children in domestic servitude alone across the Philippines. Endemic poverty results in parents agreeing to sell children to alleged labour agencies or into sexual exploitation. This makes safeguarding incredibly challenging. Victims may end up in forced scamming schemes in Asia, or sex trafficking rings in local cities, Europe or the Middle East.

But there are more and more people working towards stopping these crimes. I feel very lucky to have worked with people who share my passion and commitment, over a period of over thirty years. Each decade, the issue becomes bigger, the perpetrators stronger and even more organised. International syndicates run insidious exploitation rings around the world, requiring increased cooperation and joined-up thinking from those of us working in prevention.

This issue brought me to join Arise in October of 2022, and my passion that was ignited in 1988 continues to drive me in this line of work. I see the work we do make a difference for families up and down the Philippines, and I look forward to continuing to expand our protective reach.'

Arise's work in the Philippines can be supported here.

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