How Child Sex Trafficking is Being Overcome in the Philippines

By Holly Burkhalter 2-15-2011

One of the things that make the work of fighting global slavery so difficult is that people feel defeated by the sheer size and scope of the problem. But I hope that new findings from International Justice Mission's Project Lantern will change the way people think about what is possible.

Project Lantern was launched by International Justice Mission (IJM) in Cebu, a province in the Philippines, four years ago, with generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the project was to rescue children from prostitution and arrest and prosecute trafficking perpetrators. Another goal of the project was to see whether IJM-assisted casework could have an impact on child sexual exploitation more widely and actually deter the crime.

To measure that proposition, IJM secured an independent baseline prevalence study of minors in the sex industry before we began our collaboration with Philippines law enforcement. The study found that minors represented approximately 7 percent of those in prostitution in Cebu. The IJM team then began its usual operations. IJM experts trained the local police and began conducting undercover operations with them to locate children in commercial sex venues. In 2009, the Philippines National Police created an elite "Regional Anti-Trafficking Force" in Cebu to work especially closely with IJM's investigators, lawyers, and social workers.

After partnering with local police to rescue more than 220 trafficking victims and charge more than 100 suspected traffickers in Metro Cebu, the encouraging results of Project Lantern are:

  • External researchers found that the number of minors available for exploitation in the commercial sex industry in Metro Cebu has plummeted 79 percent from their initial study before IJM began its casework four years ago.
  • The researchers also found that Project Lantern has led to an increase in law enforcement activity in sex trafficking cases; an increase in commitment to resolving sex trafficking cases among law enforcement officers trained through the project; and an increase in services -- like shelter, counseling, and career training -- provided to trafficking survivors.

These results are a victory for the Philippines government, which is planning to replicate the Cebu model elsewhere in the Philippines. While child sex trafficking is still a huge problem in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world, Project Lantern shows that the crime is very responsive to pressure from responsible law enforcement operations. It shows that it is not necessary to arrest every single trafficker, pimp, or brothel owner for the sex trade to get the message that exploitation of children won't be tolerated. The sex industry in Cebu has gotten the message that if you sell kids, you go to jail. These are the kinds of programs our government should be helping to replicate in order to protect children around the world.

It is what we would want in our own communities.

Holly Burkhalter is Vice President of Government Relations at International Justice Mission. Urge President Obama to fund the replication of successful programs like Project Lantern internationally to help protect children from sexual exploitation:

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