PHILIPPINES: Fighting for the Sisters I Left Behind
A former victim of human trafficking, today Myrna Padilla is using her success in the IT industry to create an online network of support connecting women and girls who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
I was born among the poorest of the poor in a small, undeveloped fishing village on an island in the Philippines in 1960. A former victim of human trafficking, today I own an IT business with a focus on mobile and social media technology.
I also use technology for advocacy to empower millions of the most vulnerable women among us to join in the world’s fight against human trafficking and modern day human slavery.
Let me tell you how I got here.
I have only one picture of me and my family when I was a little girl. We are standing in front of a small bamboo hut—my childhood home, just a few meters away from the Bohol Sea. I am standing to the left of my mother and wearing one of the finest dresses I have ever owned. It was made with a mother's love from a flour bag bleached white.
Some of my earliest memories are the tears in my mother's eyes when we would go to bed hungry. By the time I was 10 years old, to help feed my family, I was diving alone in the sea to hunt for fish using a spear gun my father made from an old umbrella. I would also dive for seaweed to sell in the market in the nearby town of Loboc.
I was dark from diving in the sea under the hot sun and the salt water would leave white patches on my skin and frizzle my hair. When we would go into town to sell our seaweed, the old women would tease me. I still hear them saying, “No one would ever marry such an ugly little girl.”
To be a street vendor you cannot be shy. You have to be fearless. I learned to talk with strangers, make them smile, sing them a song.
I soon learned that I could make more money singing than selling seaweed and I sung in competitions at local festivals.
It was after one of these festivals that I was approached by a “recruiter” from Manila. She told me the same story that a thousand young girls have been told. She told me I was beautiful. She told me I was special. She told me I could get a job singing in Japan. She told me such beautiful lies.
Finally, she told me something I did believe. She told me I could help save my family from poverty. She gave me hope and a dream and I found myself believing in her with all my heart. Because I had nothing to wear suitable for the city, my father gave me his best pair of pants and his best shirt. They were far too big for me, but I felt so safe wrapped inside them. I went with her to Manila draped in my father’s clothes.
In Manila, I soon discovered I had misunderstood everything. Before the recruiter could arrange an audition for me to go overseas and sing in Japan, I had to first pay off “my debt”. She had gone through so much trouble to get me there. There were transportation costs. And “recruitment” fees. And singing lessons. And she had to feed me.
At that moment, I thought I understood everything. I would be the hardest worker she ever had. I would repay my debt. I was so deeply grateful and I could not stop thanking her. I was so naïve.
She had given me hope and a powerful dream. I would save my family from poverty.
I spent the next year working as a slave (there is no other word for it) washing clothes by hand. Twelve hours a day. Seven days a week. No day off. No pay. No singing lessons.
The hard work meant nothing to me. I had long become used to it. I practiced my singing while I washed the clothes and I dreamed.
Soon I was joined by Ling Ling, another girl four years younger than me. She was from the mountains above my fishing village and we spoke the same dialect. We became best friends. Night after night we laughed and shared our dreams. I would become a singer in Japan. I would save my family. No one would ever go to bed hungry again.
The power of hope
As strange as it may sound, I never felt despair. In the years since, I have often wondered how a slave could have joy in her heart. I now know the answer, which has become a core part of my advocacy. In the Philippines, we call it “pag-asa”. In English, “hope”.
After almost a year, my chance finally came. The recruiter had set up an audition. Ling Ling wished me luck. For the first time in almost a year, I walked out of the compound.
We went to a nearby building and through a back door. A young Filipino makeup artist was waiting for me. He fixed me up and had me dress in a beautiful gown. There was no bra and my bare back was showing. I was so uncomfortable, but he assured me everything was ok. I was an entertainer.
My recruiter led me out onto a small stage surrounded by a group of men. She explained to me that the men were my “judges”. Even though I had never seen the inside of a nightclub, I knew in my heart something was wrong. But I wanted so badly to believe in dreams that I took a deep breath and sang my heart out for them. I sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”.
Halfway through my song, one of my “judges” came up on stage. He ran his hand down my bare back. I knew at that moment that my dream of saving my family from poverty was lost. I knew then exactly what was expected of me and I did what came natural.
I slapped him...
And it was not a little girl’s slap. It was a hard, full woman's slap delivered with the force of a girl whose first job was pounding rice at the age of nine. It was the hard slap of a girl who had been diving alone in the sea forever. It was the hard slap of a slave who had been washing laundry seven days a week for almost a year.
It was a slap that stopped the music and sent the old man staggering. My recruiter screamed and I ran. I grabbed my father’s clothes and ran back to the compound. I said goodbye to Ling Ling and ran away.
I found my way to an old church in Baclaran, where I spent my first night free, broke, and homeless. And for the first time since coming to Manila, I cried. And for the first time in my life, I felt worthless.
When you are born to the poorest of the poor you stop crying very early in life. Everything is hard. Life is hard. But this was different. When you are poor, it is rare to have a dream you can almost touch. That night I cried hard for a shattered dream.
While I sat there in the church crying, a young woman came to me. She could tell I was not from Manila by the way I was dressed. She sat down by my side and began to comfort me. Her name was Ponyang and she was a domestic helper. She cried with me.
After sharing my story with her, she suddenly stopped me; she took both my hands and forced me to look into her eyes. She told me she knew exactly what I had to do. She gave me the name of a bakery and then proceeded to tell me exactly what I needed to say and do to get a job. We both stopped crying and started laughing. It would work. I knew it would. Ponyang, the domestic helper, had given me back my hope.
That morning I did exactly what Ponyang had told me to do. I went to the bakery and declared to the bakery owner, “I can be the best street vendor you ever had.” Then, instead of shouting out “pandesal” (bread) like the other vendors, I sang it out as loud and as beautifully as I could. He laughed hard, but hired me on the spot.
I walked the streets of Manila along Airport Road with a basket of bread on my head, wrapped in my father’s clothes and dodging my old recruiter and her boys. The job was no different than selling seaweed in the market back home. I was good at it and I did become the best street vendor that bakery ever had.
A few days after escaping, my friend Ling Ling found me. She had been badly abused. They had forced a hot boiling spoon of rice into her mouth as punishment. I refused to let her go back and I helped her find a place to live until she could return to her family.
That was the day my advocacy began. I know that I am so lucky. My heart breaks at the thought of the millions of girls who have “recruiters” far more brutal than mine and who do not have the option of fighting back.
When I was blessed with two beautiful baby girls, any dreams I had for myself were quickly replaced by dreams for them. Even though I had never graduated high school, I knew the path out of poverty for my two girls was an education. I dreamed they would not just graduate high school, but also college.
I knew that was not going to happen if I was working as a street vendor. Like many other women born into poverty in the Philippines, my only chance to fulfill those dreams was to go overseas to seek employment.
I became a migrant worker, what is known in the Philippines as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW). The Philippines is a nation of overseas workers. There are over ten million of us scattered all over the world. Ten percent of our population works abroad.
I traveled first to Singapore, then Taiwan, and eventually Hong Kong. I have slept on unheated kitchen floors in the dead of winter and eaten scraps fit only for a dog.
But no abuse, verbal or otherwise, remotely compares to the pain and anguish of a mother separated from her children. That is the terrible price millions of women have paid to save our children from poverty.
After almost 12 years of working overseas, I finally found a boss in Hong Kong who was kind to me. I helped raise this family’s son, Jonathan, and it was this 8-year-old Chinese boy who first taught me how to use a computer.
Though I was intimidated, I did what I have often done when I needed to overcome my fears: I thought back on the little dark skinned girl diving alone in the sea. If I could do that, I could learn to use a mouse.
It was when I began using the Internet that I began to fully understand and appreciate that people could perform services without ever needing to leave home.
For those of you who have never left your children behind for 5, 10, or 15 years, you have no idea how powerful a concept that is. I was a transformed woman.
Once both my girls had graduated college, my dreams were once again for myself.
In 2006, I returned home to the Philippines after almost 20 years and founded my own company, Mynd Consulting. We started with two people and an old computer offering bug testing and quality assurance services to US clients.
Today, my small company runs multiple shifts supplying virtual teams of programmers on a long term basis to clients in both the US and Europe.
Others talk about our industry and how we are responsible for creating over 800,000 jobs over the last few years. I have to share with you what that really means to me.
To me it means 800,000 mothers, fathers, sons or daughters who will now stay home in the Philippines, instead of being ripped from their families and shipped overseas. I am so proud of the small part I have played in that.
However, no amount of success in business will erase the 20 years of memories I have as a migrant worker. As a woman, I was not always treated with the respect and dignity we all deserve.
No amount of success will erase the stories of abuse I have heard and witnessed.
And no amount of success will allow me to forget that at this very moment, there are millions of women who have fallen victim to abusive employers, human trafficking, and modern day human slavery.
These women are desperately crying out for help, but no one hears them. My small success in business has given me an opportunity to act on behalf of the sisters I left behind.
The power of technology
Using the profits from my company, I have been funding a project called OFW Watch. It uses social media and mobile technology to empower women to help themselves and each other. We envision a day when the right to use personal communication devices are as sacrosanct as a passport and affordable to all. We are trying to prepare for that future by getting into the trenches and learning.
As of this writing we have built a network of over 14,000 tech savvy migrant workers (mostly domestic workers and nannies) scattered all over the world who are willing to help those less fortunate than themselves.
We use technology to enable community service, and to engage these women in the fight against human trafficking. The very act of asking for their help gives their lives new meaning beyond the floors they mop or the toilets they clean. Our vision is for the network we create to go beyond the fight against human trafficking. We are learning how to use mobile technology to deliver the one thing that made my story possible, the one thing so many women working overseas desperately need: Hope.