“IT’S YOU AND ONLY YOU THAT CAN MAKE YOURSELF HAPPY.”
By Alice Gatignol
Cecilia Flores-Oebanda is the president and executive director of Visayan Forum, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in the Philippines. Visayan Forum focuses on promoting the development, welfare and rights of marginalised people to end human trafficking. Cecilia and Visayan, now called Voice for the Free, have trained more than 1000 collaborators in the work against human trafficking and have helped more than 60,000 victims.
The story of Cecilia is one of the accumulation of trauma, ignored for years, followed by an epiphany, a renaissance. She was about 15 years old when she became a youth leader in a politically unstable Philippines, governed by a president considered a tyrant. However, Cecilia was determined to fight. At the heart of the fight, groups were organised to tell stories about liberation theology, and eventually Cecilia became one of three female commanders of the guerilla movement. In the middle of all this violence, the news landed: Cecilia was pregnant with her first child. “It is difficult to be pregnant when you are a guerilla fighter in the mountains,” she shares. When Cecilia gave birth, she was forced to give up her child. To make the situation harder, this was when she was informed of her mother passing away. Losing all hope, Cecilia hit rock bottom, and lost herself in the process.
Life on the battlefield carried on, and before she knew it, Cecilia was pregnant with her second child. She reminisces solemnly about the day on the battlefield when her loyal assistant tried to protect her 8-month pregnant body in a hole he dug with his bare hands, in the midst of gun fires and screams. “He was still calling my name when he died.” Seconds later, Cecilia and other men were captured and put into prison. There, she started her family, giving birth to her second child. The family spent four years in prison. Upon her liberation, Cecilia decided to definitely close this chapter of fighting and violence.
By then, her family was in Manila, and every Saturday, Cecilia attended meetings at the University to discuss current ongoings in provinces, and what needed to be done. There was a recurring theme that alarmed them all: the missing children from various regions, who were said to have come to work in Manila. However, nobody knew where they were. Many of them were victims of prostitution, many girls were sold, raped and used. Cecilia’s focus turned to child protection, and her battle became a peaceful one; one for equality, justice and safety.
The Wellbeing Project enabled Cecilia to reflect upon herself: her life, her purpose, her sacrifices, and those of others. As a participant of the Inner Development Program, Cecilia raised and released the trauma that had locked up inside herself throughout the years, to mourn the pain, to listen to her sufferings. “I finally got to process what was going on in my life, for all these years; I had been like a headless chicken who continued to run and run and run…”
“The Wellbeing Project provided me a safe space where I could pause and reflect — a space where I was able to heal the wounds I have incurred throughout my life as a freedom fighter, an activist, a friend, a daughter and as a mother. Choosing to become a freedom fighter and advocating against slavery and human trafficking was a choice which gave me heavy weight to carry and endure. Wellbeing helped me reach closure and move past the previous chapters of my life. It gave me a deeper sense of humanity and liberated me from guilt and unnecessary stress that I have been dealing with. I was able to process my brokenness, trauma, pain, and loss. My time with Wellbeing has been a gift of a lifetime and I’m extremely grateful.”