A recent court ruling has given fresh impetus to the battle against human trafficking.
An owner and a cashier at a bar in Daraga, Albay - south of Manila - were convicted for trafficking minors for sexual exploitation on 27 November. They were sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment and fined around US$20,000.
The case involved four girls, 14 to 16 years old, who were trafficked from their homes in Manila to the bar and forced to work as "guest relation officers".
They were rescued in February 2007 by the National Bureau of Investigation, which acted on the tip of one girl who had escaped and returned to Manila.
The conviction, only the second this year, is a much-needed boost in the fight against human trafficking in the Philippines.
In June, a woman was sentenced to life imprisonment for trafficking seven minors for sexual exploitation in a bar in Batangas, a province south of the capital.
"Let this be a warning against human traffickers that their glory days are over and that they must immediately stop. Whether here or abroad, the Inter-agency Council against Trafficking [IACAT] will not leave any stone unturned in its efforts to fight the crime of human trafficking," acting chairman Ricardo Blancaflor said.
A major problem
According to the US State Department's Human Rights Report in 2007, the Philippines was "a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labour".
NGOs and government agencies estimated that 300,000 to 400,000 women were trafficked annually.
Data from the Visayan Forum Foundation, an NGO, reveals that people likely to be trafficked are 12-22 years old and mostly girls, who are usually promised domestic work but end up in sex work.
The Department of Justice's assistant prosecutor Severino Gaña, also a member of the IACAT, told IRIN that the latest conviction could not be more timely.
Representatives of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (OMCTP), a Washington-funded monitoring group, are to arrive in the Philippines on 8 December to check on the latest government efforts to implement the international Trafficking of Victims Act of 2000.
Since the law was passed in the Philippines in 2003, there have been 12 convictions under Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.
The Philippines is categorised under Tier 2 in the latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report by the OMCTP. Tier 2 refers to countries that "do not comply" with the Act "but are making sufficient efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards".
The government fears a Tier 3 assessment, which according to the 2006 TIP, "could trigger the withholding of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance from the United States to that country".
Gaña told IRIN he expected more convictions as there were now more than 600 cases pending nationwide and a number had passed preliminary investigation. "There are more convictions coming. You know how it is in courts, trials may take a long time," he said.
"We have trained our prosecutors on RA 9208. We came up with a public manual, which was sponsored by USAID. It's a very complicated law. It's not that easy," he added.
The public prosecutors are also getting help from NGOs. Lawyers from the local office of the International Justice Mission (IJM) [see: http://www.ijm.org/] , a US-based group combating trafficking of women and children, assisted in the prosecution of the two successful cases this year.
IJM-Manila director Carmela Andal Castro shared Gaña's optimism. "We have several cases in the pipeline that are up for promulgation. They look strong. We continuously work with law enforcement," she said.
Another factor in the success of the latest conviction, Castro said, was the cooperation of the people trafficked.
"It's not easy to testify in court against a perpetrator. Some of them have been threatened and intimidated. But they were very cooperative. It's the willingness and cooperation of the victims coupled with the support from other NGOs that made the case successful," Castro said.