Ma. Cecilia Oebanda-Pacis
A Freedom Fighter even in her youth, Cecilia dedicated her life to ending modern slavery by fighting for the Filipino people's liberation from the tyranny of the Marcos regime, and eventually founding VF after her release from being a political prisoner. Since then she has successfully established global best practices to fight human trafficking.
Cecilia was featured in a two-hour CNN Freedom Project documentary entitled "The Fighters", which became instrumental in busting a child pornography ring.
She has received the following awards:
- Anti-Slavery Award 2005 from Anti-Slavery International
- One of the Modern-Day Abolitionists by the UK Government in the celebration of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 2007
- Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2008 by the Skoll Foundation
- One of its Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery in the U.S. Department of State - Trafficking in Persons Report 2008
- World’s Children’s Honorary Award in the 2011 World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child in Sweden
- US Department of Labor Iqbal Masih Award
I became a mother as I was leading the liberation movement in my home country of the Philippines. I hid in the mountains and the military ran an endless pursuit. To keep my first-born safe, I was forced to give him to my relatives. My eldest son and I were separated for 12 years.
After five years of fighting and hiding, my husband and I were captured in a gun battle that took eight hours. I was then pregnant with my second child. My three comrades suffered a different fate—they were killed in front of me. While the boys were kneeling, I begged for mercy. “I regret to say, madam, this is mercy killing and we are under martial law,” said my comrades’ executioner.
As a leader, I was overcome with guilt and anger as a survivor while those young boys died. After two days in prison I gave birth to a son. I started my family while in prison, the last place I could have imagined. We stayed there behind bars for four years. Together with my former husband who has since passed, we were a family of political prisoners.
I named my son Kip a contraction of a Filipino word dakip that means “captured”. I also had a daughter while in prison whom I named “Malaya”, which in Filipino means “freedom”—the very essence of our dreams, what we were fighting for. I can still remember days when I would climb a tree with my son just to show him that there is something else out there—beyond the walls of the prison—and how I’d promise him that he’d live there one day.
Working in Trauma
After four years in prison, the people power revolution successfully ousted the dictator and my family and I were finally released. It was then that I founded VF, now called Voice of The Free.
What we face almost every day in the battlefield against human trafficking is true evil. I thought that in my life I had endured more than anyone.
In my work though I realized that my suffering was nothing compared to what trafficking victims experience. Take the story of some Filipina women who were promised domestic work in France, only to end up in a bar in the Ivory Coast, forced to have sex with different men every day. I worked with young women sold to servitude. We rescued a five-year-old girl who already had severe lacerations, and whose face is probably stocked in over a thousand pornographic websites. She has been forced to perform sexual acts in front of a web camera. The youngest victim of the cybersex slavery trade we rescued was a one-year-old girl.
No Space for Self-Reflection
As an ambitious leader aiming at transformative social change, you don’t have time to deal with your own traumas. I lived every day full of intense passion, motivated by anger and revenge. I never had time to reflect and examine my life, but inside I was shattered and wounded. I acted despite my fear. I always tried to find the courage to endure emotional pain. I could never forgive those people who made my life hell on earth, nor can I forgive the abusers of trafficked girls.
I had forgotten how to see myself as an individual. My identity was so tied to the work, even in my dreams I did the work.
Making Space for Inner Work
In 2017, I received an offer to participate in something called The Wellbeing Project. I hesitated. I felt guilty stepping away from my work to start to do inner work. As a freedom fighter I never let my guard down. I never wanted to become vulnerable. The trauma I carry with me and my relationship to my work had taken a toll on my health and my family dynamics. I have hypertension and heart issues. Still, I was afraid to dig and excavate my own trauma to truly know myself.
The Wellbeing Project was transformative—the best thing that ever happened to me. Why did I not do this inner work much sooner!
I was able to mourn those who sacrificed themselves for freedom. I was able to reconnect with my faith in God, which somehow I lost along the way. I was able to appreciate my life and my accomplishments after all the hardship and sacrifices. I found courage in compassion and forgiveness.
I’m able to see my family clearly—how much they love and support me. I honor the commitment of colleagues and express gratitude of their passion for our mission, despite the many hardships. I came to recognize their full capacity and know that they are ready to carry the torch of leadership for the next generation of Voice of The Free. Above all, I learned to enjoy every step and moment of my journey.
Thoughts for Young Leaders
Leaders need to realize that care for the inner self is critical to the capacity to do the hard work of social change. Allow pure self-love. We are more effective if we live a balanced life with the joy of family, friends, and colleagues. Social entrepreneurs are restless by nature, but we need to stop living such a hurried life, always striving without arriving.
We need to find our inner safe space to reflect, celebrate, and mourn. We need to treasure our identity beyond work.
We need to be confident that there’s always someone who can carry the torch of leadership. Even when our time is up, our work will continue.
After 30 memorable years of fighting for freedom and social entrepreneurship, I’ve now become ready emotionally for transition. This year I retire, making space for our organization to enter a new phase of its journey.
I’ve finally been able to share our story of the fight for freedom and democracy through an award-winning film called Liway (lady of the dawn) that my son Kip wrote and directed. The Human Rights Commission in the Philippines now uses the film to educate youth on the lessons of the Marcos dictatorship.
We need to understand that life is a state of change and everything has a beginning and an end.
I can’t help but wonder how my path may have been different had I found the space for inner work much earlier in my career, but I’m so grateful for these lessons. I hope that other young leaders in social change can chart a course that balances a devotion and passion for solving thorny problems with a commitment to the kind of self-inquiry that will sustain them on that journey.
This article was originally published in Skoll Foundation website.