ASEAN-ACT Justice Systems Director, Attorney Darlene Pajarito shares her prosecution experience in the Philippines, and strongly advocates for more victim-sensitive approaches throughout the criminal justice process.
The following article contains depiction of violence and abuse that some readers may find difficult and/or triggering.
Growing up in Zamboanga in the south of the Philippines, Darlene Pajarito was close to human trafficking as the nearby port was a transit and exit hotspot. It was perhaps an obvious choice that she would follow in her mothers’ footsteps to study law and then specialise in anti-trafficking, but she admits it was the persistence of her close friend who arranged her classes which meant she had to commit – ‘when you start something, you want to finish it!’.
Now, in her role as ASEAN-ACT’s Justice System Director, Attorney Darlene Pajarito is too modest to admit her celebrity status as a global anti-trafficking hero recognised by the US State Department in 2011.
In her first anti-trafficking case as Assistant City Prosecutor for the Department of Justice in 2005, her landmark case went all the way to the Supreme Court and set a strong legal precedent for the Philippines, especially at a time when the country’s anti-trafficking law was newly introduced. This was the first sex trafficking conviction in the Philippines that was tried on merits and was concluded in just five months. She also secured the second conviction of a labor trafficker in 2011, by which point she had under her belt six convictions secured against traffickers – more than any other city in the Philippines at that time.
Atty Darlene was then instrumental in rejuvenating the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking and spearheading the Sea-Based and Air-Based Anti-Trafficking Task Forces. The collective work of the Sea-Based Anti-Trafficking Task Force helped secure a rent-free space at the Zamboanga International Sea Port for the Bureau of Immigration.
Through her negotiations, the task force established an overseas passenger assistance centre to identify possible trafficked victims among the international-bound passengers by assisting the Bureau in the screening process.
She believes that these proactive efforts, including her prosecution-law enforcement coordination work, caught the attention of the US State Department to honor her counter-trafficking efforts.
Looking back, she considers her days in court handling over 300 criminal cases as shaping her leadership roles including as Executive Director of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking in 2015.
“In my first sex trafficking case, the victim (trafficked overseas) was punched if she refused to have sex, and a male she described ‘the sumo wrestler’ would bang her head against the bathroom wall and say, ‘you are dirty so take a bath’.
It was during my examination of the victim in court, there was one intense moment where she started to cry. The victim then pointed at the accused and burst out shouting ‘You destroyed my life!’, that because of the accused, many men touched her body… I just wanted to cry and hug her. We can never fathom how deep the trauma is,” Atty Darlene reflects.
While women and girls experience significantly higher levels of violence in human trafficking, Atty Darlene believes more awareness also needs to be raised around men and boys. She has encountered cases involving young males involved in sex trafficking, and fishermen who experienced violence on board a vessel when they complained or did not follow orders.
‘Because he was kind’
Darlene recalls handling a preliminary investigation in a domestic trafficking case, where a fourteen-year-old girl drank pesticide as her only escape.
“When the police called, I went straight to the hospital to see her. She had so many unusual scars on her body and hips from being hit with a plastic balloon stick, and fresh marks still healing from her employer twisting and pinching the skin. At the back of her shoulder, she had small dots from being stabbed with a fork,” Atty Darlene says.
In this case, the trafficked victim suffered physical and verbal abuse, and despite indicating that she was also sexually abused, she would not file a case against ‘the sexual abuser…because he was kind to her when no one was.’
Atty Darlene explains how common it is for victims to become dependent and develop bonds with their traffickers, “The relationship between the victim and the trafficker may be incredibly complex. Traffickers may use violence, fear, and manipulation to exert their power. Sometimes victims develop an emotional response, such as stockholm syndrome, and often there is a lack of trust with authorities.”
The law should protect women, but it doesn’t always.
For Atty Darlene, working with law enforcement leads to better case development. She believes many law enforcement officers still need support in building their awareness or knowledge of the law and their mandates for anti-trafficking measures.
“Human trafficking, almost all, are hidden crimes. Proving violence and all other evidence would require testimonials or any corroborative evidence. It’s very hard to prove the case without the testimony of the victim,” she says.
Synergising efforts with law enforcement is only one part of the efforts to combat human trafficking. Atty Darlene explains that human trafficking is a crime punishable by law, but not all countries uphold the rights of trafficked victims.
Listening to each other in the courts
Starting in 2020, as part of a new initiative to embed victim-sensitive approaches in the courts, Darlene facilitated five focus group discussions with judges, prosecutors, and law enforcers.
Expert judges and justices all emphasised the importance of understanding the trafficked victim and using sensitive language, especially when documented. For example, she explains how a trafficking case went to the Supreme Court which had carried through the document the police term: ‘pick-up girls’.
“The right language matters, and it needs to be from the start,” Atty Darlene insists.
Even though judges and prosecutors can now sit in the same forum with law enforcers and social workers listening to each other, Darlene explains that we have a long way to go to shift the paradigm, to change mindsets, and “…to protect the victims and ensure they get the justice they deserve’.
With these challenges in mind, she is inspired to keep pushing, but it could also be that ‘when you start something, you want to finish it’ attitude.
According to a recent International Organisation Migration (IOM) analysis of the world’s largest data set on trafficking victims, 54% reported physical and/or sexual violence during their trafficking experience. From these results, women and girls experienced significantly higher levels of violence.
While the results from this analysis indicate how common trafficking-related violence is, its findings highlight the importance of services that address the specific support needs of different survivors.