Friday, August 5, 2011

Farther East Of Eden: An Interview With Amy Collins Of Red Window Project.

Every year, upwards of a half a million girls and women are sold or coerced into the sex trade. Their lives are destroyed, their souls crushed, and their hope for a future buried forever. But there are organizations like International Justice Mission who rescue these girls, others like My Refuge House that restore them, and then there are others still who give them back their lives. Red Window Project is one such organization in Cebu, Philippines that exists to facilitate economic, social and spiritual reconciliation for victims of sexual exploitation. Amy Collins of Red Window was kind enough to share their vision, her wisdom and her amazing photographs in a interview with COH.

How did Red Window Project get its name?

The name Red Window is a reference to the story of Rahab, who was described as a harlot in the Bible. Joshua sent out two spies to investigate the military strength of Jericho. The spies stayed with Rahab and she hid them when the soldiers came looking for them. After escaping, the spies promised to spare Rahab and her family if she would mark her house by hanging a red cord out the window. Some have claimed that the origin of the red cord is also the origin of the red light district. This red cord in the window symbolizes hope; hope that justice would prevail and someone would come back to save Rahab.

In essence, what does Red Window do?

We provide career and personal development training to victims of vulnerability, and more specifically to those who have backgrounds of sexual exploitation and trafficking. RWP works with local aftercare homes, vocational training facilities, churches, counseling services, the business community, the social welfare department and other organizations to coordinate holistic services that are capable of reconciling each trafficking survivor with God, the economy and her social environment.

Once a student has sufficiently recovered psychologically and physically from theabuse, what then?

They are given the opportunity to participate in a “soft skills” development course called the Job Readiness Training Program to prepare them for the workplace. Red Window is also committed to the spiritual reconciliation of each student under its care. Internally, we work through spiritual formation classes to help students take their first steps on a spiritual journey.

RWP has also created the ALIVE Scholarship Program, which is designed to provide opportunities for the under-resourced to finish their education and/or vocational training. We have found that many Red Window students exhibit the potential to break the cycle of poverty that puts them at risk of further exploitation, but almost none of them can afford to do it on their own.

There are several stories on Red Window’s website of girls who have been restored through your organization. Is there one story that really touched you personally?

They have all touched me personally, but I think that Kara’s story is one that has significance in my life. Mainly it is a story of success on the part of International Justice Mission (IJM) who rescued her before she ever had to be exploited. She never had to be broken of her innocence. At the same time, we recognize how easily that happens to those who are in a vulnerable position. And the remarkable thing about Kara is that she is following her dream of becoming a social worker so that she can help more people in vulnerable positions like hers.

Why Cebu?

Initially the Gates Foundation helped IJM establish a pilot project in Cebu to see if IJM could reduce the victimization of children in sex slavery by objectively measurable amounts. And indeed, according to IJM, outside auditors found a “70% reduction from the initial survey of the victimization of children in the commercial sex trade”. Not only has the impact of this project been ground breaking, but it has given IJM-Cebu a great network of aftercare support within the community. However, there was still a need to help clients reintegrate and become economically self-sufficient. IJM developed the initial research, the soft skills curriculum and piloted the Job Readiness Training program under what was called the Economic Self-Sufficiency and Reintegration program. After one year, the program was outsourced to an independent third-party NGO, called Red Window Project. The meticulous research that went into establishing this program was successful, and we know that the success of the IJM office in Cebu played a large part.

IJM’s work in Cebu has been nothing short of phenomenal. Is there a sense that the tide is turning there, or is evil pushing back harder now?

There is definitely a sense that the tide is turning in Cebu. IJM has spurred a remarkable effort to strengthen community and civic factors that promote functioning public justice systems. It is not just a matter of seeing a perpetrator get sent to jail, but I think enough perpetrators in Cebu are being punished that “would-be” perpetrators are beginning to fear the consequences of the law. This fear creates a safer environment for those vulnerable to trafficking.

Your organization calls itself “Christ-centered”. That phrase has become a catch-all for NGO’s pandering to Churches and people of Christian faith and has certainly been abused. What distinguishes RWP, spiritually and financially?

At Red Window, we see some pretty tough situations. We see individuals who have experienced some very hard things and we see people who have lost hope. But time and time again, we have seen people change in ways that we don’t understand. We have seen resources come in at the last minute. We have seen growth in people’s lives that we never thought was possible. And we realize that we are not in control of these things. Red Window is a Christ-centered organization because we believe that God is leading us.

In the daily work, we see God moving in the lives of individuals. We see Christ in the lives of our staff and what they have given up to be here working for us. We also find encouragement in sharing a spiritual life with our colleagues and our students. Red Window Project provides a unique outlet for people motivated by their faith to confront injustice and we believe that we are lucky enough to be apart of it.

One of our values is integrity. We commit to being financially responsible with the money we are given, by using it only for the purpose in which it was raised in accordance with our mission. We also commit to balance quality and integrity by providing the highest industry standard for our students while committing to keep our administrative and fund-raising costs as low as possible.

For the reconciliation process to succeed, just how important is it for victims of sexual tyranny to have their spirit healed?

We believe that the only way for a person to be truly healed from this kind of abuse is through holistic reconciliation, which includes the spirit. Coming from the Christian worldview, it is of utmost importance. Our spirits are our primary identities. Without understanding who they are created to be, and who their creator is, they will still be wandering and broken. That same wounding will carry over into other relationships, not only with employers and teachers, but family, friends, and neighbors. We believe that to gain the whole world, but to lose touch with our spirits amounts to basically nothing.

What is the difference between the work RWP does and a group like My Refuge House?

We focus on different aspects of the healing process. MRH is there to provide the initial psychological rehabilitation to survivors of sex trafficking when they are rescued. We come in to the picture when they have already completed a significant part of the healing process. We take referrals from partners like MRH when they see that a girl is ready to reintegrate back home or independently in the community. By the time a trafficking survivor enters our Job Readiness Training program, it is imperative that she is making steps to overcome her trauma and pain so she can focus on her long-term goals and vision for her life.

What do you feel are the driving forces behind the sex trade in Cebu? What are the statistics for the number of women and children trapped in forced prostitution? What percent of these are Filipino natives? What other countries are these girls normally trafficked from?

It is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 Filipino women and 60,000 to 100,000 Filipino children are trafficking annually both domestically and internationally (US Department of State Human Rights Report 2006). Filipino women and girls are trafficked worldwide, but there are also a large number that are trafficked domestically between the islands. The beautiful scenery, tropical weather and extreme poverty make the Philippines an ideal location for sex tourists. There is not a high percentage of girls trafficked into Cebu from other countries, but girls are frequently trafficked from the Philippines to neighboring countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand.

What are the youngest victims that RWP serves?

We do not serve anyone under the age of 17 because the legal age of employment is 18, but most of Red Window students were trafficked at a younger age.

How did you come to the abolition/ human rights movement?

It has been my life mission to see lives wake up and discover their true potential. My varied international experiences finally came full circle when I came to the Philippines. What initially intrigued me in Nepal five years ago was witnessing the work of a small aftercare home treating victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking that had been rescued by a team from International Justice Mission. The stories that walked those halls soon became my reality and represented everything that I wanted to fight against. This experience initially sparked my desire to get involved in social justice work.

I worked for several different non-profits in Uganda, Cambodia, and New York City until I finally realized that getting a degree in social work was what I needed in order to successfully pursue my passion. I spent two years researching human trafficking and developing protocol for a non-profit that served international victims of trafficking in New York City as I earned my masters in social work from Columbia University. Only 2 weeks after graduation, I set off for Cebu, Philippines to work for IJM on the economic self-sufficiency program for victims of trafficking. It was there where I was able to witness the resiliency of women who were rescued and see how the holistic services brought new life back to those that had once lost hope. I now believe that hope is real and is something worth fighting for.

How is it that so many Christians seem to disconnect their faith with the Christian responsibility for the poor and the exploited?

I think it is hard for Christians to reconcile their faith when they live in a world driven by materialism and greed and surrounded by suffering and poverty. The black and white idea of faith and Christianity that some people grow up with doesn’t always fit the circumstances and stories that you hear in the field. International organizations may be doing phenomenal work but do not share the same spiritual motivation or Biblical responsibility. And at the same time, you see churches that are completely detached and uninformed of social justice issues happening in their communities and worldwide. It is almost as if they are working against each other. In the words of Nicholas Kristof, “Religious people and secular people alike do fantastic work on humanitarian issues — but they often don’t work together because of mutual suspicions. If we could bridge this “God gulf,” we would make far more progress on the world’s ills.”

But when you strive to do justice work without Christ at the center and passionately pursue something with what you think is all your heart, you realize that it doesn’t work. It’s imperative that they are connected. However, I think some Christians can also get confused in thinking that the only way to help people is by evangelizing or proselytizing to them. I believe that our first witness of Christ is through the initial actions we take on behalf of others, which allow us to demonstrate God’s heart for justice. This action is a message that goes farther than words. It has the ability to align mutual interest and common good without scaring someone off with Christian rhetoric.

RWP’s site mentions the organization’s desire to implement similar services around the world. What other countries are candidates for a RWP office?

We aim to reduce re-trafficking in many areas around the world. We hope to open offices specifically where there is a need to reintegrate and help victims of human trafficking become economically self-sufficient. This fall we are going to be conducting a feasibility study in Manila to determine whether or not we will open an office there. Our desire is to build offices where there is a specific need to reintegrate victims of sexual exploitation. In line with Red Window’s mission, it will be more effective to open new offices in places that have already made significant effort to rehabilitate victims of trafficking so that we can fill in the missing piece.

For the activist that wants to get involved in an NGO like RWP, what is the best avenue for them to take?

It is important to educate yourself about the issue of human trafficking. There are a number of different organizations and advocacy groups raising awareness about this issue all over the globe. Some of those organizations that are based in the US are: CAST , Polaris Project and Free the Slaves.

Another way to get involved is more direct. Trafficking is everywhere. Americans often think of it as something that only happens in places far away from the “land of the free,” but as a country and a planet we are facing modern day slavery on an unprecedented scale. That is why it is our job to mobilize and empower social service organizations, community members and survivors to fight against trafficking.

I believe that we all have gifts and talents that can be used to better humanity. If you have a background in law you can dedicate your time to advocating for the oppressed, editing and lobbying for changes in policy, counseling former victims in a similar culture to your own, creating sustainable jobs or social enterprises, offering life skills training and/or educating the public about the issue; there is a role for everyone.

A good portion of my job as a Westerner in a developing country is to equip local staff with the skills and support they need to do their job well. This means training the national staff and providing resources that are not readily available in the developing world. It is our job to empower the local staff and eventually work our way out of a job.

What about someone who wants to work with RWP?

There are opportunities to volunteer your time as an intern or fellow with Red Window. For more details and qualifications regarding those positions, you can click here.

Tell us a little about you. Favorite books? Movies?

East of Eden. No book will ever come as close to the love I have for that book.

But other good books are: Half the Sky, Compassion: A Reflection of the Christian Life, The Great Divorce, and The Little Prince.

How do you narrow movies down? Some of my favorites are: A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man, anything by Christopher Guest, Shawshank Redemption, The Life of David Gale, and American History X.

Favorite quote?

“Our purpose is to bring heaven to earth in every detail of our lives, macro and micro. It is imperative to have the peace that passes understanding at the center of yourself, but do not be at peace with the world because the world is not a happy place for most people living in it. The world is more malleable than you think and we can wrestle it from fools.” - Bono (above)

Anything you want add?

We are thankful to all of the people who support the work of Red Window Project. We know that we cannot do it without all of you, so never underestimate the power of your voice and the importance of your influence.

And if you have any other questions about getting involved, please do not hesitate to email me at:


We'll leave with a Steinbeck quote from East Of Eden, "[that]the human soul is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and..." with organizations like Red Window Project's help, "...never destroyed." Please support the work RWP does, you can donate here to their ALIVE Scholarship Program which is exclusively for RW students who graduate from the Job Readiness Training program and exhibit interest in a vocational training or educational program necessary for them to reach their goals, but cannot afford the costs associated with them.

And as always, from all of us at COH, thank you for being a voice for the voiceless.

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