Atty. Noemi B. TRUYA-ABARIENTOS is a Philippine licensed lawyer with one Bachelor degree in law and another in science in business administration. Prior to becoming a lawyer, she had volunteered in various non-governmental organizations as paralegal in assisting urban poor, worker, and peasant cases.
Atty Noemi is currently the deputy executive director of Children’s League Bureau (CLB), a non-government organization based in Cebu City, Philippines, that envisions a just world for children by empowering communities and children for child protection. She had successfully implemented various projects on protection of children in child sex tourism, pornography and human trafficking, including the Laban Bata Program that provides developmental legal aid to abused and exploited children, as well as children in conflict with the law and children at risk. Noemi has experience both in litigation and policy advocacies from the local to the national level. She actively advocated for the national adoption of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, local child codes and other local ordinances for the protection of children. She served as an adviser at congressional hearings on raising the legal age for rape and as a member of the technical working Group on revising the law. She was also invited to participate as consultant in senate committee meetings on amending the Anti-Trafficking Act and passing the Anti-Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children Act (OSAEC).
In 2021, the Global Child Law Fellowship Program run by the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center began to support Ms. Atty and further promote her leading role in the development of the protection of minors in the Philippines. Recently, Ms. Atty was interviewed by us and shared with us how she entered the field of child protection as a lifelong career pursuit, the current situation and challenges of child protection in the Philippines, and the new features of child protection in the global pandemic. Ms. Atty also introduced the achievements in legislation and policy reform obtained by the Office under her leadership. She added that as the office celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, the knowledge and experience she has gained from the Center’s program will help her lead the office’s efforts to realize its plan to provide legal services to children nationwide. Here is the full text of the interview.
1. You have been working in the child protection field for over twenty years, as a lecturer, a lawyer, an agency founder, and now as deputy executive director and spokesperson for CLB. Can you share a story or two that will give us an idea of your initial thoughts and aspirations for entering the field and making it your long-term career path?
I have been a human rights lawyer even before joining the Children’s Legal Bureau in 2010. I was a student activist when I was in business school, and so I could not really imagine myself proceeding with a career path in business, knowing that eventually I will have to make decisions exploiting workers for profit. When I was in law school, my framework was already to help the marginalized sectors in whatever field. At that time, our country sides were heavily militarized and so I joined fact finding activities to expose human rights violations committed by the police and military. I was also volunteering for an NGO for labor while I was studying law, so I was quite exposed to several workers’ issues. It was not really far fetched for me then to become a human rights lawyer when I graduated in law school and passed the bar in 2001. I tried corporate lawyering for a short time, but my heart was not into it. I could not provide service to my corporate client that would deprive workers and farmers of their rights. I told myself never to use my legal skills to hurt the poor.
After my brief stint in corporate lawyers, I went into private practice in a law office. My boss was also a human rights lawyer, and I get to handle public interest cases. When an opportunity opened at CLB, I had no second thoughts. The Executive Director was my law school professor in Rights of the Child (this was the name of the subject), and I knew her to be a human rights lawyer too. CLB veered my career path in human rights lawyering to child rights advocacy and defense.
2. You are a highly leadership-oriented children’s law attorney, and valuing and developing attorney leadership is something that BCLAR has always focused on and promoted. How do you view lawyer leadership? What experience do you have to share in developing lawyers’ leadership ability?
I’m actually a very laid-back person. But when it comes to leading, my leadership style is always to rely in collective decision-making. I do not impose myself; I listen to the ideas of my colleagues. But I’m very decisive once a decision is reached, and very determined to have things done. I think my management background helped me develop into a leader, but my activism taught me never to be despotic. I have negative attitude towards autocracy. I was editor-in-chief of our college publication, Today’s Carolinian and in the College of Law, both in the University of San Carlos, and my experiences here helped shape me. When I was already with the CLB, I was coordinating projects against Child Sex Tourism and Travelling Sex Offenders, prosecuting these cases, as well as advocating for children’s laws, I get to use my skills both as management graduate and as lawyer, joggling time both as litigator and advocate for policies in various fronts. The whole time, I have to have personnel who have the same perspective as mine in child advocacy, so I encourage ideas and discussions a lot in my team.
3. What is the current state of child protection in the Philippines? What are the challenges? What are the new features of child protection work in the context of the global epidemic?
The Philippines, I think is ahead in terms of laws for the protection of children. We are very compliant to international agreements and conventions that we signed. For example, when we signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, two years later, we have the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act in 1992. Then we have the Anti-Human Trafficking in Persons Act in 2003, after the Palermo Protocols in 2000. In 2004, we have the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act and adopted the Anti-Child Pornography Act in 2009. And recently we have the Anti-Child Marriage Act, and most recently on March 11, 2022 our President signed another law on the Institution of Policy of Inclusion of Services for Learners with Disabilities in Support of Inclusive Education. We have a lot of laws, others I haven’t mentioned.
The challenge that we have is in the implementation of these laws. We have yet to train law enforcement and service providers to be child sensitive. And although we have a lot of government agencies protecting children, there is still less resource for child protection. We have shortage in facilities to care for children.
During the pandemic, reporting of cases of abuse of children dropped, in the same way reporting of abuse of women dropped. Due to pandemic restrictions, we fear that children are confined in the same home as their abusers, without any real remedy because our pandemic response was very harsh to the people. You can get arrested just wanting to report a case because you broke quarantine restrictions. With people also being forced to go online, in accessing almost everything – from food to education, child protection must also be veered towards protecting children in cyberspace. And I think, here in the Philippines, that is a challenge because we lack the technology and the resources to keep up with abusers of children in the web.
4. Which cases or types of cases have you represented that have contributed most to legislation or policy?
I cannot say if it’s particularly any case that I and my organization represent that contribute to improved legislation, but it is generally due to our advocacy together with other organizations that make these popular, and therefore got the attention of lawmakers. For example, I can claim the we were the first organization to prosecute a case of online child pornography way back in 2010 until eventually the issue became popular as “online sexual abuse and exploitation of children” in the succeeding years when our partner Terre des Hommes brought this matter to the European community. It was a case of children who were contacted online by white men (at that time), and were instructed to perform sexual acts in front of the web cam, in exchange they receive money sent through money transfer agencies. These children are recruited by their neighbors who are doing the same thing. After our case, many more cases were discovered in our province, and much later in some other places in the country, which made the Philippines the so-called hub of this kind of exploitation of children. Because of this kind of attention, Congress took notice and had recently passed laws to improve our Anti-Trafficking in Persons law, as well as craft a separate law to protect children from online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.
This is not a single-handed victory, but I think we did have significant contribution when we started prosecuting these cases. Aside of course from the fact that in Congress, we became part of the Technical Working Group for the crafting of these laws as representatives of civil society organizations.
5. CLB was founded based on the urgent need for a specialized legal organization for child protection in Cebu City, Philippines, and has made a significant contribution to child protection in Cebu, both locally and nationally, since its establishment. How many legal professional social organizations like CLB are there in the Philippines? What have been your successes in training dedicated pro bono lawyers and encouraging more lawyers to get involved in child protection work?
There are a lot of pro bono lawyers groups actually that cater to various marginalized sectors here in the Philippines, but there are not a lot of legal organizations that provide legal assistance specifically to children on different issues – both children in conflict with the law and abused children. In Cebu, we are the only organization that provide such service. We are proud that the lawyers that have become part of the Children’s Legal Bureau are also children’s advocates. It’s basically an on-the-job training for these advocate lawyers. We tap them if we need them as resource persons. We have lawyers who have become government prosecutors and judges. On March 11, 2022, we had our Five-Pillar Dialogue where we invited officers of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Cebu City Chapter, and we have agreed to have commonly sponsored activities to continue with these dialogues for child protection. With our partnership with the IBP, we hope to expand more child advocates among lawyers in Cebu City. We can tap into their legal aid system so we can serve more children.
6. You have participated in the Global Child Law Fellowship Program organized by BCLARC. Through your participation and cooperation, in what ways do you think the Center has influenced and changed your work?
I learned a lot from my colleagues every session, as they share experiences on child protection. Perhaps one thing that will change in the way we provide service to children is to involve more lawyers to the advocacy because we are also too focused on other actors, and we leave it to ourselves to undertake the defense of children. We have excellent networking with government and civil society organizations as may be seen with our performance reports. It is now a good time to learn to organize and involve other lawyers in our passion to serve the children.
CLB can definitely learn from BCLARC how it managed to mobilize pro bono lawyers towards providing these legal services to minors. It is something that have to institutionalize within the organization as we plan to expand the scope of our reach from Cebu island to the entire country. We are an archipelagic country, so geography is one challenge that we have to hurdle.
7. What are your suggestions and expectations for future exchanges and cooperation after the end of the Global Child Law Fellowship Program?
Learning never ends, especially from colleagues from other parts of the globe. And it amazes me how our experiences in child advocacy can be so similar that I wish to learn more. I hope there will be more interactions and learning activities beyond this year’s sessions. We can have international conferences on issues that matter to all of us. We can have exposure learnings from best practitioners on organizing lawyers to lead them towards an advocacy and passion towards child protection. My vision for CLB is to be able to expand and serve more children in the country through its various programs that tap more lawyers. On its 25th anniversary this year, CLB can definitely can gain a lot from my learnings in this project.
(By Li Ping)