MANILA, Philippines - “I thought it was just only me, but I found out that 3 of my younger sisters were also doing the same,” lamented 14-year-old Andrea (not her real name), one of the prostituted girls from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.
Andrea is the middle child among 9 children. The 3 youngest siblings are girls aged 13, 11, and 8, respectively. Her father is a pedicab (motorcycle) driver while her mother is a full-time housewife. Their mother has been sickly, and many times, she misses out on her medication.
“I worry about my Mama a lot,” said Andrea. “She’s trying to be strong to endure the pain.”
The family lives in one of the slums in Cagayan de Oro City. The children had to stop schooling because of poverty. Their parents could not afford to send them all to school. Andrea could not count the times when they slept on empty stomachs.
“I was not totally sad when I left school because I felt the urge to look for money,” Andrea said.
Desperate way to earn
A neighbor friend, the same age with Andrea, approached her with an offer.
“My friend asked me if I’m willing to sell my virginity because it’s [worth a] high price and it would help the family,” explains Andrea. “I didn’t want to do it but that’s the only way to earn money.”
Out of desperation, Andrea agreed to the offer. She wanted to buy medicines for her mother and food for her siblings.
Andrea remembered that her first was with an older man, maybe about 40 years old. “I was paralyzed with fear. He was a big bloke. I bled,” said Andrea.
Since then, Andrea was out on the streets every night. She went up to the cars or motorbikes to talk to the clients and do the bargaining. She always kept the money.
Normally, Andrea’s [clients] offered an average of P1,000 ($22) for sex. “Wow, I couldn’t believe it at first. The money was more than what I needed,” she recalled.
Girls for sale
She could earn an average of P1,500 ($32) a week and for her, it’s already a lot.
“I buy rice and food for my siblings. The extra money will be for the medicines of my mother,” she added.
Andrea said that she could only do it once or twice per week. “Some of my friends – almost the same age as mine, can do it almost every night. I never liked it. It felt dirty,” she added.
Andrea couldn’t cut off emotionally while doing it so she started using solvent to block down the pain. She felt a deep sense of shame and it was paralyzing her.
“The solvent was a sweet escape. Sometimes, I dream that I was in heaven,” she added.
Andrea said she never dreamt of having a better life. “I thought I’d get stuck with this. I thought my life would be in prostitution forever,” said Andrea.
Andrea found out that 3 of her younger siblings – Alissa, 13, Ariana, 11, and Alona, 8 (not their real names) – had started [selling their virginity] on the streets. They also indulged in solvent.
“I tried to stop them but they won’t listen to me,” said Andrea. “They said they need the money to survive.”
Andrea said her parents got hooked to drugs and did not do anything to protect them.
“My father is apathetic and my mother is sickly now. Sometimes, I feel bad because I feel that they don't care for us anymore. Our family is hopeless,” said Andrea.
Andrea and her siblings are just few of the millions of children who are vicrims of sexual exploitation and child labor. Human trafficking – the use of fraud, force, or coercion to exploit a person for profit – is modern-day slavery, and it occurs globally.
According to reports from the Philippine National Police (PNP), Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental belong to the top provinces in Northern Mindanao with high incidence of trafficking. Approximately 40% of those who are trafficked are children.
According to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the number of sexually exploited children has fluctuated over the years. In 2015, 35% of these children were under 14.
Andrea met a group who reaches out to girls who are trafficked or sexually exploited. World Vision, in partnership with a local organization called Tisaka, holistically ministers to women and children involved in commercial sexual exploitation.
“Through Tisaka, they invite women and girls to a shelter, provide them education and training, and even accompany them to social hygiene check-ups and orientations,” said Connie Quebada, World Vision project officer of the Teaching Health and Resilience to Children through Inclusive Values and Empowerment (THRIVE) project.
Andrea brought her sisters at a shelter for sexually trafficked girls called “Belen”, a temporary shelter for sexually abused girls that is being ran by the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro. For two weeks, they went through a series of counseling including psychosocial and spiritual support.
“We felt cared and loved,” said Andrea. “But sometimes, I think of my mother’s health. How can I buy her medicines now?”
Finding a home
Few weeks later, the girls were referred to Malissa Home Incorporated, a partner agency of World Vision through (THRIVE) project, to undergo in-depth counseling, medical, and psychosocial care. It went through a legal process with the support from DSWD. Her parents signed a waiver agreeing to entrust the girls to these groups.
“In case of neglect, abuse, or abandonment, children are placed under the care of DSWD and other licensed caring institution for care or adoption,” adds Quebada. In this case, their parents are incapable of supporting the girls.
Andrea and her siblings finally found a home. All of their needs are now being provided – counseling, shelter, education, healthcare, food, and clothes.
They are also able to develop their talents in music, dancing, and the arts. Children are also taught how to cook, budget, and do household chores.
“I’m glad that other people came in to rescue us," Andrea said. "I wish that my sisters and I will have a better life ahead." – Rappler.com
Crislyn Felisilda is field communications officer for World Vision.