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They were groomed, abused, and sold online. Now the children tell their story.
Story by Patricia Evangelista
Photos by Carlo Gabuco
Rappler’s Stolen tells the stories of survivors of sexual violence against children, written from the perspective of the children themselves.
In this first of a series, Rappler focuses on survivors of online child sexual exploitation. It is a hidden, underreported crime, made easier by predators needing little more than an internet connection to exploit minors in vulnerable communities.
The young women in the stories below have survived years of abuse and trauma. They call themselves advocates and refuse to define themselves as victims.
They speak in the hope that by telling their stories, fewer children across the country will be forced to endure what they had to go through.
You’ve always been ugly. You know this, and you’re sure everyone else does too. No boy will hold your hand in school. No classmate will play with you at recess. You hear them laugh as you walk past: ugly Cassie, skinny Cassie, Cassie with the kinky-curly hair and dark, dark skin. You believe them, even if your family is so poor you’ve never seen yourself in a mirror.
But ugly is all right when Mama and Papa tell you they love you. Ugly is fine when you’re 12 years old with big dreams. You’re going to be rich, you tell yourself. You’re going to be the daughter who comes home to build a big house for the family. You study hard. You dig in the rubbish and sell the plastic bottles to scavengers. But you always hear the snickering. You’re never allowed to forget you’re ugly.
It’s why you’re so happy the day the man walks up to you to tell you how pretty you are.
His name is Rodney. Everyone in your village knows Rodney. His cousin introduces you. His grandparents are your neighbors. He speaks well, and his clothes are nice, and he does well for himself in the big city. He tells you stories, and you listen, wide-eyed. He says he knows girls like you, smart girls, pretty girls, girls from the mountains who take his hand and follow him to live wonderful lives.
Would you like to go with him? Would you like to go to school?
Yes, you tell him. Yes, please.
He speaks to your parents. Neither of them have had much schooling, but they believe Rodney when he asks to take you away. They’re proud that their Cassie, their eleventh child, will have the chance they never had.
All the time Rodney calls you pretty. He says you’re the sort of pretty that foreigners like. You don’t understand what he means. You’re happy just to be called pretty.
So off you go. You clamber up the jeep. You wave goodbye. You ride off to the pier and hop into the big boat. Everything is a surprise: the sea, the food, the air conditioning, the chirping of mobile phones, the sprawling city that you see through the smudged glass of your first taxi window. Even Rodney’s house is a wonder – there are electric fans and lights, and best of all, a television.
Rodney doesn’t let you out of the house that first summer. He takes good care of you. He cooks dinner. He gives you vitamins. He scrubs a paste of sugar and honey over your arms and legs and belly to even out your skin. He conditions the kinks out of your hair with avocado and mayonnaise three times a week. He teaches you how to speak. He shows you how to eat. He tells you how to dress. He is tireless: has you walk, back and forth, books on your head, until you learn to step straight like a proper lady.
When you are ready, he buys you notebooks and pens and shiny shoes then sends you off to school.
You can’t believe your luck. Here you are, the ugly girl, all prettied up with a new father and a new life. You love Rodney. You respect him. And if Rodney asks you, one day, to meet his friends over the computer, of course you have no trouble agreeing.
You wave at them. You say hello. Some of them are young, some of them old. Most of them are white men.
That’s when it begins.
Rodney’s friends give the orders. Rodney, strip her. Rodney, touch her. Rodney, take her picture. You cry the first time you take off your clothes.
Rodney tells you he’s doing it all for you. You are naked in front of the camera and in the pictures he takes of you. You’re too young to know what sex is. You don’t understand why Rodney is forcing himself inside your pussy, only that it hurts.
It is from Rodney that you learn the words. Fuck. Dick. Pussy.
It happens again and again. You try not to struggle, because he beats you, whips you with a belt, makes you kneel in salt, knocks you around in the shower whenever you so much as step away. You try to please him, and all the time the eyes follow you, all those pale men on the computer screen, staring and shuddering while the pain goes on and on.
You don’t understand what the men are saying, only that it is best to smile and pretend it’s you and not Rodney typing on the keyboard.
He puts your picture on a dating website. He brings you to the gym so you can keep your body tight and lean. He makes you watch porn, and tells you to remember what you see so you can do it again.
Then he brings in men. They are his friends, Rodney says. They come from all over the world.
Make them happy, he tells you.
You let them fuck you. You’re not allowed to refuse. Sometimes, Rodney joins in. He calls it a three-in-one.
You stop counting. You stop crying. You tell yourself it’s all right. This is the life you are meant to have. You go to school. You join the cheer dancing team and the Girl Scouts and raise your hand in class. You have friends now. You have teachers. You’re never hungry. You tell no one what’s happening.
One year rolls into the next. Rodney appears at the school gates with your lunch, every day, and strips you down in front of a computer at night.
More girls come to live with Rodney, some younger than you, some older. And then you meet Ina.
You live down the street from Rodney, with your mother and stepfather. You’re outside on the stoop when Rodney walks up to you. He tells you you’re pretty. You don’t care. You’re twelve years old, going on thirteen. Pretty doesn’t matter. All you want to do is play.
Then Rodney tells you that if you go live him, he’ll take care of you. Not just you, but your whole family. That he would give you a job. That he would send you to private school. That your whole family will be taken care of.
Your Mama refuses at first. Rodney works on her. He comes by, tells her stories, sends her clothes. Your stepfather doesn’t want you to go. He makes good money driving his jeep, he says. There’s always enough to eat. He says the money doesn’t matter.
It is Mama who finally gives in.
All right, she tells you. Whatever makes you happy.
So off you go to Rodney’s house. There are other girls there. And Rodney, always Rodney, with his nice new clothes and avocado shampoo and honey-sugar bleach.
Call me Papa, Rodney tells you, and you do.
He brings you to the room with the chair and the computer. Say hello to the camera, Rodney tells you, and you do. In the beginning it’s just hello.
It’s later when he pulls at the neckline of your shirt.
No, Papa, you say.
Your clothes are disappearing, shirt, shorts, panties, all gone, and Rodney saying, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
You begin to cry. He reaches for a towel, lays you over it, lowers the camera, tries to shove himself inside you. All the time there are men watching through the lens.
Too tight, Rodney says, it’s taking too long.
You’re crying and crying. You don’t know what a virgin is. You don’t know what’s happening. He’s pushing and failing, pushing and grunting. He rubs something slippery between your legs, and then everything explodes into pain.
There now, he says. You’re not a virgin anymore. He hands you P300, and you go to the bathroom to cry.
When you see Mama, you’re careful to lie. You tell her you’re on a diet when she asks why you’re so skinny. You get meaner, sharper, because you know Mama has a temper. You know she’ll take a knife to Rodney if she finds out what he’s been doing. You’re scared for her, and for Rodney.
Rodney fucks you when Cassie is in school. You don’t go to school. You’re there, every day, in front of the camera. There are always foreigners, through the camera, giving orders. Fuck her, strip her, use her. He takes out odd toys, he takes picture after picture, and all the time you follow orders.
Anything he says, you do. He is Papa and you love him. He is Papa and whatever he does is good for you. You don’t want to make him angry. You don’t want to make him sad.
There are rules for living with Rodney. You learn the rules, and you learn them fast.
You learn to come running when Rodney calls your name. You learn to ask permission every time you leave the house. You learn never to cry in front of the camera, because Rodney’s palm flies out faster than your tears. You learn to totter in the towering high heels Rodney buys you. You learn to like the short tight dresses and the bikinis and pile on the big shell necklaces Rodney brings you. You learn never to cut your hair, because Rodney likes it long.
You’re ready with a smile every time Rodney’s foreign friends come visiting. You take the pills Rodney gives you, every day, because Rodney doesn’t want you pregnant. You are fucked hard and often, a different man in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. You are told that a period is no excuse. You fuck with your own blood sticky between your legs, and some of the men tell you it turns them on.
You learn to get used to the pain – the sting every time you piss, the rip every time you shit, the cramp in your belly and down in your gut.
You learn that to be Rodney’s daughter – and that’s what he calls you – you have to be loyal and respectful. You learn to give the money to Rodney the few times his friends give you the money first. You learn never to refuse sex, even if the foreigners don’t mind, because they’ll tell Rodney and the beating you’ll get will be worse than the fucking.
Here we go again, you think.
Sometimes, when there is a heaving, pumping man sweating over you, you think of your family back home. And you let yourself dream.
Rodney takes you along on a visit to his hometown. It’s where Cassie is from.
He shows you off and tells everyone you’re his adopted daughter. What a nice man Rodney is, the neighbors tell each other. They treat him like a senator. They treat him like a prince. Even the local cops treat him well. It’s a chorus: what a nice man Rodney is.
You never talk about what’s happening. You know it’s happening to Cassie. You know it’s happening to the other girls. Everyone is quiet. There are many girls now, five years old, six. You’re there when the one-year-old arrives, left with Rodney like a gift. You call her Baby. Rodney bathes her naked in front of the cameras. You try not to watch.
You leave, just once, because Mama is beginning to suspect, and demands you come home. You move to another city, but you come back when Rodney asks.
You can’t help it. You love your Papa.
Rodney fucks you in a small room. It’s where he works, with the computer and the chair and the towel and the tiny Nikon digital camera. Sometimes the foreigners come in person, but it’s mostly Cassie that Rodney sends them. You’re the girl in front of the camera with Rodney pumping away on top of you.
You’re never told why you do what you do, only that it pleases Rodney. You don’t think of escape. You don’t think at all.
One day, after you turn 15, he takes you to a big hotel. You’ve been with Rodney three years. You are in a plush room. Rodney is talking. The foreigners are talking. All of a sudden there is a gun aimed at one of the foreigners.
Cops fill the room, crowding in from a back door. They surround Rodney.
Papa, you scream. Papa, save me.
You try to run to him, but there are too many people. You call for him and call for him but he never comes.
You don’t cry when the social worker takes you away. She tells you that you’re a victim. She tells you it is a raid. She tells you Rodney is in custody.
You listen, but you hear little of it. You worry about Rodney, your Papa, dragged off by the cops, all alone away from you.
You’re seventeen years old, on your fifth year with Rodney. It’s a Saturday, and he isn’t home. You know he’s in a hotel, with Ina, meeting his white friends again.
You crawl into bed early. You don’t know anything when you wake up to shouting at two in the morning. The cops spread throughout the house full of crying, screaming, weeping women. They take everyone, then hand you off to a social worker.
It’s at the police station that you’re told everything. That you had been a victim of trafficking. That you had been abused. That everthing that had happened in the last five years was against the law. They tell you charges will be filed.
The understanding comes with a jolt. It’s over. On the same night, you accept that you’re safe. You cry and you laugh. You eat the doughnut they give you. You jump to your feet and dance.
You move to a new home, where there are swings under the trees, flowers in the garden, and a bathroom stall you can lock. There are other girls living with you. They have gone through what you have, some of them worse. You’re surprised you are not alone. You have a therapist and teachers. You’re told, again and again, that you are not at fault.
You’re allowed to choose your clothes. You’re allowed to make friends. You’re allowed to cut your hair. You watch yourself in the mirror as the scissors snip and hank after hank falls to the ground. You think, Rodney won’t like this, and you smile.
It is months before you see Rodney again. When you do, it’s in court, and your short hair makes you braver.
You step up to the witness box and turn your back. You testify without looking Rodney in the eye.
You don’t want to look at him. You are afraid, if you turn your head, he will make you love him again.
You see him in court wearing his prison clothes. You see him with his wrists cuffed. You decide to lie in your testimony and tell everyone what a nice man Rodney is – that it’s all made up.
You don’t want to hurt Rodney. You don’t want him in jail. You don’t want him bound and sad and looking like a prisoner.
You are told by the social workers that if you lie, it will help Rodney get out. It means he can hurt more girls. It means what happened to you and Cassie and Baby could happen to so many others.
So you make a decision, even if it hurts, and even if you love him. On the witness stand, the lawyers ask you what happened. You tell them about the abuse. You tell them about the cameras and the sex toys and the many men who stared at you naked through a camera lens.
On the day he is sentenced, you are proud you told the truth.
It takes a year to understand that Rodney didn’t deserve to be loved. You are sad for him, but you want justice. You are not like Cassie, gleeful at your freedom. At night you dream Rodney is raping you, hurting you, his big eyes staring at you the way they always did. When you see men looking at you, you skitter back, terrified. All men are maniacs, you think. All men are bad. You talk about it, work through it.
Now you tell your story, because maybe it’ll help all the other girls.
You’re safe now, with Cassie and Baby. Some days you go to court. Some days, you sit in the garden, with Baby on your lap. It’s you who takes over the care of Baby. She doesn’t remember who Rodney is.
You want Baby to grow up brave. You want Baby to look at a man and say no if she wants to. You want her to be strong, like you are now.
Your Mama and Papa are heartbroken when they are told what happened. You tell them to forgive, as you have. You haven’t gone home yet, but you might, someday.
You tell all the other girls that you’re not just a victim; you’re a survivor, an advocate, a storyteller. You tell them that life happens, and then you survive. Your dreams are bigger because of it.
Here’s what you dream of. You dream of airplanes, arcing over the cities, and you inside wearing a stewardess’ uniform with your short hair brushed neat. You dream of a house, big and sprawling and built of fine, sturdy wood, sitting along the coastline where you can smell the sea from an open window. You dream of a family, and maybe a man who understands what it means to survive, a tall man with kind eyes who will share your faith, ride with you in airplanes and follow in your steps as you dance. You dream of children, many of them, one after another like the steps of a stair. You will be a strong mother. You’ll protect them the way you weren’t. When the time is right, you’ll tell them your story. And on the day a child of yours calls herself ugly, you’ll tell her what you learned: that pretty is on the inside, and it shows in how you live.
Some days, you look in the mirror. You talk to the girl in the reflection. And once in a while, when you look closely, you smile and tell her how beautiful she is.
Ina and Cassie (not their real names) now both live in an aftercare shelter among many other survivors of sexual violence against children. Rodney (also not his real name) was arrested and charged with multiple counts of human trafficking, cybercrime and rape. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
It is estimated that at least 1.2 million children globally are being trafficked each year. The International Labor Organization approximates 60,000 to 100,000 children are involved in prostitution rings in the Philippines. According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, the country is an international hub for prostitution and commercial sex tourism.
In this first feature for the Stolen series, Rappler looks into online child sexual exploitation (OCSE). OCSE covers a range of violations committed on children online, among them live-streamed child sexual exploitation defined by ECPAT International as “the participation of a child – by definition, under coercion – in sexual activities that are transmitted live on the internet for potential viewing by hundreds, thousands or millions of people remotely.”
In spite of the government’s success in maintaining a “serious and sustained” effort against trafficking, Unicef or the United Nations Children’s Fund calls the Philippines “the global epicenter of the live-stream sexual abuse trade,” with many of the victims children.
While the actual numbers of victims are unknown, international children’s charity Terre des Hommes (TdH) estimated that tens of thousands of children in the Philippines alone are victims of OCSE. In 2013, TdH conducted a study with researchers posing as a prepubescent Filipino girl in 19 chat rooms. It resulted in a total of 20,172 adults from 71 countries soliciting sex in a span of ten weeks.
A number of factors contribute to OCSE’s prevalence in the Philippines, among them, poverty, unemployment, affordable internet access, proficiency in the English language, as well as a “culture of ‘family first’ which promotes unquestioning loyalty to the needs of the family over one’s own welfare.”
Visayan Forum Foundation, a non-governmental organization offering psychosocial intervention, shelter, and support to victims of human trafficking, has serviced 47 OCSE cases since 2016. The victims range in age, with some as young as a year old. According to Executive Director Cecilia Oebanda, because traffickers groom victims to believe abuse is acceptable, it sometimes takes years for survivors to tell the entire story. NGOs and local law enforcement agencies agree that while OCSE may not always involve physical sexual abuse, the long-term effects on the victims are just as serious.
In 2015, in the aftermath of stricter legislation, an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division was formed under the Philippine National Police’s Women’s and Children’s Protection Center. According to division chief Senior Superintendent Villamor Tuliao, “from then on, we had operation after operation against human trafficking, and people had more awareness because we had more convictions.”
The International Justice Mission said it has assisted Philippine law enforcement in the arrest of more than 100 perpetrators of OCSE and the rescue of more than 300 victims. Thirty-five have been convicted.
Because of the sensitivity of the issue and existing laws that protect the identities of both victim and accused, the names of all individuals in this story have been changed. Locations and other identifying details have been withheld also for their protection and privacy.
To report cases of human trafficking, contact the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking action line at 1343. – Rappler.com