child trafficking in PH

[OPINION] The child no one looked for

Irene Sarmiento

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[OPINION] The child no one looked for

David Castuciano/Rappler

'My mother passed by and asked Tara where Dotty was. Barely looking up, Tara answered that Dotty had been sold by her father.'
Sidewalk chalk

I opened the cardboard box and found four chunky tubes in muted shades of blue, red, yellow, and green. The colors, once scraped gingerly upon the cement, became bright under the sun, highlighting underlying metallic particles embedded in our driveway. When I was about 7 or 8, the sidewalk chalk my mother had given me was special. The other kids on my block used flimsy sticks that fractured practically the moment they touched the pavement. 

My neighbors, “Tara” and “Dotty,” came over to play one morning. Tara, who was around my age, made a comment about how many toys I had, while Dotty, who looked two years my junior, remained quiet. I showed off my unbreakable sidewalk chalk, as we squatted outside and drew little figures on the ground. Tara asked me if she could borrow them “overnight.” I trusted her and figured that lending her something presented a good reason for her to come back and visit.   

Tara and Dotty did not return the next day, nor the day after that. After several weeks, I had forgotten about the chalk and moved on to newer toys. One afternoon, Tara appeared at our gate with a plastic bag containing bits of white chalk. It looked as though she had gone to different classrooms collecting the remnants teachers had left under their blackboards. I accepted her offering and invited her inside to play.    

My mother passed by and asked Tara where Dotty was. Barely looking up, Tara answered that Dotty had been sold by her father. 

I heard what had happened to Dotty — binenta siya ng tatay niya — but did not process the meaning until much later. It was as though Tara had spoken to my mom in an unknown language; she had said something adult and I was, at that moment, still hung up on why she had not kept her word about giving back my chalk. After that, she stopped coming by the house.

Sex tourists  

Context for the sidewalk chalk incident began to form when I was about 14. A relative was talking about her friend who would patronize a brothel where he could have sex with minors. I suddenly felt my eyes well up. At seeing my reaction, the relative said flippantly, “He thinks if it’s with girls your age, he won’t catch any STDs. He doesn’t get that everyone else who goes there has the same idea.”

A year later, on a family reunion to Boracay, I went out to a restaurant-slash-bar with my cousins. I felt cute in my spaghetti-strapped top and exhilarated by the idea of not being accompanied by parents, titos, or titas. The place was packed with revelers. I found somewhere to sit while my cousins were at the bar. A young local woman tapped my arm and asked me to get up, pointing to a middle-aged white guy next to her. “That’s his seat,” she said. The man touched my shoulder and told me to stay. I nodded, but instead of removing his hand, he stroked my exposed back before walking away with his companion. 

I saw this man again in other iterations when I went to college in Manila, not far from the red-light district. He strolled with an air of “I don’t give a fuck,” accompanied by a girl half his age. He argued loudly with sales clerks and taxi drivers. He stumbled out of one of the many seedy karaoke bars lining the side streets. My friends and I never acknowledged the “for-ranger.” We didn’t want him looking at us either, not that he cared about what girls like us thought of him. 

Girls, but not like us

In my 20s, an ex had talked about going to strip clubs. He admitted that a club he used to frequent had been raided once. The youngest girl they found there was 11, and it wasn’t uncommon for girls around 16 to entertain him and his friends. I believed him when he said strip clubs were only a part of his past — a past he had learned from, a past he deserved to live down. 

My ex told me that in any case, going to strip clubs “isn’t really about the girls, but male bonding.” To his point, the Hangover films, which were big at that time, were mainly about the wolf pack’s shenanigans. In the sequel set in Thailand, the brown-girls-with-straight-black-hair were part of the set design, though still crucial for punchlines involving trans people and ping-pong balls.

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Blonde kids

When I worked in Texas, close to the Mexican border, a co-worker told me about how he used to worry that his children stood out. He would pick them up at school and immediately see their golden heads shining in a small sea of dark hair, since the town’s population was mostly Hispanic. He was so sure that any trafficker who saw his kids would try to smuggle them into Mexico. Of course, his underlying line of thought was that his white children were just so obviously more precious than the brown ones. 

It struck a nerve. Because I had seen the real ways in which such exploitation occurs. I had witnessed it play out in my post-colonized home country. Research suggests that my co-worker’s notion of superiority is the very thing that provides white children like his with more protection against human trafficking compared to children from marginalized communities.

According to the United Nations, aside from being gendered, human trafficking is linked to racist ideologies. The US Department of State has also released a document, stating that such biases “were created as a way to dehumanize certain racial communities to justify their exploitation and exclusion, and to hinder progress in anti-trafficking efforts because they lead to racially disparate assumptions about who is a trafficker and who should have access to victim protection and services.”

Looking back, I’d like to think that by being “sold,” Dotty was actually taken in by loving parents, even though global data indicates that illegal adoption occurs in only 0.3% of trafficking cases. The overwhelming majority of trafficked people are forced into labor and sexual exploitation. Whatever happened, I hope that Dotty grew up okay and has lived down her past.  

I am still haunted by stories like Dotty’s, but more so by the world’s indifference to them. I wrote Stray Cats, a young adult novel about the heroism of girls in the face of exploitation, to shed light on the issue. In it, the protagonist traverses immense danger to find her missing friend. The book is my attempt at finding answers, knowing that the real search takes a greater collective effort. 

It has been over 30 years since Tara, Dotty, and I played together. I have a new life in a distant country.  When I am not writing, I provide occupational therapy to children in their homes. I sometimes see chunky tubes of sidewalk chalk — next to abandoned doodles on suburban driveways, strewn across the steps front porches, sold by the bucket in discount bins — and I remember an innocent age when I thought these were special. –

Irene Carolina Sarmiento is the author of three books – Spinning and Tabon Girl, both published by Anvil, and Stray Cats, published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. Her stories have won awards from The Palanca Memorial Foundation, Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, and Stories to Change the World.  She is an occupational therapist with a master’s degree in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience.

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