The Sale of Women and Children in the Philippines, and the Continuum of Violence

Clydie Pasia

Let me start my presentation by remembering my sisters and brothers in the Philippines who died when Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever recorded, struck the country on November 8, 2013 killing more than 6,000 people. It has been two years and people are still recovering from trauma, still grappling for survival.

Other typhoons that hit the Philippines may not have claimed thousands of lives like typhoon Haiyan did, but they, too, harmed and displaced our people. And they are becoming more frequent due to climate crisis.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP) – is greatly alarmed by these recurring phenomena, given that the Philippines ranks as the second most disaster-prone country next to Vanuatu. Orphaned children, loss of livelihood especially of agricultural crops, threatened food security, and deepening indebtedness due to the typhoons are some of the red flags of trafficking. Profiteers take advantage of the people's, especially women and children's, vulnerability.

Now, weeks after Typhoon Koppu hit us, it is feared that more women and girls in Central Luzon will be vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution. The proximity of the provinces hit by Koppu to trafficking destinations such as Angeles and Olongapo (where US military forces still dock to rest and buy women as a form of ‘recreation’ while they refuel ships), the destruction of crops and loss of food and income sources could push women and children to exchange themselves for rice, or any promise from the traffickers. 

What I’ve mentioned are just a few contributing factors to trafficking and to prostitution which is the focus of our organisation. The Coalition believes that we should address the problem of trafficking of women and children by directing our solutions and programmes to the root cause of all these: Patriarchy which is a concrete form of power imbalance or unequal power relations.

The Philippine Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, languished in our parliament for more than 10 years before it was passed in 2003. It was modelled after the UN Trafficking Protocol of 2000. CATW-AP was in the forefront of the lobby for both. A most essential element of both is the recognition that consent of a victim of trafficking in persons is irrelevant and immaterial.

In the Philippines, we are often in argument with law enforcers and groups who lobby for the legalization of prostitution. Because both maintain that women chose to be in prostitution, ignoring the structural inequalities, push and pull factors that left trafficked and prostituted women bereft of options.

From the case studies filed by Bagong Kamalayan (New Consciousness) Collective, Inc. (BKCI), a survivor-led group, almost 80% of their members started young.

They spent their childhood in prostitution dens and their innocence has been robbed from them. Those who became domestic workers or waitresses were also abused. They were young and had no one to turn to. And now, they have become adults and they are still trapped in prostitution. Profiteers want to popularize the thinking that these women ‘chose’ to be in that situation without recognizing women and children’s vulnerabilities in society and examining the circumstances and elements that push them into prostitution.

The legalization of prostitution and calling it ‘sex work’ has become popular, but should be resisted. There are powerful 'hands’ investing in that campaign, most of which are brothel owners and pimps themselves. The 1949 Convention stated that “prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community…” This is very clear and true when we talk to survivors. 

To have a clearer picture, the framework of Supply and Demand in Economics can be used. Trafficking in Persons ensures the steady supply of women and children to the prostitution industry. Because there is constant demand -- coming from buyers or procurers, pimps and the business who traffic to benefit from the sexual exploitation of women and children. The supply are the bought, the victims and survivors. There is a continuum of violence that these women and girls have experienced that made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The intersectionality of issues of women is always a push factor like the socio-economic, political, cultural, racial factors and other circumstances that have happened to them.

The profile of the victims are almost similar. Aside from being either a woman or a child, victims come from poor and big families with dependents. With the massive contractualization of jobs in the Philippines, clearly there is no job security.

Carla, who was trafficked to Taiwan told us that she was promised to be a caregiver. She went abroad because her job contracts only last for 3 months. She got tired of re-applying every quarter for a job that never sufficed for the family’s daily needs. When the recruiter promised a higher salary, she grabbed the offer. Carla and her family took the only chance they can get to survive. She ended up in slavery condition, serving two employers with two different houses and a clinic. She was not being fed well, started the day at 4am and ended at 11pm to 2am. Worse, her male employer attempted to rape her and locked her inside the house.

The shocking reality for me is that 95% of those we have sheltered, are victims of incest rape, childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. At a very young age, the idea a child had about love was distorted by those who perpetrated violence against them. One of the survivors whom we’ve helped recounted that her stepfather was always telling her that he loved her while raping her. She sought for help but the poor child was accused by relatives of seducing her stepfather. In the absence of support system that she needed, she became an easy prey for a trafficker. She was brought to Metro Manila and was pimped to customers. She said what was done to her while in prostitution by customers did not differ to what her stepfather did to her except that she was given money. Without hesitation, she told us straight in the eye that prostitution is paid rape. A very powerful message coming from a survivor.

With the strong desire to get out of the trafficking situation, women would be investing too much and get attached with most customers hoping that there will be one man who will get them out of the system. This fairy tale syndrome is very dangerous. Women will again believe in love. Yes it happens that customers will ‘save’ them from their pimp but it does not mean that they will be free from violence. Their partners knowing their story will use them sexually anytime they want and when they refuse, violence will be inflicted upon them. Some will realise that it was not really love and will get out of the situation. But the sad truth is that with the cycle of violence that women have experienced since childhood, it has become ‘normal’ for them. They were desensitised and most can no longer identify if what’s being done to them is abuse or not. They learned to accept everything and the culture of silence is reinforced. 

The demand for trafficked women and girls has become younger and younger. Records of survivor groups BKCI and Buklod ng Kababaihan in Olongapo reveals that the age of those being bought and sold ranges from 13-30 years of age. Meanwhile, Lawig Bubai in Davao has rescued a nine year old girl from a prostitution den.

CATW-AP’s advocacy to address forms of modern-day slavery seeks to focus on the demand side and shift the accountability to those actors exploiting women. According to UNICRI, global trafficking is a billion dollar industry. Undeniably, there is correlation between pornography, trafficking and prostitution. Pornography and Cybersex industry feeds the exploitative system. The brothel owners, pimps, managers earn from the system while women continue to lose, as they are forced to use drugs, their bodies are mutilated, etc.

Male sex buyers create a market that generates a strong profit incentive for traffickers to trap more victims, fuelling the growth of trafficking in persons. The prevailing view on sexuality that “real men” have the power to buy women and children and that women’s bodies are mere objects, is at the core of the problem.

Our framework is that Prostitution is Violence Against Women, it is not work and should not be legalized. Understanding violence against women and its forms is very crucial to  young women and girls. It starts within the family and we have to challenge the conditioning of media that women are sex objects.

When I conduct trainings to survivors or in healing conversations with them, it is really heartbreaking that what they’re mending are wounds from their childhood. Deep wounds from the different abuses that they have experienced like sexual abuse (incest), physical and psychological violence.

CATW-AP campaigns for the harmonization of laws regionally and for the replication of our model projects. Projecting survivors’ voices is one of our advocacy especially in lobbying for laws. The survivors have been calling for the accountability of the sex industry’s profiteers and the buyers and for the decriminalisation only of the women and children who are bought and sold.

The solution should start from the community level and preventing it from the source areas. CATW-AP organized the Community-based Pimp Watch in 2003 as a result of our nationwide research on the problem of sex trafficking. The project was established where the highest number of trafficked women and children were found. It is a quick response team which is composed of local village officials. They underwent a series of education and training activities to prepare them on the mission to prevent trafficking of women and children as well as to provide preliminary response to survivors.

The advocacy on demand is one of the popular groundbreaking projects of CATW-AP which was replicated in Thailand, Indonesia, India and was presented to Norway and other countries. The project gathers young men leaders from the community and universities in a camp where they were trained on gender issues, sexuality and prostitution. It was very affective and it changes the mindset of the men while rethinking their masculinity. It challenges norms and our culture, breaking the stereotypes. The men after the training vow not to contribute to violence against women and not to buy women in prostitution.

The young men’s camp which started in 2004 was followed by the young women’s camp in 2007 which I participated in. Its objective was to reduce the vulnerability of young women and it was truly an eye opener for me. It made me break the glass ceiling and continue achieving my dreams and begun to love myself. It was really empowering. From our documentation, more or less 30% of the women participants in each camp are survivors of violence and have never talked to anyone about their experience. The camp provided the venue for the women to support each other.

In 2009, the graduates of the youth camps gathered and formed a national organisation named the Youth and Students Advancing Gender Equality (YSAGE).

There are also programs for the empowerment of survivors. CATW-AP assist them from rescue to trafficking situations or from arrests, legal and medical assistance and temporary shelter. Healing conversations, group therapy and street visits were being conducted. The survivors also undergo series of trainings like gender sensitivity, women’s human rights and building their capacity on leadership and self-organising.

We encourage the survivors to recover their dreams and facilitate their re-entry to formal education. While others go back to school, other women joined our livelihood program in which we piloted a cooperative-type system where they put up a food catering service and lend money to other women who plan to put up a small business. The cooperative was dubbed “Manna from Heaven.”

This year’s theme of the youth symposium “Real Love Chases Away Fear, Greed and Slavery: Young Leaders Must Pave the Way” is really something to reflect on. In a woman’s life, there are countless moments where perpetrators distorted the real meaning and essence of the word. They have become doubtful to receive love and thinks that they’re not worthy of it. Let’s show these women what God’s love mean. Let’s remind them of hope and self worth. Young people must stand and let the world hear our voices and our calls in ending this modern day slavery.

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