MANILA, Philippines – Kim’s* big smile and hearty laughter are sources of comfort at the center she shares with fellow victims of abuse. She is the resident jester in a place where young girls are striving to rebuild their lives one day at a time.
Her sunny disposition belies her dark past. When Kim was 13, her neighbor persuaded her to work for him. She was promised a salary and free education in exchange for minimal work where she would only look at the camera and say hi. Kim wanted to help her parents so she agreed.
Her first few sessions turned out to be that way. But 3 months into the job, things got worse.
“‘Pag tagal, siguro 3 months, umabot po sa punto [na] ginamit niya po ako sa harap ng kamera….Umiyak po ako kasi since first time ko po iyon,” she recalled.
(Later on, after 3 months, it came to a point when he abused me sexually in front of the camera. I cried because it was my first time.)
“Parang itinuturing ko rin siyang tatay ko, tapos iniisip ko tatay ko siya ginawa niya sa akin ang ganoong bagay. Pero ‘di ko alam na masama pala iyon (I treated him as a father and I was realizing then that it was like my father abused me. But I didn’t know then that it was a bad thing)," she said.
Even then, she didn't know that she was being sexually abused. Kim was groomed to think that what she was doing was something normal. Her handler later pimped her to foreign customers who would fly to Manila to meet with her personally. Clients would even take her to different parts of the Philippines for a "vacation."
The promise of a good salary and education never came since she was only given P500 or P1,000 from time to time. But Kim continued working until she was rescued by watchdog International Justice Mission (IJM).She was already 15 then.
Kim, now 18, is in a home hosted by non-governmental organization (NGO) Visayan Forum.
Karen Navera, a social worker at the Visayan Forum, says that the most challenging part of rehabilitating victims of child trafficking is making them understand that they were abused.
“When it comes to children, the first point is that they are not aware of human trafficking. The second point is they are being groomed….The usual entry point of a trafficker is offering help so most of its recruits are from poor families that really have nothing to eat,” she explains in Filipino.
In Kim’s case, for example, the recruiter allowed her to live in his house and eat for free. That’s why she could not realize that the person was already abusing her. Navera said that traffickers, in most cases, are people victims trust.
Sometimes, they are even the child’s parents, siblings, or relatives. These are the most difficult cases to assist because the victims find it hard to trust other people.
Children are the most vulnerable in the sex trade. The Council for the Welfare of Children’s State of the Filipino Children Report in 2015 showed that 35% of children below 18 years old are living in poverty.
A Unicef study in 2016, meanwhile, said that 8 in 10 Filipino youth are in danger of online sexual abuse. The study entitled “Perils and Possibilities: Growing up online” estimated that there are 75,000 “child predators” online who are trying to get in touch with children in the Philippines.
The study also noted that the Department of Justice’s Cybercrime Office received 12,374 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children based in the United States.
Victims of child sex trafficking, based on IJM’s rescue records, range from two months to 12 years old.
Kim is now piecing her life together as she studies through the Department of Education’s Alternative Learning System (ALS).
Besides being a student, Kim is also an ambassador for the campaign “iFight to End End Human Trafficking and Slavery.” Through this, she is able to share her experiences in public engagement to inform girls like her of this underground trade.
“Kinukwento ko po iyong mga kuwento ko para mainspire iyong ibang tao saka para rin po magbigay ng awareness sa kanila tungkol sa human trafficking kasi maraming kabataan ang naabuso tapos ‘di nila alam iyong human trafficking,” she says.
(I tell them my story so that I could inspire other people and also to give awareness about human trafficking because many young people are being abused but they don’t know what human trafficking is.)
The rehabilitation of victims is a key component of the fight against human trafficking.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) handles the rehabilitation of victims rescued by the Inter-Agency Council against Child Pornography (IACACP), which is composed of several national government agencies and NGOs.
The DSWD has a center for sex trafficking victims and has also partnered with NGOs such as the Visayan Forum for the provision of home, counselling therapy, and programs to reintegrate those rescued back to society. (READ: PH meets US standards vs trafficking for 2nd straight year)
“If they aren’t able to cope from the trauma, it will lead to sexual behavior. It could be a part of their system that abuse is normal. They can be second generation trafficker, which we see in some cases that we rehabilitate,” explains IACAP lead secretariat Christian Bioc.– Rappler.com
*Not her real name