Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights

PHILIPPINES: Younger Prey in the World’s Oldest Trade

DAVAO CITY, Philippines , Nov 8 2009 (IPS) - At 14, Ann is too young to be worrying about getting pregnant or acquiring AIDS, but she is. That is why she uses a condom whenever she has a customer.

She has become so good at it that the latter “does not even have to know that he has been sheathed,” she says.

“We’ve been taught how,” says Anne (not her real name), who, when she turned 13, was recruited to work in a bar in Sto. Tomas, Davao del Norte, host to banana plantation workers and penal colony guards on rest and recreation and located more than 60 kilometres north of Davao City—a major metropolis in southeastern Mindanao.

Anne is one of a growing number of minors making up ‘Lawig Bubai’ (‘Sail On, Women’), a people’s organisation of prostituted children and women in this city. It was set up in 1993 as a result of the peer education programme of Talikala (‘Chain’), Inc., a non-governmental organisation assisting commercial sex workers, including children, within the Mindanao region, one of three major island groups in the Philippines.

Lawig Bubai’s members, some of whom are survivors of prostitution while others are still engaged in the world’s so-called oldest trade, reaches out to other women and children in the city’s populous and prostitution-prone areas.

At Lawig Bubai members are taught ‘survival techniques’, like how to slip a condom on a client without him noticing it. There they also learn about reproductive health and how to take care of themselves.

Anne says the woman who recruited her is based in the same neighbourhood where she lives with her grandparents. She describes her as “old” and a familiar figure.

It is the same woman who recruited her friend, Sarah, also 14.

Anne says the woman assured her work was waiting for her—cooking barbecue—in the city, which paid 200 pesos (4.20 U.S. dollars) a day. Such a sum is a bonanza to her penurious household. Her grandfather is a housepainter, who thus does not have regular work. Her grandmother takes in laundry and earns little. Anne has been living with them since she was born. Her mother was her age when she gave birth to Ann.

She and Sarah ended up in a bar.

Sarah recounts that she and Ann “were simply told they served barbecue there.” That same night, they were forced to dance and perform other entertainment acts expected of bar girls before the male customers gathered inside the establishment. Both girls say there were more teen girls like them in that bar run by a man who would force himself on them whenever he wanted.

“Manyak man ‘tong akong amo (Our employer was a maniac),” Anne says in her native Visayan dialect with a tone of disgust.

There is another bar nearby, the girls say, that also employs young girls. A bar further uphill, they say, has “older girls”, that is, 18 years old and up.

Dang, 14, has a story of her own, although not entirely different from those of the two other girls. She admits to hanging out with the wrong crowd before she turned into a bonafide teenager, started smoking when she was nine and drinking rhum at 12. “That’s how it is when your mother doesn’t love you,” she says.

When she was 13, her friends introduced her to a would-be patron, a widower in Agdao district, who gave them money just to be “stimulated”. It was not long before tongues began wagging in her neighbourhood about her gang’s unusual activities. Her parents soon drove her out of their home.

She has been walking the streets since then, making money from anyone who wants her “services,” including taxi drivers who pay 20 pesos (42 U.S. cents) for a “shine” (street lingo for oral and manual stimulation).

Ann, Sarah and Dang’s collective plight is all too familiar to Inday’s teenage daughters. The 36-year-old mother of nine did not learn soon enough that the money she would occasionally get from her daughters, ages 14, 15 and 16, was not from some benevolent “uncle”.

She learned about her girls’ activities from a concerned neighbour. “It was as if my heart was literally wrenched out,” says Inday, who gave only her nickname. “Whenever I asked them where they got their money, they’d only say it was given to them by ‘uncle.”

In the slums of Davao, ‘uncle’ is a term of endearment and respect the young ones use to refer to an older male, as differentiated from ‘kuya’ for an older boy or young man.

Inday has four more boys, ages 13, eight, seven and four, and two more girls, 10 years and four months old, respectively. Her family’s hardscrabble existence has been made more difficult by the rising cost of living these days. Her husband is a company driver who earns around 300 pesos (six U.S. dollars) a day, hardly enough to feed his large brood. “I don’t know how to stretch our budget anymore,” she says. “We often just make do with porridge.”

Inday’s family has also taken breakfast out of their daily meals, leaving them with two, assuming there is even enough food. When there is not, her children—at least those of them who still go to school—are forced to skip classes. “Their teachers know that when the children are absent, that means we don’t have food,” she says.

Because of his frequent absences, her 13-year-old boy does not want to go to school anymore, opting to go around scavenging for scrap iron. Her three teenage girls have all quit school, the oldest of them reaching only as high as second year high school, the second to the oldest, fourth grade and the youngest of them, second grade.

Amid a worsening economic situation, it appears more children are being lured into the flesh trade.

Both Lawig Bubai and Talikala have observed an alarming rise this year in the number of prostituted girls in Davao City. With or without data, they know the numbers have gone up significantly just by looking around the city. Belen Antoque, chairperson of Lawig Bubai, says her group does not have the resources to embark on an in-depth study to determine the extent of child and teenage prostitution taking place in this city, a prime tourist destination in the country.

“The numbers are increasing across all ages, and these include the children,” says Antoque. They have at least 30 more members this year, 27 of whom are minors, she says. Of their total membership of 630 this year—their ages ranging from 13 to 57—10 percent are minors.

“A lot of recruitment activity (enticing girls into the flesh trade) is going on as well,” says Antoque, who adds that there are more pick-up spots for prostituted girls today than last year.

Whereas prostitution hot spots used to be confined to certain areas such as major streets and commercial establishments, today even side streets and bus terminals have become hangouts of girls on the lookout for male customers. “That’s why we can say there are a lot of them now,” declares Antoque.

Prostituted children in these hangouts appear to be just children hanging out with peers, says Jeanette Ampog, executive director of Talikala. “Sometimes all you see is a group of around 20 children. You’ll think they are just friends hanging out.”

Ampog worries that not only have the hangouts expanded to include sites that are not ordinarily associated with prostitution, the girls are getting younger and younger too, she says.

Both Antoque and Ampog say their respective organisations encourage their wards to return to school, scouring the city for sponsors who are willing to fund their education, believing it will help bring them out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Both groups, which share the same office in the city, also offer livelihood programmes that teach their members entrepreneurial skills.

Fourteen-year-old Dang has learned to make key chains alongside manicure and pedicure. She hopes these newly acquired skills will help her pursue higher education sooner or later. “I dream of taking up social work,” she says.

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

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    Tragic. Clearly having nine children is a huge part of the problem

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