There are an estimated 784,000 people living in modern slavery in the Philippines (GSI 2018). Men, women and children are subjected forced labour and sex trafficking both within the country and in destination countries. Women and children are subjected to sexual exploitation in brothels, bars, and massage parlours, online, as well as in the production of pornography. The Philippines is an international hub for prostitution and commercial sex tourism – a highly profitable businesses for organised criminal syndicates. The demand for sex with children among both local and foreign men has continued to fuel child sex tourism. Rising internet usage rates, the availability of mobile phones and poverty has fostered online child sexual exploitation.
Elsa's father died when she was 12. Her mother left soon afterwards and she moved with her brother to live with grandparents who could not afford food and school for her. By working as a housekeeper and janitor, she was able to keep both herself and her brother in school. But then she accepted a new job offer from a bar owner and became trapped in the sex industry. The managers used a complex system of fines and false debt to keep her and the other girls trapped. 16 victims, including Elsa, were freed by police during an operation in 2013. She went on to testify against the traffickers during their trial. She wrote and told her story in 2016 while in her early twenties and a college student. "Elsa" is a pseudonym.
I had a happy childhood because of my adventures with my brothers and friends. Rain or shine, we play. Sometimes we cry, and go home. After we got over it, we would play again.
[In the bar] I was treated as a slave who is required to follow orders whether I liked it or not. I wanted to sleep and rest… Mamasan [the manager] would come to me and tell me to approach, entertain, and even hug customers to give me drinks and take me out. Usually customers would take me out to accompany them to another bar, watch other girls dance, and get drunk. Others take me straight to their hotel and make me do things. I would feel tired every morning. Whenever I come out of the house, I felt ashamed that maybe someone would notice me.
I was scared because my family might discover that I was there [in the shelter] and know all that had happened to me. I couldn’t do anything because it already happened. I thought of testifying to fight for my rights and speak of the truth. It was not my fault that I got there in the first place.
My message for the bar owner and manager is: do not abuse women’s weaknesses, their desperation to find a job because of extreme need. Do not step on women’s dignity because it hurts. We are all the same; we are human, not objects nor animals that can be manipulated.
A bird symbolizes my life because I'm not always caged. I'm not always trapped in one place.
I feel happy now because I'm out of the bar. I will never experience those things anymore because there were people who helped me. I'm so thankful for those who helped me, for giving me the new hope to live normally as a woman and a person.
Today I'm moving forward and making a better life. And I have a message for girls who are still trapped and still waiting for freedom.
Do not lose hope. Don't think that you are not capable of doing greater things. You will go places, just trust in yourself. There are people who are looking for you.
Narrative as partly written by the survivor and partly told to International Justice Mission.