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2015 (Narrative date)

In the Philippines, 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.

Rowena’s account of her route into sexual exploitation highlights that family problems of abuse and poverty make children vulnerable to coercion into the sex industry.

My name is Rowena and I have nine siblings. I grew up in a farm environment and attended school up to elementary level but I wish I could have finished all my schooling.

When I was three years old I was raped by a neighbour but I did not tell anyone about it. However, when I was seven, people around me became alarmed because I would say I was fearful of playing outside in case a stranger had sex with me. Then I revealed to my mother that I had been raped when I was three and she was angry with me for not telling her earlier. 

From the ages of seven to 10 I thought that I liked sex and I would describe myself as craving sex. I would have sex with friends of my papa and whoever came and wanted to have sex with me. When I was 10 I was sexually harassed by my father and again when I was 12. I wish this could have been different because I wanted my father to be good to us, gentle, because I really needed a father’s love. My mother frequently stayed away from home looking for work so that she could provide food for us. 

At 14, I ran away from home and I found solace with my friends. I started using drugs. I had sex with boyfriends, I had sex with taxi drivers – I gave them blow jobs and more because I needed money. There was even a time that my friend sold me in Cebu City.

At 15 years old I was rescued by an NGO. They took me to a shelter, but I ran away because I really needed money. I escaped with two other girls and they took me to Kamagayan [the red light district of Cebu City]. It was the first time I had been there. They used drugs and gave me some on credit. I did not like the environment and I said that I would not stay there, but my friends told me to stay and make plenty of money.

That night I had five customers. When I returned to find my friends they were gone. Someone advised me that my mother was looking for me and I believed them and followed them, but it was only a ploy by another recruiter to make money out of me. I stayed with that recruiter for three months and I used drugs every day as a way of protecting myself from shame.

Because I was a minor, they hid me in a boarding house and I was treated like a VIP. It cost more for customers to be entertained by me. When I was working there, even with the taxi drivers all I could think of was, “I am dirty.” Even if I did sexual services with them, all I could think of is, “I am dirty.” That is maybe because I was raped when I was young. When I would take a bath I stayed in the bathroom for a very long time because I wanted to scratch off all the feelings that I am dirty.

I spent a lot of time being fearful, especially when the customers seemed to be bad guys. I just submitted all the way with no complaints. I feel so very submissive to guys with bad temperaments. I do not have the power to say no. 

I used drugs all the time I was there because when I take drugs it makes me high; I feel stronger and I’m not ashamed to entertain my customers. It gives me strength – even if I have many customers I will not become tired. But when I do not take the drug, I am shy, I don’t want to have sex. I never made any money the whole time I was at Kamagayan. It was the managers who made all the money.

After three months I ran away and found the Welcome House and they took good care of me. What greatly motivated me to run away was I realised that I was deceived by them. They made money out of me, but I didn’t have a single cent, so that was great deception and I didn’t want that and I realised that this was the end. 

I did not really go to Kamagayan to get money, I really just wanted to get out of my house because I was afraid that my father would rape me again. People should not judge those girls who go to Kamagayan, because each girl has her own reason for doing it. It may be because of poverty, it may be because of problems, it may be because of sex. It could be because of anything, so people should not generalise that girls are just paid to do sex and they like it. That’s not really true.

Today I am proud of myself because I started to file a case against the man who raped me at three. He is now in prison. Once I filed a case against him, many other victims turned up. Some people think that I am brave for doing that. I am overwhelmed with happiness that he is now in prison because he sexually harassed me for many years. But I did not proceed with negotiations for him to pay damages because it would leave his family with nothing as he had so many victims.

Sometimes I still think that I am dirty and I know that this is a result of my bad experiences. My anger about those bad experiences meant that I had bad emotions, but I keep getting told that I am not a bad person and that I am not dirty by those who are helping me to recover.

I think trafficking happens because of people who want money, who want to make big money. If I had not been trafficked I would not be here in this place today. I would not be having this new kind of life now. The trafficking experience helped me to be nearer to God. Before, I did not consider it a very important activity to go to church or communicate with God but after this experience I am nearer to God. Really, this experience of being trafficked strengthened me. Before I would say in my mind, “Oh, the trafficked girls are flirts, that’s why they were trafficked,” but now I know they were not flirts because I was trafficked as well. Today I am more dedicated to pray for those girls who are trafficked.

I have survived many trials, even as a child I survived because I was determined to live. As I grew up with plenty of problems I cannot avoid thinking about committing suicide. There were plenty of times that I planned this but I feared that this would not be good. It would only create more problems for my family. They would have to find money to bury me. So I just survive. I found strength in God. I just hold on to God. 

I am only 19 now but I am proud of myself, proud that I survived the many trials in my life. Although people will look down on trafficked women I am proud that I am a survivor. I am proud that I am here to support my younger siblings and that I can finance them through a decent job. I am proud that despite not finishing my schooling I have a decent job as a seamstress. I am proud that I mingle with my superiors, higher up people who have good positions, and that I am able to receive their occasional reprimands calmly. 

In the future I would like to become a social worker. Last year I attended school but I did not finish because I cannot really manage full-time work and school because I am too sleepy. But next year maybe I will go to school and then I plan to go to college and start social work. I will then have a big house with plenty of children and I will fill my house with children who I am helping and I will have a big bakery. I will be known as a person in the community who has dignity and I will be popular and respected in the community because I am good.

Deep inside I want a child only, I’m not really sure if I want a husband, unless that man would really love me as I want.

I am very much convinced that I can reach all my goals. I will be patient in having all these dreams come true, but do you know what? I am tempted sometimes to drink and to use drugs and to gallivant around with my friends. I am only a human being, I dream of these things. Some- times I am strong, but the temptations are there, sometimes I am tempted. I am just a human being. I am proud that I have chosen good friends now. Before my friends were drug addicts and drunkards, but now I still have friends and they are proud that I can say no.

As told to Our Community