Child Sex Trafficking in the Phillipines

By: Rose Brugger

There are more victims of slavery today than ever before in human history. It is so well-hidden that we can live our entire lives without ever realizing its pervasiveness. It occurs in every country on earth, with victims numbering in the tens of millions. It exists in many forms: forced labor in a wide range of service industries, child soldiering, forced begging, and, most prevalently, commercial sexual exploitation – “sex trafficking.”

As the fastest-growing form of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world, sex-trafficking has become a critically-urgent problem internationally, though the majority of victims come from the Asia-Pacific region, where traffickers easily exploit poverty-induced vulnerabilities. Although women and girls are most frequently targeted, boys make up a significant – and under-reported – number of victims. And while traffickers are usually male, in some countries women are the main perpetrators.

Central Luzon, The Philippines

Standing at the base of the Olongapo mountains, hemmed in on one side by a tropical forest and on the other by rows of rice fields, lies the residence of over 40 young girls. Most are between seven and seventeen years old. The youngest, Lea, is only five. When Lea first arrived six months earlier, she was emaciated and lethargic. Now, she runs and plays, winning nearly every game of tag. But she still has scars on her forehead and skull from the abuse she experienced at home. Lea, along with all the girls in the home, have experienced sexual abuse – and often other physical abuse – at the hands of family members and/or traffickers. Quite often the perpetrators are biological fathers, while the rest are almost always friends or other family members. Natalie’s mother sold her for sex approximately 20 times before she was able to escape; Natalie (now 15) is currently pressing charges.

The girls in this safe-house are the lucky few who have been successfully rescued by police and social workers. Here, they receive therapy, education and assistance in filing lawsuits against their abusers. Although the ideal is to reunite the girls with their families, since in so many cases their abusers are family members, or their families are unsupportive of the girls’ legal actions, this is often impossible.

Chelsey (now 14) was sexually assaulted when she was four by her father, shortly after he raped and killed her older sister. For the past ten years, she’s lived in shelters. She’s just begun filing her lawsuit. Like many of the girls, she needed a significant amount of time and healing before she felt ready to take this step.

Even when the girls surmount the obstacles to being rescued, finding a good shelter and filing their lawsuits, they are faced with another often-insurmountable difficulty: the corruption and incompetency of the legal system.

Maya, who is 12, filed her lawsuit against her father last year. He had sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions in their family’s home. Since filing, her case has been repeatedly delayed in court. The first delay resulted from our request. We asked the Court to conduct Maya’s cross-examination in a private room—so she would not have to sit directly in front of her father—and the Court agreed. On the day of the trial, however, the attorneys forgot about this accommodation. When Maya arrived, they asked her to enter the main court-room. She froze in fear and refused to testify. The cross-examination was re-scheduled.

When the second date came, the Court re-scheduled. The judge was in a meeting.

For the third date, we had to wake up at 2 a.m. and once again drive five hours into Manilla to the courthouse. Maya had now been preparing for months to give her testimony. After we waited an hour, a clerk came and informed us that the accused’s lawyer had failed to appear. The hearing was re-scheduled for one month later. Such delays occur an average of 2-3 times in every girl’s case.

When the hearings finally take place, the judges themselves are often incompetent and sometimes corrupt. The American woman Sheryl Zimmer, suspected of trafficking children to a ring in Olongapo, was charged in the Philippines with child abuse. Though the evidence of abuse was substantial, she was released because the judge’s wife was friends with one of her friends.

The United States and Europe put pressure on the legal system to reform, but the corruption and incompetency is so deep that pressure from the top often fails to produce results on the ground.

In Maya’s case, justice most likely will prevail. With the help of her social worker, she was finally cross-examined in August, and her case is moving forward.

International concern for sex trafficking has increased in the last few years. But in countries like the Philippines, the foot soldiers are relatively few. The burnout rate is high. The resources are limited. And the conditions on the ground are crude. But the need is extraordinary and the potential harvest is plentiful. Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the fields.

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