Their stories have a common thread: Enticed by people they trusted, they are lured from home with promises of a better life and the means to help their families. But the road to a better life is strewn with obstacles, and too often they stumble in their search, and are exploited and hurt in the process.
But the story, in many cases, also has a “happy” ending. No, they do not meet their prince on a white horse and ride off to a glorious sunset. But they do meet people who will rescue them from their enslavement and provide them the means not just to pursue an education and livelihood, but also to go after their exploiters and traffickers, to find the justice denied them.
These are the general arcs of the stories told by “Aileen” and “Mica” (not their real names), two survivors of domestic trafficking now sheltering under the auspices of Visayan Forum. They shared their testimonies at a recent orientation for Central Luzon journalists on “gender-sensitive reporting of trafficking cases,” sponsored by the Philippine Commission on Women, Commission on Filipinos Overseas, and Interagency Council Against Trafficking (composed of government agencies and nongovernment organizations).
But their stories echo so many other stories I have heard in my years of covering the issue of trafficking, especially those I heard and reported on in the course of writing a book titled “Nightmare Journeys” which told the personal accounts of women caught in the web of sex trafficking, and how they eventually made their way out of the traps in which they found themselves.
Yes, the stories are familiar and similar. Yet each one is unique, bearing the personal imprint of an individual tale, often told in tears, but also ending with smiles and steely resolve. Each girl’s story is her own.
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Mica worked as a house help and then began selling vegetables in the market at a very young age in her desire “to finish high school.” While working in the market one day, a woman recruiter approached her and asked if she wanted to work in Manila as a “salesgirl.” The woman presented a very enticing package: free transportation to the city, a regular salary, free clothes, and even a weekly day off. With her parents’ permission, Mica took up the offer and left for the city together with five other girls.
Once in Manila, though, the promise began turning sour. Their new employer confiscated their cell phones, saying they were forbidden to communicate with anyone outside the house they were brought to. That was also the time they found out that they were going to work, not as “salesgirls,” but as prostitutes. In time, the beating began, often for the slightest transgression, and even the promised salary was withheld.
Mica found the chance to escape the house one day, but also found that she didn’t even know where she was. But she was lucky. On board a jeepney, she asked for help from a fellow passenger who accompanied her to a convent. After a week with the nuns, Mica was brought to Bahay Silangan on Pier 4, the shelter run by Visayan Forum for new migrants from the provinces, and eventually transferred to the group’s “Center of Hope.”
* * *
Aileen took up a relative’s offer of a job in the city after unhappy experiences working as a house help where she was abused and even accused of stealing from her employers. But when she arrived at the place of her new employers, she was “shocked” to find herself in a room with many other young girls, with a laptop and camera in one corner.
Their new employers threatened them with harm if they sought to escape, and said their families would suffer as well. “Sobrang malaswa” (too sleazy) is how Aileen described the “activities” they were forced to do at the behest of their online clients, many of them foreigners, although “there were some Filipino clients, too.”
The only silver lining in this situation was that the cybersex den operators were true to their word, sending regular remittances to their families. But this also proved a challenge to Aileen, she said, because she was forced to lie to her family whenever they asked how she was. No way could she tell them what her line of work really was.
Aileen managed to escape when she was sent out to search for three young girls who were newly recruited but had run away. She found the girls sheltering with a member of the auxiliary police who befriended them. “I decided to join them,” Aileen confided, and soon after, police raided the cybersex den.
* * *
Brought to a crisis center by social workers, Aileen was convinced to file a case against the den operators, especially after a social worker asked her: “Do you want this to happen to your younger siblings?”
Instead of welcoming and comforting Aileen when she reached home, her relatives and neighbors blamed her for her recruiter’s plight. “I was judged,” she confided, and was told to her face that she was “dirty.” She didn’t leave home for months, but decided to confront her accusers and do something about her situation when “I saw my former classmates going to school in their uniforms.”
But she had to leave school and even flee her hometown when word reached her that her former employer was out to wreak vengeance on her. With the help of Visayan Forum, she left for Manila and became a leader of an organization of domestic workers, even as she continued her studies. It was as the representative of the group that she even traveled to London to share her story and talk about the issue of trafficking in the Philippines.
Aileen finally finished high school, and, she told the group proudly: “I am going to enroll in college tomorrow.”