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The story of Sarah Balabagan

/ 04:15 AM September 11, 2020

Who is Sarah Balabagan? Her belated revelation naming broadcaster Arnold Clavio as the father of her firstborn over two decades ago sent shock waves through various media.

Fearing that the ensuing firestorm will obscure all that she is and has done, I share this profile.

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Sarah’s story is a multilayered mosaic of pain and redemption, at turns searing, stunning, but also vivifying, and, in the end, a blessing.

For those too young to know or recall her name: In 1993 at 14, her age falsified to 28, Sarah traveled to Dubai to work as house helper for a 67-year-old widower with four sons. In 1994, she fatally stabbed him to fend off rape. Her first trial sentenced her to seven years in jail; it was appealed by the prosecution, resulting in a second sentence of death by firing squad. Massive protests helped in the call for a third trial, which reduced punishment to one year in jail, 100 strokes of the cane, and payment of $40,000 blood money.

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Returning to a heroine’s welcome in Manila in 1996, Sarah was wooed by Clavio, who told her to keep silent when she found herself with child.

But first, Sarah’s backstory, viewed through the lenses of class, ethnicity, religion, gender: A Maguindanao Muslim from Sultan Kudarat, Sarah was one of 14 offspring, over half of whom died of illness. Working for relatives to finance her schooling, she dropped out of grade school and turned to overseas work to exit poverty. Many female Muslim OFWs, expecting kind treatment in the Middle East, are rudely disappointed.

Through the lens of gender, we learn that young Sarah was sexually abused by an uncle. But the need for a livelihood proved more compelling than risks to life abroad, and Sarah crossed the seas with only a lonely hijab (head scarf) to protect her from the dangers of homos erectus lurking here and there. Why 34 stab wounds on her employer? Imagine a wisp of a girl staving off a grizzled male nearly five times her age and more than double her size. Sarah came to Dubai to live, not die, and therefore, it had to be her or him.

We must now mention the case of OFWs Delia Maga and Flor Contemplacion in Singapore, the latter charged with killing Maga under whose care a young boy died in a drowning accident. Maga’s death raised more questions than answers, and evidence supporting Contemplacion’s innocence was ignored, resulting in a conviction. When Contemplacion hung from the gallows in 1995, the Philippines howled with grief. And so did much of the world. “No more Flor Contemplacions,” I silently vowed, along with others. That vow stayed the executioner’s blade, for massive protests within and outside the country led to a retrial.

Sisterhood moves in mysterious ways: Sarah lives because of the brutal deaths of Delia Maga and Flor Contemplacion.

Amazing grace accounts for the contrapuntal rhythms in Sarah’s life. Dubai was followed by yet more suffering: as a single mother, in the breakdown of her first marriage because of a consuming anger that corroded her relationships. Her life turned around when she joined a born-again group, sharing testimonials in churches here and abroad and finally meeting Jun Sereno, husband and love of her life, in LA, California. The family now resides in Las Vegas where Sarah hosts a radio program, pursuing her advocacy for fellow victims and survivors of trafficking.

Sarah has made peace with Clavio’s wife who reached out to her in forgiveness. She decided to come clean with her long-kept secret because her children needed to know the truth from her. She also needed to clear the names of three men who had been suspected of siring her child: an ambassador, a businessman, and a broadcast journalist who, in fact, constituted her support system, in complete contrast to Clavio who remains in denial.

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Emerging from the dregs of poverty and the depths of despair, Sarah Balabagan is now living her best life: from victim to survivor to victor, trusting in tomorrow because she has known life and love abundant.

God bless you, Sarah Balabagan, and the wondrous mosaic that your life has been.

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Retired grandmother Jurgette Honculada has long been with the feminist organization Pilipina.

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TAGS: Arnold Clavio, OFW, Sarah Balabagan, sexual abuse
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