Social worker Marlyn received a message that a 14-year-old girl named “Princess” had been trafficked and sold to a sex bar here in the Philippines. Marlyn alerted me and we began planning to rescue the child, just one of thousands of children trafficked for sexual abuse each year in this country and many more around the world. It is a problem of global reach. The recent agreement signed by the heads and representatives of the major religions to fight it is a positive encouragement. It’s now almost six months since the the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) and many more children will fall victim to sexual predators as the poverty grows and young people and parents become desperate to get jobs and money. It’s all to common.
Marlyn, who herself was rescued from sex-trade traffickers, works with me in the Preda Foundation organization I founded 40 years ago. Preda actively responds to and rescues victims, and then helps them get an education and start new lives of dignity.
This time, we organized a police raid on the sex bar, called the Crowbar, and rescued Princess and five other underage girls who had been entrapped there through debts and fear of retaliation against their families. The operator of the sex bar, a US national, was arrested, and during his arraignment, Princess whispered to her social worker: “I never thought this could happen; he’s rich and connected. I can’t believe we got out.”
Princess was rescued and was helped at the Preda Home for Children. Over the years we have rescued thousands of children and youths from the scourge of “sex tourism,” even as the sex industry continues to spread and grow with impunity.
This has all been exacerbated by the recent natural disasters in the Philippines. Another Typhoon is lashing Southern Mindanao as I write. But Yolanda last November 2013 it was the worst ever. I have been through ferocious typhoons during my 44 years in this Southeast Asian nation, but have never seen anything like the sheer savagery of Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda. After this super storm, bringing winds of up to 150 miles an hour, torrential rain, flooding and landslides, hit the Philippines I flew to visit the northern towns on Cebu Island to assess the damage. Two Preda staff members were with me. Our goals were to deliver aid directly to the people who most needed it and, equally important, to protect orphaned children from would-be abductors and traffickers posing as relatives.
Now months later much has been done to get electricity back and people fed, but hundreds of thousands of houses have yet to be repaired–and jobs created.
Horrible as the prospect of such exploitation is, it has been a cruel reality in times of natural disasters, and Haiyan was the most devastating typhoon known to humankind: as many as 6,500 or more were killed, countless injured and made homeless. And the orphaned children remain the most vulnerable. Their towns and villages and homes are gone and their parents are dead. They face the threat of hunger, malnutrition, abduction and forced degradation in the sex trade and as slave labor.
These children need our attention and direct intervention to rescue them from child traffickers and pedophiles. Preda social workers have been giving training to workers to help find the children and give them help. Under the pretext of saving the children, traffickers abduct them and may sell them as “brides” to pedophiles, or earn hundreds of thousands of dollars supplying these children for illegal adoption, organ transplants, sexual abuse and exploitation in brothels and for forced labor as movie stars in porno films.
Poverty often makes exploitation easy. Reggie is a clear example. The 17-year-old jobless youth and his family lived on the edge of severe poverty even before Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan pushed them into absolute poverty and left them with nothing. In the midst of the chaos and destruction, human traffickers forced him and six other youth from Cebu into unpaid labor on a fishing boat, only to abandon them hungry and unpaid. Then, Reggie’s freedom and human rights were taken from him when local authorities jailed him for being a vagrant. He was recently rescued from illegal imprisonment and is recovering and rebuilding his life back in his home village. We can all continue to do more and to help the people in greatest need.
Though the work goes on, it never gets any easier to stomach.