A man shows photos of sex workers in Manila. (Photo by Rob Reyes)
Marie is expecting to have a baby in February next year. It's no easy ordeal for the 16-year-old girl who lives in a Davao City slum.
Every evening, Marie and her 14-year old lesbian partner, Lea, roam the streets of the city to look for clients. The young lovers are among the city's prostituted children.
Lea solicits money from clients in exchange for sex to support Marie's regular prenatal checks. Lea is also saving for Marie’s baby.
"Prostitution is new to me, but this is the only thing that I know for us to survive," says Lea.
Marie became a sex worker at the age of 14 after years of abuse at the hands of her brother-in-law.
One of Marie's sisters is also a sex worker after becoming a victim of trafficking.
Lea, meanwhile, was forced into the sex industry after she was pimped by other child sex workers.
The girls are emblematic of an alarming problem in this southern Philippine city and urban areas across the country: the prevalence of children in prostitution.
"We see victims of prostitution getting younger," says Jeanette Laurel-Ampog, executive director of the women's group Talikala Foundation.
Data from Lawig Bubai, a grassroots organization of prostituted women and children, shows that some 4,000 women and children are prostitutes in Davao City alone.
At least 40 percent of the city's sex workers are children, according to the organization.
"We see young children pimping themselves or other children, and this is both sad and shocking," says Ampog.
"You cannot possibly bear the thought of what these children and women are going through now," she says, adding that every story of a child or woman in prostitution presents "a reality that is so unbearably violent and dark."
Ampog's group works primarily with women and child prostitutes, but they have also started work with men — the buyers of sex, the patrons of prostitution.
In this November 2014 photo, women wait for customers in the thriving red light district of Angeles City, north of Manila. (Photo by Jay Directo/AFP)
Talikala Foundation is conducting "education sessions" among men, hoping to eliminate abuses committed against children and women in homes and communities.
The objective is to establish what they call the "Men in Valuable Partnerships with Women and Children" especially in urban communities where incidents of prostitution and trafficking are high.
"The cycle of abuse must stop as we desire to end prostitution," said Ampog. "We can very well do this if we are able to end abuses in the homes," she adds.
Ampog, however, says the government needs to come up with programs to help women and child prostitutes.
She says the government should address the cause of the exodus of women and children into prostitution instead of trying to legalize prostitution to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
"Interventions should be beyond sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS prevention," says Ampog.
In the city of Davao, a "Day of No Prostitution" is being observed every Oct. 5 after the city government issued a proclamation in 2006.
The city government has been trying to help child prostitutes go to school and give jobs to prostitutes who are willing to start a new life.
But the magnitude of the problem has overwhelmed the authorities.
"There is an urgent need for the government to come up with programs and interventions that are tailor fit to the current situation — that many children are into prostitution," says Ampog.
"On top of these considerations is the readiness of the children and women in prostitution to accept the program," she says.
"It is important to ensure the support of the family, and the availability of resources for the family because these women and children are the breadwinners," Ampog adds.
'Whopping big industry'
Father Shay Cullen, who heads the Preda Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that helps child prostitutes, said women and children in prostitution should not be blamed for their fate.
The Columban priest and ucanews.com columnist said about 80 percent of the women and children in prostitution are forced into the trade by unfortunate and abusive circumstances.
He says the Philippine government allows prostitution to flourish by "openly" allowing bars and brothels to operate.
"While prostitution is technically illegal in the Philippines, that is only on paper," the priest said.
Cullen said the Philippines has a "whopping big sex-tourist industry" where "thousands of young girls are forever made sex slaves in bars and brothels on street corners and in houses of prostitution."
"They are doomed to a life of being less than human," he said.