Trafficking victims find refuge in 'center of hope'

Anti-slavery group warns victims of cybersex rings in the Philippines are getting younger and younger
Trafficking victims find refuge in 'center of hope'

Children are often robbed of their childhood when they are recruited to become cybersex stars.  

While most children played outside, Marta Estrada (not her real name) played hostess to men online.

Marta was robbed of her childhood when she was eight years old. A neighbor recruited the young girl to become a cybersex star.

"I did not know that what I was doing was wrong," she says. "He told me it was just a show."

Marta was playing outside her home when a neighbor asked her to follow him to an internet cafe. 

Inside a small room, the young girl was introduced to a world she did not understand. Inside were two cousins who were almost as young as her, dancing naked in front of a computer.

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"I was so shocked," recalls the girl. "I did not know what to do when I was asked to dance like my cousins."

Marta's cousins told her to strip. "It’s okay, it’s okay," she remembers them saying. 

And then began almost two years of abuse.

Data from the Global Slavery Index show that, as of this year, some 401,000 Filipinos have become victims of modern slavery.

The Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking estimates that 95 percent of them are victims of sex trafficking, and over half of them are children.

 

Victims getting younger

Maria Cecilia Flores Oebando, president of the Visayan Forum Foundation, says incidents of human trafficking have become "alarming" in the past six years with victims getting younger every year.

According to the foundation, which focuses on fighting various forms of slavery, the average age of victims today is 12 years old, compared to the average of 14 to 15 years old six years ago.

"Our youngest [victim] is in fact one year old," says Oebanda. "This is proof that the situation is getting more complicated every year."

Growing up in a poor community in the central Philippine city of Cebu, Marta had no idea what human trafficking meant.

The girl grew up in the home of her grandparents who made a living out of selling goods on a rickshaw around the community.

There was no money for Marta to go to school. Her parents separated when she was young, and both live separate lives.

Marta had nobody to guide her as she was growing up.

 

As young as one-year-old toddlers have become victims of human trafficking rescued by the Visayan Forum Foundation. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)

 

Unchartered territory

Even with the upsurge of cybersex cases in recent years, the "new form" of abuse remains uncharted territory for Oebanda's Visayan Forum Foundation.

Marta's case is in fact the first encounter of the group with cybersex trafficking.

"Of the many forms of abuse, this is one of the hardest to combat and to understand," says Oebanda.

"In most cases, parents allow their children to go into cybersex," she says. "They do not think it’s abuse because there is no contact. They don’t even know it is wrong."

Like in some children’s games, Marta would sneak into the internet cafe when called for, making sure no one saw her.

"I was told that I could not tell anyone or else [the trafficker] would get mad," she says.

"I didn’t think it was wrong because he gave us money in return. I thought it was just fair," says the young girl.

One day the police came. 

"I remember the day the police stormed the cafe. I thought I was going to be abducted," says Marta. 

"It was only then that I learned that we had been abused, that what we were doing was wrong," she says.

The girls were taken to a government center where Marta's mother appeared to pick her up. She still remembers her mother crying and asking "Why did you do that?"

The young girl did not know what to say.

 

'Worst form of evil'

Sex trafficking is the "worst form of evil," says Oebanda.

"The traffickers change the children’s way of thinking, telling the children that it’s just a game, that it’s just play. It’s a mastery of the art of deception," she adds.

Marta and her cousins were later taken to the Visayan Forum's Center of Hope for Trafficking Survivors, a "safe house" for victims of modern slavery.

The shelter currently hosts some 50 young women and children who are being helped to transform themselves from a "state of vulnerability to a state of empowerment."

Marta is in her eighth year in the safe house.

"Here, I am taught to be strong," she says. "In here, I’ve learned what my rights are. Here, I enjoy my life," says the young girl.

Marta is now an active participant of iFight, a youth movement focused on helping others to be educated about human trafficking and modern slavery.

"I wish no other child will ever have to go through what I experienced," says Marta. "Every day, I pray for that time when human trafficking will end in my country," she adds.

Oebanda, who is also a survivor of human trafficking, says the children have become her "source of strength."

"Every time they would thank me for changing their lives, I would think the same of them," she says.

Growing up a catechist and later on an activist during the martial law years, Oebanda sees her advocacy as a "tribute" to comrades who died during those "dark years."

"I believe God prepared me for this," she says. 

"I believe I was kept alive for this purpose, and I am honored that God entrusted me the lives of these children."

Marta's recruiter remains at large. Her legal case remains unresolved. 

In 2012, one of her abusers, one of her "customers," was convicted for human trafficking in the United States.

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