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Gazette magazine, Vol. 62, No. 2

Sin City

Commercial sexual exploitation in the Philippines

There are an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 child victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the Phillippines. Youth activist Cheryl Perera, founder of the Canadian-based organization OneChild, spent a month in that country touring its infamous “Sin City” and speaking to victims of the child sex trade. In the
following article, she looks at the problem through the eyes of one victim and explores how governments and law enforcement agencies can help make a
difference.

Youth activist Cheryl Perera, stands in front of Rosario Baluyot’s tombstone. The inscription reads: “Alone in life, alone in death, except for those of us who cannot forget the throwaway children.”
Courtesy of OneChild
Youth activist Cheryl Perera,
stands in front of Rosario Baluyot’s tombstone.
The inscription reads: “Alone in life, alone in death, except for those of us who cannot forget the throwaway children.”

By Cheryl Perera
OneChild Inc.

I went to the Philippines with a team of people from OneChild, a group of Canadian youth with a shared passion to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation. In 2006, we were on a mission to uncover the truth and learn about how we might help turn the tables on the child sex trade. 

At 21, I considered myself to be a seasoned child rights activist, having investigated the trade in Sri Lanka, posing as the decoy at the age of 16 in a sting to catch a sex offender. Despite this, I could never have anticipated the things that I would see and hear during the month I spent in the Philippines.

Local sights
To some of the international travellers who visit the Phillippines, Angeles City is Sin City. It is home to the Balibago entertainment district—a wild, untamed place where recreational sex is the sport of choice and anything goes, even if it involves children. The place is eerily reminiscent of a fun park, with flashing neon signs and deafening music, yet the fun is of a seedier kind.

Fields Avenue is a never-ending strip of go-go bars where young girls flash their wares underneath signs that read Dollhouse, Brown Sugar, the Cambodia Club, and Boys Night Out.  Despite the pounding bass from inside the sex clubs, you can still hear the hawkers’ sex-talk that lures in a steady stream of unaccompanied male tourists who purchase imitation Viagra™ from street sellers and move in and out of the clubs with small Filipinas under their arms.

Maryanne Salo used to be one of those bar girls. Fleeing a life of family abuse and poverty at 13, she took to the streets of Angeles where she was picked up by a pimp and brought to work as a bar girl on Fields Avenue. Maryanne believed she would work as a waitress, but was instead forced to gyrate in a bikini for Filipinos and foreigners who could pay a bar fee to take her out of the club and do with her whatever they wished. Rescued with five other minors in 2002, the club was raided at a key moment when she was about to be shipped to Japan to work as a prostitute.

At 17, Maryanne is back in the red-light district—this time for a different reason. Fully rehabilitated and now a staunch children’s rights activist, she acted as my “tour guide” of the Angeles City sex trade.

“This is where I used to work,” she said, stopping in front of the Viper Room club. “It used to be called the G-Spot. The mamasan [club manager] told me that I needed a birth certificate proving that I was 18 (Maryanne’s aunt borrowed the birth certificate of a friend). There were many customers with different accents. They liked me because I was fair [skinned].” 

When asked what happened after her rescue, Maryanne’s explanation is brief: “The club was owned by a rich foreigner. I pressed charges and the club was shut down. Two weeks later it sprung up under the new name.”

With an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 child victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the Philippines, the island nation ranks fourth in the world for child prostitution. There are various reasons for this.

The desperate financial situation faced by the population and exacerbated by the economic crisis in Asia has pushed impoverished girls into go-go bars and clubs to service tourists, or to accept false employment offers in restaurants, promotion agencies and households in Metro Manila. They are then confined, drugged and forced to provide sexual services under the threat of violence.

This never-ending supply of girls escaping poverty, abuse and neglect fuels the demand of customers—mainly foreigners from China, Korea, Japan, western Europe, Australia and the United States, and locals who include police officers said to be regular customers.

Closely connected to child sex tourism, and more difficult to track, is the increasing production of child pornography in the Philippines. Tourists and resident foreigners provide money and gifts to families in exchange for their children who are sexually abused. The abuse is sometimes photographed or filmed and then sold, or distributed online. One senior police officer in the Philippines estimates there are between 50 and 75 cybersex dens in the country where webcams are used to broadcast children as young as 10.

Courtesy of OneChild
The G-Spot club was shut down, only to spring up again within two weeks as the Viper Room club.

Life-long injuries
For the children involved in the Filipino sex trade, the impacts vary according to each child’s individual circumstances, but the physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional and social development problems can be life-long, or even life-threatening.

The case of 12-year-old Rosario Baluyot is a testament to this sad fact. Rosario, a street child, was abused by a foreign serviceman or doctor. It is not known who inserted an electric vibrator into her vaginal canal, which broke and left a five inch-long screw in her cervix. Rosario carried the screw in her body for nearly seven months until she was found dead on the street. Even in death, she has not seen justice. Her abuser still walks.

Inadequate laws, ineffective law enforcement, corruption, lack of resources and immature legal systems allow perpetrators to commit crimes with impunity against children like Maryanne and Rosario.

Extraterritorial legislation
Canada is one of 30 countries with extraterritorial legislation that provides the jurisdiction to prosecute its own nationals for sexual crimes beyond its borders. To date, Canada has convicted only one person under this law. In order to be effective, international co-operation and government investment in financial and human resources is needed to move past problems such as a lack of awareness and evidentiary obstacles.

Under the current extraterritorial legislation, Canada is hard-pressed to obtain evidence that will secure a conviction due to such factors as distance, problems identifying the location of the crime or the victims, language barriers and the time that has passed since the offence was committed.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that Canada does not conduct its own investigations of child sex abuse abroad. Rather, the foreign government in question must provide Canada with enough evidence to support a charge in order for a prosecution to be launched. Posting additional RCMP liaison officers in known child sex tourism destinations to conduct investigations and provide local police with the skill sets for their investigations may be one way to ease these problems.

More governments are being proactive in alerting the public, police and judiciaries of their legislation though awareness campaigns. Since 2004, for instance, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services have partnered with World Vision to create deterrent messages through public service announcements and billboards on airlines and in U.S. airports, magazines and newspapers, and through brochures in taxis and hotels where U.S. travellers tend to congregate. There have been more than 20 indictments and over a dozen convictions.

Conclusion
Our exploration of the child sex trade in the Philippines afforded us the opportunity to sit face-to-face with these children as they shared their stories of exploitation and abuse. We were fortunate to participate in the rescue of a 16-year-old bar girl and work with those who risk their lives every day to protect these children.
Spending time with these children gave us much to think about and our work continues because even if just one child can be saved, it will be worth the effort.

For more information, visit www.one-child.ca.