Human Rights Focus: Spotlight on Children with UNICEF

07Sep07

 This is my new column posts titled ‘Human Rights Focus’ which will be a series of posts focusing on human rights issues in our world today.

Today’s post is brought by Agnes Chan, a well-known HK singer, TV personality, author as well as activist, whom married a Japanese husband and has three kids. She has resided in Japan for more than three decades now.  She is also the UN  Ambassador to the Japan Committee for UNICEF and has travelled widely at the invitation of the UN to visit third world countries and assist in raising awareness of these issues back in Japan as well as around the world. She has been an Ambassodor for the UN since 1998 and has travelled to varied places like the Phillipines, India, Cambodia, East Timor, and Iraq.

Bombay’s innocent victims of destitution

By AGNES CHAN

Special to The Japan Times

BOMBAY — With its fast-growing economy, IT engineering advancements and well-trained workforces, India, for me, was the image of an up-and-coming, modernizing, efficient and affluent society. Media coverage on India seemed to confirm this. So, imagine my surprise when UNICEF staff told me that “India is the biggest recipient of UNICEF aid of any single country.”

News photo
Harasuma and her children stand inside their home in the slum of Banjarpada. ARTHUR KAZUHEI KANEKO PHOTO

“For every 100 babies born in India, only 35 of them will be registered; only 25 of them will graduate from primary school and only half of them will be immunized. Forty seven of them will be undernourished and six of them will die of malnutrition, and 95 percent of the girls when they reach puberty will be anemic.”

When I saw and heard these figures, I could only shake my head in disbelief. “India is home to 18 percent of all the children in the world. Now do you understand the problem?” the UNICEF staff member continued. “We would like you to visit Bombay — to see the urban poor and report on the great economic disparity.”

Bombay was then entering its monsoon season and the winds brought with them heavy rain. “The wealthy worry about getting their shoes soiled with mud and manure from the streets, but for the poor, it is simply a struggle to stay dry and alive,” my taxi driver told me. As we endured the crowded streets of the city, I got my first look at Bombay — the real Bombay, something far from the Bollywood depictions of glamorous film stars and vibrant, beautiful settings.

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More scenes from Bombay slums
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Fifty-four percent of Bombay’s 16 million residents live in the slums. Only 25 percent live in what would pass in developed countries as apartments and houses, and Bombay is carpeted with make shift living quarters.

During my stay, I walked the slums every day through narrow alleys piled high with garbage, dodging wandering goats, dogs and crows. As I tried to avoid slipping on muddy passageways or stepping in spillage from sewers, I greeted people washing, cooking, bathing or hawking goods and looked into hundreds of tiny factories crammed together and filled with busy underage workers.

The overwhelming heat, humidity and onslaught of foul smells made the journeys unpleasant, and it took some time to get used to. Yet I was told such conditions would only get worse. “When the rain gets heavy, these slums overflow with sewage. When the filth gets into the living quarters, that’s when the children get sick,” the locals told me.

My first stop was to Sonapurgalli, a slum area inhabited by women of the sex trade. With the help of local NGOs, I was able to enter Sonapurgalli and talk to some of the women. As I made my way through the overcrowded quarters, I was surprised to see a young mother rubbing her baby with oil as it giggled blissfully, smiling with every touch.

The first woman I talked to was from Nepal. She came to Sonapurgalli at the age of 15 and soon found that once she got involved in the sex trade, it was impossible to escape it. The second woman I met was from the north. She had run away from an abusive father.

I wanted to speak to more women; however, we did not get much further into the slum before we were accosted by some men who threatened to cause a disturbance if we stayed. As we left, the NGO partner told me “Some of them [women] take customers in the slum, others work outside. All of them are controlled by their pimps.”

Commercial exploitation of children in India is a major problem. Many young girls are trafficked into the country from Nepal and these girls often are taken to big cities like Bombay where the sex trade is rife. One related concern is the spread of HIV/AIDS. The United Nations has reported that India has the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the world, and Bombay has the highest number of cases in India.

UNICEF is concerned about how brothels contribute to the spread of HIV. Men who contract the disease in a brothel can spread the virus to girlfriends or wives and their children. Making the situation worse is the rising number of AIDS orphans, often young children, who are forced to fend for themselves.

Makaswala is a compound and a well-known slum. The original residents — the people who first settled in the area — pay the city 10 rupees per month for the land. Possessing the right to stay, they are now landlords to an increasing number of newcomers.

To accommodate so many people, shacks in the slum have been divided to house several families, and tenants face monthly rents that range from 1,500 rupees to 3,000 rupees, depending on the location and size of space. In slums closer to the city center, such rents can go as high as 5,000 rupees. A deposit — anything up to 15,000 rupees — is also required, as are water and electricity fees that can add up to several hundred rupees more.

With many Indians earning only 100 rupees per day, such rent demands mean that, more often than not, residents cannot make ends meet. Unable to pay debts, some simply leave to find cheaper places to live. As a result, new and illegal slums spring up everyday. About 25 percent of the slums in Bombay are illegal.

In a small community center of Makaswala, I was approached by some teenage girls. “We are all dropouts,” they said, meaning that they had all been taken out of school. Anabi, a 12-year-old whose brothers still attend school, said she had to leave because she was expected to help take care of her twin siblings. Rupari, 11, was prevented from going to school because her parents believe girls’ education to be a waste of time. Puja, 14, was taken out of school four years ago when her mother ran away from home to escape Puja’s abusive father. Puja was left to take care of the house, her younger siblings, her grandmother and her father. Her father then took out his anger on her by beating her. Mangura, the oldest of the group at age 15, told me that she was engaged. Her parents had arranged her upcoming marriage. Although her religion requires that she wait three years before the marriage ceremony, Mangura was already helping out her future mother-in-law by doing most of the housework. Although all “dropouts,” they told me that they all wanted to go to school.

Listening to these stories confirmed many reported claims that girls are at a huge disadvantage in India. Often confined to their communities, taken out of school, married off early to avoid high dowries, physically abused and sometimes even sexually exploited, prospects for girls appear grim. Although India’s law does not permit or condone such behavior, pressures of tradition have allowed such treatment of girls to persist. Yet most communities appear oblivious to this discrimination. With girls often seen as a burden, some families choose to abort a fetus if they find out that it is female. As a result more males than females are being born in India.

Built on a hanging cliff of a small hill, Banjarpada is a relatively new slum accommodating more than 10,000 people. It is here that I met Harasuma, a young mother with an 8-month-old baby and a 3-year-old boy. Both her children were covered with bruises and appeared underfed and small for their ages. Last year, Harasuma moved to Bombay when her husband, who was working in the city, was injured in an accident. She welcomed me into her shack. She had no possessions other than some pots and pans and a few items of clothing. At night they slept on the floor, she told me.

When I visited, the wind was banging the shack’s plastic-sheet roofing, exposing a wide gap through which we could see a huge rock hanging precariously from the cliff above. “I am so worried that it will fall on us while we sleep.” Harasuma said, shuddering at the thought. When it rained, she said, the family was forced to sleep in puddles. Her husband was working for a man who sold comic books and magazines on a daily basis. But recently his boss had been cranky, and so for many days now he had come home with no pay. It was about 4 p.m. when I visited, but Harasuma told me that she and her children had not yet eaten that day. And, as if prompted, the baby started to cry. Harasuma, who had stopped lactating five months earlier and had been feeding her baby on any kind of liquid food she could get her hands on, had nothing to give.

In any country, the urban poor who own no land or resources will begin to starve as soon as money runs out and work becomes scarce. “What happens to people who cannot prevail in this struggle in Bombay?”

The locals told me: “Since they have nothing to fall back on except themselves — as a last resort, women sell their bodies, sometimes their children. Men sell their blood, or an organ, and when they die, their skeletons.” Such desperation is almost beyond belief.

I ventured to the top of Banjarpada’s hill, the highest point of which is a garbage dump and a crows’ haven. With the wind tossing trash around, it was hard to keep my eyes open, but I could see Bombay International Airport. Some high-rises were visible in the distance. Everywhere else I saw slums.

Bombay is carpeted with slums in which 12 million people live. Many of these people are migrants from other parts of India. Meraju began living in Nehru Naga slum when he arrived from Delhi several months ago. He works, eats and sleeps in an embroidery factory, which, hot and crammed with workers, appeared on the verge of collapse. For Meraju, one of 20 boys working at the factory, the factory had become a home away from home, and when I met him, he was learning basic embroidery.

On the factory’s second floor, where the sewing machines were, the boys were embroidering shirts and skirts free-hand and with amazing speed. You could call them artists.

On the floor above, the highest level of embroidery was being stitched. Working with material that is pre-cut to be sewn into a groom’s wedding outfit, the boys painstakingly sewed beads into patterns. It can take up to four days to finish a garment with four to five boys working 10 hours a day. Such beadwork is tricky and the boys often prick themselves with their needles. “It is very painful,” said Meraju, who was not yet allowed to touch the garment at such a stage. Meraju had yet to master the sewing machine, but whenever possible he would visit the third floor to watch the older boys work.

Living, working and sleeping within the factory, the boys were given meals every day, for which 200 rupees per week would be taken out of their salary. A well-skilled boy could earn up to 3,000 rupees per month. Meraju was earning 1,000 rupees, and whatever he received, he would send home.

Child labor is illegal in India where the constitution states that children under the age of 14 are not permitted to work in hazardous employment. This was recently added to with a new law banning minors from working in homes or restaurants. If caught hiring a minor, an employer can be fined. Many underage children, however, are still being employed. And if asked their age, these children have been instructed to say “15.” According to the Indian government’s plan, 2007 was to be the year when all children would be in education. Yet, I saw children working everywhere I went, and for most developed countries a 14-year-old is still regarded as a minor. In a country where even the police turn a blind eye to underage employment, I was told by a NGO representative that “these children need the work to survive. It is a big dilemma.”

W ith Bombay’s real estate in great demand and land prices as expensive as those in Tokyo, the government plans to evacuate the residents of slum areas to make way for commercial buildings. One of the slums chosen for this enforced gentrification is Banjarpada. Residents of Banjarpada are being given the choice to move into new housing or receive a sum of money to move elsewhere. This option, however, is being offered only to those who have the right of residency, meaning the landlords. Since most of those living in slums are tenants, many will have to find other homes or be forced on to the streets.

Eighty million people are considered middle and upper class in India, but within the 1.1 billion population, one person out of three lives on less than one dollar per day. At night, as the lights go out in downtown Bombay, thousands of people begin to lie down in stations and on pavements to sleep. On rainy nights, wherever shelter can be found, it is packed tight with huddled bodies. In the morning, these people awake then quickly disappear into the crowds of the streets. Some never wake up.

No one knows exactly how many street people there are, but the number of street children has been estimated by local child-rights NGO AMRAE at 200,000. The scale of homelessness is simply mind-boggling. Many children are born into unfortunate situations where the huge divide between the haves and have-nots depends not only on materialistic issues but on class and culture: It is about where people were born, what name they bear, their gender and what religion they follow. All these factors influence the opportunities a child will receive in life. Everyone is supposedly born equal, but generations of Indian children have endured the same unfortunate destination.

UNICEF and AMRAE have started a project known as “Micro Planning,” which is a five-day program designed to empower communities. Having worked very well in rural areas, the project has moved to the slums of Bombay. The program teaches people in slums how to care about their living environment by picking up garbage, using better toilet hygiene and keeping public places clean.

It also aims to improve conditions for children by teaching them simple hygiene such as washing their hands before eating, demonstrating to parents how to cook with limited resources, preparing parents for pregnancy, and encouraging parents to keep girls as well as boys in education. Day care, including meal planning, is being set up and pregnant teenagers are being given checkups and meals to combat malnutrition, while mothers are being urged to work or join training schemes to help maintain stable family incomes. Community leaders are also being trained to maintain these activities and to continue educating the community.

Together with all the other child-survival projects UNICEF is involved in, this project shows that a new way to combat poverty is taking root in India.

The biggest challenge for us today is to convince everyone that this problem of poverty is not too big to tackle. If we do nothing, then we not only accept but encourage the situation. India is brimming with youthful energy; if every child in India could fulfill his or her potential to the fullest, India would indeed be the largest democracy in the world.

I asked Kambure, a young father who has two severely malnourished children, when he thought his 3-year-old, who had not yet uttered his first word, would start speaking. He said, “It is up to the gods.” But I have to disagree. When a child is so poorly nourished, it is not just up to the gods. We can take the situation into our own hands and do something about it.

UNICEF brought Kambure’s children to a nearby clinic that night. We are not looking for a miracle to save the children of India; we are looking for commitment and hard work. We need faith — not only in the gods but in the good will of people and their unrelenting determination to create a better life for children in India. Where there is a will, there is a way.

I would like to sincerely thank the Indian government for letting UNICEF visit Bombay to meet the people mentioned above. I would also like to thank AMRAE for its great work in India and, most of all, the people of Bombay who welcomed me into their homes, gave me food and talked, laughed and cried with me. They gave me enough love to last a lifetime.

Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002

Human traffickers targeting kids

Children struggle to survive in Cambodian border town

By AGNES CHAN

Special to The Japan Times

Wani is an umbrella bearer.

She works in the largest market in Thailand, right across the Cambodian border near the town of Poipet. Ten years ago, this was a small village of only 7,000 people.

Now, it has a population of 84,000 and seven casinos catering to Thailand’s rich. Former refugees, landless peasants and the unemployed flock to Poipet to find jobs. But there are simply not enough to go around.

Most residents eke out an existence in the huge market on the border. Some jobs are plain, like those for unskilled workers, or venders, but some are unique, like pulling the wings off edible grasshoppers.

Wani, 12, uses her umbrella to shade Thai clients walking the short distance between the border to the casinos, earning an average of 30 baht a day, or about 90 yen.

Child labor is taken for granted in this dirt-poor town, with children the major source of income for many families.

Desperate parents sell their children as a last resort. The victims are taken to Thailand to work as flower and candy vendors, farm hands, laborers on construction sites, domestic helpers, beggars or sex workers.

In extreme cases, babies are trafficked for their organs or put up for adoption. More than 1 million children are believed to be victims. In the town of Poipet alone, more than 3,000 children were picked up and sent back over the border last year — countless others are simply lost.

As the ambassador of the Japan Committee for UNICEF, I joined a mission in August to learn more about the situation.

Wani lives with her parents. She has never gone to school, never has a bath and has never worn shoes in her life.

I went to her home on the rainy day I met her. She lives more than 4 km from the border, making the daily trip by bike taxi. Waking at 5 a.m., she reaches the border before it opens at 7 a.m. Crossing is easy; adults pay 10 baht but children go for free. No identification is needed.

She works until the border closes at 5:30 p.m. and heads home. The ride is bumpy. Only the roads that lead to the casinos are paved, the rest are rocky, dusty and torturous. Traffic is slow and can be spirit-breaking for travelers.

Wani’s house is a long way from even the slums, in the middle of nowhere surrounded by tall grass and mud.

It was already dark when we reached her shack. Her mother, with a baby and two toddlers, was waiting for her. She gave her mother her day’s earnings and started to care for the children, feeding them dinner. Everything leaked, the younger children were all naked and wet.

Wani didn’t even have time to wipe her face before starting the housework. Sometimes the family eats, sometimes it doesn’t. Her father did not come home that day — she can never tell when he will. Her brother went to Thailand eight months ago and has not been heard from since.

Her friend next door was sold and taken to Thailand just a month ago. Young girls attract the best prices. Wani is an ordinary child in Poipet, and children like her are targets for traffickers.

But Wani is relatively lucky because she still lives at home.

Mwet, a 13-year-old girl, lives in the care of NGO Goutte Dfeau. She accepted a drink from a stranger a year ago in Poipet and blacked out. After waking up in Thailand, she was forced to sell candy and flowers in bars. Living with nine other children under the watch of an adult, she had to make 300 baht a day in order to be fed. Most of the time she went hungry.

She was afraid to discuss her experience, so I changed the subject and asked her about dreams she had had.

“Being whipped by electric wires.” She said in a small voice. I asked her if it had actually happened, and she said, “He would whip me with electric wires when I could not make enough money. All over my body.”

She tried to run away only to be caught, taken back and whipped. She tried to ask for help and failed. Finally, after five long months, she was lucky to be picked up by the police and sent back to Cambodia.

When she reached the border, she was malnourished and in shock. Her mother had died of AIDS and her father had left with another woman while she was away. Mwet now lives at the NGO’s facility with her younger brother.

But at least Mwet has pleasant memories of her mother and believes she was loved.

Another girl, Sali, was sold twice by her mother — each time for 1,000 baht. On the day I met her, she was preparing to go to see her mother the next day. The NGO Homeland can only take a child for a maximum of two years — their ultimate aim is to return kids to the community, either to their own families or to foster homes.

Sali threw up that night, and was so sick she could not make the trip. However, she suddenly looked better when it was decided she could put the trip off to another day. I could not help but think she was afraid to see her mother again.

We went to see her anyway. She lived in Poipet, and had clean clothes — a rarity. Her shack was small and she had two small children and a young male “cousin” living with her.

“The woman told me she could find work for Sali,” she said, explaining why she sold Sali the first time. “The baby was sick and my husband had just left me. I had no choice.”

Sali was sent back by authorities. “Sali said she lived in a house looking after small children and although she was beaten, she said it was OK,” her mother said. “So I sent her out with the same woman again for another 1,000 baht.”

Sali has four siblings.

“Two boys are with relatives,” her mother said, when I asked about the others. I doubted it was true; they may well have shared the same fate as Sali.

“What if the baby gets sick again?” I asked her, “Will you sell Sali again?”

“No. Now that I know she was mistreated, I will never sell her again. I will let her look after the children and I will work to support her.”

She confessed, however, that she owed 10,000 baht. Sali, 11, was very pretty and could sell for as much as 6,000 baht. I really didn’t know whether it was a good idea to let Sali return to her mother.

Only 40 percent of Cambodia’s population of 13 million are adults and the average household in Poipet has 5.7 children.

This makes the job of the trafficker easier. In addition, the porous border at Poipet means getting them over is simple.

We learned that a trafficker lived in the resettlement area and went to take a look. At first, no one was willing to talk to us. Finally, however, a young boy who had been sold and sent back over the border gave us directions to a house.

The shack looked ordinary from the outside. It turned out to be the house of a local policeman and his family. The wife came out to greet us and showed us inside. Immediately we could see it was far more luxurious than the other houses.

We asked if she knew of anyone involved in trafficking children. She said no. When we left, we took pictures of her and her neighbors. We decided to go back and ask the boy to look at the pictures.

“There she is!” he said pointing at the policeman’s wife on the camera’s screen.

I returned to find her chatting with people outside her house. I took her by the shoulders, “So it was you. Why?”

She was defiant and demanded to know who had told us about her. We quarreled as she continued to deny she was involved.

“I have nothing against people trying to get rich, but not at the expense of children,” I nearly screamed at her.

People fled as the accusations flew and the truth seemed to come out. She did not fit my image of a trafficker — she was young, beautiful and a mother herself.

But she was in a hurry to get a little richer, even if it meant harming innocent children.

“It would be difficult to prosecute with no witnesses,” local people told us. “And since her husband is a policeman, it would be even harder.”

The local UNICEF branch was informed, however, and they will be watching her.

UNICEF has launched a program for children in need of special care. The activities include reception teams at the border to receive deported children. In collaboration with NGOs and the Ministry of Social Affairs, there are now recovery centers — half-day informal schools that provide trafficked children with meals, formal education in resettlement areas, and vocational training.

UNICEF also offers psychological assistance, community-based child protection projects, legal assistance and protection for children.

I visited a half-day school beside areas marked off as minefields. The rain left the road so muddy no one can walk in shoes. The only way was to walk barefoot.

About half of the 150 children sitting around eating their first meal of the day at 1 p.m. — rice and bamboo shoot soup — had been taken to Thailand. None of them wanted to go back, but all of them wanted to work — to help their families by earning money.

Of the nearly 50,000 children in Poipet, only 13,000 go to school. Only 600 children reach sixth grade. If Wani had been to school, she would be a sixth grader now, but she only worries about being sold and sent to Thailand.

Child traffickers exploit the most beautiful things about children: innocence, obedience, their desire to help the family, and their vulnerability. As responsible global citizens we cannot let this continue.

The gap between rich and poor gives people with money the ability to buy anything. Including lives.

Children are not commodities. Lives cannot be sold. We must unite to decry this trade until nobody can ignore the facts. If we remain quiet, we are the silent partners of the traffickers. Let the children be heard through your voice.

Monday, July 23, 2001

Exploitation of children takes terrible toll

Sex industry in the Philippines shatters the lives of its young victims

Agnes Chan, ambassador of the Japan Committee for UNICEF, as well as a popular TV personality and pop singer, visited the Philippines from June 2 to 6 on a fact-finding mission for the UNICEF Japan group to see for herself the plight of children there, especially conditions surrounding the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and to exchange opinions with people there working to improve the situation.

By AGNES CHAN Special to The Japan Times With her back to the famous Manila sunset, May (not her real name) takes off her bandanna. Her short-cropped, bleached hair makes her look like a boy. She ran away from home three years ago.

Agnes Chan listens to one of the street children of Manila

“Sometimes I do it for 500 pesos (1,200 yen),” she says. “Sometimes for 1,000 pesos.”

May lives on the streets of Manila. When she runs out of money, she sells her body to feed herself.

“We do it in the car, in the park, in the toilet. . . . Anywhere the customers want.” There is no emotion in her voice. “When I feel terrible, I take ‘shabu’ (a type of methamphetamine) or glue, or whatever I can get my hands on.”

Social workers perform a play in a Manila slum to warn young people about AIDS.

May is 16, small for her age, and walks with a limp. I ask her about it. “My mother beat me up one day when I was 10, and I fell and broke my leg.”

I hold her close and tell her I can understand why she ran away from home. She starts to cry. Large tears fall from her eyes. She opens her heart to me.

“I’ve gotten pregnant two times. I performed the abortions myself.” Concealing my shock, I ask her how. “I ran a lot, I took lots and lots of drugs and I beat my tummy,” she says. “I think the second time was twins. I’ve lost three children.”

She sighs and the sky goes completely dark.

UNICEF estimated there are 200,000 street children, including those like May and her friends, in the Philippines, with some 50,000 in Manila alone. We also call them victims of child sexual and commercial exploitation. There are more than 1 million such child victims in the world, and the Philippines is home to 10 percent of them, according to the 1996 figures released by ECPAT, or End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes.

I went to the Philippines in June on a UNICEF mission to learn more about the situation. Children like May are categorized as freelance child sex workers. They do not have pimps, and they do not work in bars or brothels. They do not have anyone to take care of them and many do not have a safe home to which they can return. These children live the riskiest of lives.

I visited Kamagayan, the largest and most organized red-light district in Cebu city. It is home to 750 families. At night on the streets, young men with ponytails and tattoos hang around, looking for customers. Girls stand around outside brothels, trying to catch the night breeze.

Three young ladies are chatting and I approach them and make small talk. I ask them their ages, and with no hesitancy the prettiest one replies, “I am 17, she is 16 and she is 15.” It is illegal in the Philippines to buy or sell sexual favors involving minors. But abiding by the law is not a priority in Kamagayan.

Kamagayan has a captain, Avila, and he carries a gun.

“The girls who work in the brothels are not locals,” he said. “They come from other provinces. The children here are in constant contact with prostitution and drugs. We need to keep them in the schools.”

Mr. Morderno, a member of the faculty at the University of San Carlos, works as a counselor to children who live in a secret shelter close to Kamagayan.

“There are hundreds of underage sex workers here,” he said. “The girls are usually lured into the trade believing that they can find a decent job in the city. There are two types of pimps. The Amou, or maintainers, recruit and take care of the girls, and make sure they do not run away. They also push drugs on the girls. The Iti, or wild ducks, chase customers and bring them to the girls.

“If a girl gets pregnant, she has to quit unless she aborts the child. When she reaches 27, she retires.”

He explained that at first the girls resist as they are raped again and again. When they find out that they cannot run away, they convince themselves that it is only a job. In the process they learn helplessness. Finally, they believe that it is their fate.

“They brainwash the children,” lamented Mr. Morderno.

These children are another category of sex workers, who work in the “casas,” or brothels.

Another type works in bars, karaoke cafes or hotels. The owner of the place controls them.

I met many of them in Angeles, former home to the famous U.S. Clark Base. When the U.S. Marines left Angeles in 1992, it was thought the red-light area would close down. It didn’t. The area is crammed with bars.

“Bars on this side are for foreigners. . . . Bars on the other side are for Filipinos. There are also brothels disguised as food stalls on the outskirts,” Jane (not her real name), a volunteer with the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women working in the area, told me. She is a former sex worker herself.

There were a lot of older Caucasian men.

“Mostly retired American soldiers,” Jane said. “Many of them live in the Philippines now.”

Girls in the go-go bars wear tiny white tops and short skirts. They dance on the tables waiting for customers. Once they sit down with a customer, the customers’ hands move all over their bodies. These bars are selling more than drinks.

Young children roam the streets. Four children ranging in age from 9 to 14 come around, and Jane tells me, “Three of them are still virgins, but if you pay them, they will perform oral sex or help you out with their hands.”

I feel so disgusted that my legs wobble and my stomach churns. “Oh help me Lord,” I think. “Children are not sex toys.”

Many nongovernmental organizations in the Philippines, in cooperation with UNICEF, are trying to help children who are in the sex trade.

There are drop-in centers for street children, shelters for girls who run away from brothels, training centers, and prevention groups that develop radio programs and use live theater to educate high-risk groups.

In one of the shelters for child victims in Cebu, I met Flora (not her real name). Flora screamed and pounded as the counselor cried, “Let it out, let it out!” She fell into my arms and cried like a baby. Everyone in the room was crying. I felt like I was drowning in sorrow.

Flora’s anger was directed at her father, who raped her. That caused her to run away from home and end up in Kamagayan. She was among 20 victims living in the shelter.

I attended one of their counseling sessions. Six girls ranging from 15 to 20 years old shared chilling life stories that would cause any soul to bleed. They were raped by their fathers, battered by their mothers, cheated into the sex trade, bore the children of their rapists, were tempted to steal, to take drugs and to commit suicide.

I held each of them close to me, and told them nothing can hurt them and that they are as beautiful as they were when they were born. The girls would not let go of me. Two of them begged me, “Can you be my mother? Can you be my mother?”

Melissa is not afraid to give her real name. She is now 19. She left home when her village was buried under the volcanic ash of Mount Pinatubo and her mother remarried.

Trusting an aunt who promised her a job as a waitress in Manila, she was lured into the sex trade. She sought help when she got pregnant and found refuge at a shelter. Now she is studying to be a secretary and is also helping others like her to get out of the trade by distributing training-program pamphlets to girls in Angeles.

Nene, head of the shelter where Melissa lives, said: “All is not lost. We are trying to help these young people to help themselves and others.”

Joseph (not his real name) is among a group of former victims who paint their faces to hide their identities and regularly perform skits in slums aiming to teach children the risks of the sex trade.

“I sold myself to men for a year trying to make ends meet for my family. It was easy money, and nobody in the family had a job. But I quit after meeting these people.”

Now he is back in school. I performed with him in Tangunbai, Manila, where 150 families live and where an estimated 5 percent of the children sell themselves.

“It is a healing process for the victims and an education program for the high-risk children,” said a representative of Lunduyung, an NGO specializing in protecting children’s rights and in which Joseph is a member.

Positive forces, though small when compared to the problem, are gaining momentum. The Philippines has a very young population, with 45 percent of its 73 million people under 18 years old. Thirty-eight percent live in poverty, making less than $ 200 annually. Only six out of every 100 children who enter primary schools graduate, and only three out of the six ever make it to high school.

Despite efforts by the government, the age of sex workers has dropped dramatically in the last few years. It is an uphill battle for all of us combating sexual and commercial exploitation of children.

Our foes are poverty, organized crime, family violence, lust, lack of education and social care, and many other evils.

As Captain Avila put it plainly, “This trade will not disappear, but we must try to protect the children.”

Mr. Morderno was more blunt about a basic difference a shelter can make. “One day in the shelter is five or six fewer times the child will have intercourse.”

As for me, one child saved is one angel back from hell. Two children saved is a pair of fairies back on Earth. Three children saved is a lot of hope and glory for the volunteers who work so hard day and night.

Deny the men who lust for young bodies, condemn the people who sell children, push the arms of the law to reign in the vice, and keep our voices loud so children know where to seek help.

Japanese are among the exploiters as customers; the least we can do is to lobby for better enforcement of existing legislation and make the nation more aware of the situation.

The Second World Conference against commercial and sexual exploitation of children will be held in Yokohama this December. Show the world that you are on our side. If not, exploiters of the worst kind will continue to have their way.

heartbreaking really…..:(

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