Friendly and happy - that’s how friends often describe 15-year-old Angela (not her real name), the youngest of 6 siblings. But behind her smile is a harrowing secret. For nearly 2 years, she was repeatedly coerced by her older sister into performing sexual acts in front of a computer for a paying online audience.
Resources were scarce in Angela’s small fishing community. Her father was a fisherman who barely earned enough to cover his family’s basic needs, let alone support his 6 children’s education. So, in 2016, Angela left her parents’ home to move in with her 28-year old sister Grace (not her real name) who lived in the city and promised to pay for her education.
But Angela did not know that Grace hid a dark secret. Several times a week, Grace went online to chat with strange men. She took her clothes off in front of a computer, danced if requested, and performed sex acts. All in exchange for money.
But when her clients wanted someone younger, Grace started asking Angela to take her place. Grace coerced Angela to perform for her customers.
Angela did not realise that what they were doing was wrong until she overheard Grace talking to her boyfriend. “My sister wanted to stop because she felt the police were after her,” Angela recalls. “I knew then that she would get caught eventually.”
The abuse lasted for 2 years until February 2018 when police officers came to Grace’s house to rescue Angela, along with her older brother, a cousin and a neighbour who were also being exploited by her sister.
THE GROWTH OF ONLINE CHILD SEXUAL EXPLOITATION
Angela is just one of an estimated 100,000 Filipino children who are trafficked each year. And the numbers are growing at an alarming rate with the rise of online exploitation.
According to a local report, the number of reported cases of trafficking doubled from 2016 to 2017. More than half involved children and young people below 23, with prostitution and online sexual exploitation as the top reasons for trafficking.
A study commissioned by Plan International in 2016 revealed that the nature of sexual exploitation of children has shifted from being primarily establishment-based to a virtual online network, leaving children in countries like the Philippines, one of the world leaders in social media use, increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
EMPOWERING CHILDREN AND COMMUNITIES
Plan International, through its Collaborative Action against Trafficking project, has partnered with government and service providers to help them improve their recovery and rehabilitation services for trafficked children like Angela.
The 3-year project provides specialist training on child sexual exploitation, labour and trafficking, as well as the establishment of community-based child protection mechanisms to government partners, civil society and community members.
We are also training children and young people how to protect themselves against child trafficking and what they can do to help other children do the same. Peer-to-peer educators lead their own workshops where they facilitate sessions with children and young people from their schools and communities.
REBUILDING THE LIVES OF THE CHILD TRAFFICKING SURVIVORS
Unlike the hidden number of unreported trafficked children, Angela is now safe and secure in a government-funded care home where abused and exploited women and children receive support services, ranging from housing and food to finding appropriate medical care and filing cases in court.
“When I was brought to this home, I was afraid and crying. I did not understand why I had to stay here - I thought I would have to stop going to school,” she says.
Now Angela understands that the care home is supporting her recovery. “I am happier since my family visits often. I have enrolled onto a food and beverages course at a vocational training school while I wait for junior high school to begin,” she says, adding: “I hope to finish school and become a flight attendant someday.”
Happy that she now can make a fresh start, Angela shares the same hope for other trafficked children like her. “I hope they too can finish their education and find stable jobs so we will not become victims again.”