Carmela recounts the fateful day 10 years ago when she and her sisters were rescued by the local authorities after their mother tried to traffic her daughters to a paedophile ring in the city.
“It was still dawn and dark outside. My sisters and I were taking a 3-hour bus journey to the airport. Our mother was a few seats behind us. I was praying hard that we would not reach our destination. Suddenly, our bus stopped. Police officers got on board the bus looking for someone. A police officer approached me, and said “Are you Carmela? Where is your mother?”
Carmela and her 2 younger sisters had a tough and painful childhood. Their mother brought them up on her own, so there was no one to protect them from her violent behaviour.
Language of violence
“I learned the language of violence at a young age,” Carmela says. “I was physically and psychologically abused for as long as I remember.”
Carmela was strangled, dragged across the floor, pushed down the stairs and hit on the head by her own mother. “Hurting me eventually became her hobby.”
This time, she was selling us. Our mother was selling her own children.
Turning to education as a way of escaping. Carmela studied diligently and achieved top marks in her elementary classes. During her school graduation, her mother kissed and congratulated her, but Carmela knew it was just a display for the other parents because beneath her graduation gown were fresh bruises from the beating she received the night before.
It was then she decided to finish her studies. “This was the only way I could improve our lives and perhaps change my mother.”
It was while she was at high school that Carmela grew suspicious of her mother who suddenly seemed to have a lot of money for someone without a permanent job. Her mother claimed that Carmela’s father was sending money for her education.
But her suspicions grew when their neighbours - mostly mothers - began to visit their house frequently and her mother wouldn’t let her listen to their conversations.
“One by one, girls from our neighborhood - some, my friends - were offered jobs in Manila.”
A local village official accused her mother of forcing children to work as prostitutes in the city. Her mother vehemently denied it and Carmela believed her.
Weeks later, her mother told Carmela that her father wanted to meet her in the city, along with her sisters. A few days before their scheduled flight, her younger sister inadvertently read email exchanges between their mother and a foreign man.
The truth unravelled. Carmela and her sisters were not meeting her father in the city, but a foreign paedophile. “This time, she was selling us. Our mother was selling her own children.”
Reaching out for help
Terrified, Carmela immediately told her relatives, who sought help from the school. They contacted Plan International who run an anti-trafficking project in the area. Working alongside the local authorities, we organised the rescue of Carmela and her sisters.
On 13 December, 2008, the day of their flight to Manila, Carmela and her sisters were rescued by the local police. Their mother was arrested and is currently serving a prison sentence after being convicted of child trafficking.
I survived child sex trafficking, and now I feel a responsibility to help others.
Although they had been freed from the grasps of their abusive mother, life for Carmela and her sisters was still tough. Unable to provide for themselves, they had to stay under the protection of the social services department. For the next 6 years, Carmela was separated from her siblings.
After dropping out of school in her second year of high school, Carmela was determined to finish her education. She joined the government’s alternative learning course and took the acceleration exam. “I passed the exam and went straight to college.”
Carmela studied for a degree in social work and at the age of 19, passed the board examination and graduated. It took 2 more years until she was finally granted custody of her younger sisters.
Keeping girls safe
Carmela now works as the secretariat of her region’s Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, a government council tasked to lead the implementation of the country’s anti-trafficking laws.
“I survived child sex trafficking, and now I feel a responsibility to help others who are still living in that hell and think there’s no way out,” she says.
Carmela helps women and children fight for their rights and be protected from abuse and exploitation. She is also an active advocate of Plan International’s #NotForSale campaign which fights against the commercial exploitation of children.
Through the collective action of government agencies and international organisations like Plan International, we are committed to ensuring that Carmela and girls like will be protected from abuse and exploitation.
“I was rescued because I asked for help. And someone listened.” Carmela says with a determined look in her eyes. “And now, I will do the same for others.”
As the lead secretariat of the Regional Inter-Agency Council against Trafficking, Carmela is one of the active government partners of the Collaborative Action against Trafficking initiative.