While doing this internship, I am hearing some of the most awful stories. They do not wake me up at night, but hearing people tell their stories is nonetheless impressive. After a while, I just would like to share these stories, but, they are not my stories to tell…Yet, someone needs to, to make people understand what is happening.
For the sake of trying to give you an idea anyways: I have heard about, and met, children as young as two or three years old that were already abused. I have had a teacher sitting next to me crying, because after a few years she was still so emotional about one of her elementary students that asked for her help to escape the sexual abuse of an uncle. I have met girls that were abused in a way that can only be described as torture. Seen the cigarette burns on their skins. I have seen videos where they had to black out the imagery because it became too inappropriate. And yet, it is nothing compared to what any organization in this field deals with almost on a daily basis.
But what is the larger picture? That is difficult to say. The Philippines is a country that is, especially in the cities, quickly modernizing, as well as westernizing in culture. Yet large parts of the country still live in extreme poverty. There are places where they are largely dependent on rice or sugarcane, but also parts where there is huge unemployment since there is simply not that much to do to earn money. This means that, there are many different situations, different forms of living, even cultural differences I guess. So there are different forms of slavery and human trafficking as well. It makes the situation very complex and hard to monitor.
I have heard many stories as parents being involved as perpetrators or choosing sides with perpetrators, but also met families that clearly love their children very much. Although poverty is an important (a main?) driver of being involved one way or another -as victim, middle man, spectator, or perpetrator- it is hard to generalize. Take for example the sugarcane farms. Parents sometimes keep their children out of school to help out on the lands. However, children also have to work on other people’s land, for low wages and long hours. Does this make the farmers evil slave keepers, or do they (somewhat unaware) just make use of a common practice for cheap labor force?
What is my point? I think it is very important for people to educate themselves about these practices. There are many different practices, causes, consequences and forces involved that form a complex whole. Awareness is therefore important, foremost amongst those involved or at risk to be involved. But I believe that people from countries in Europe (America, Australia) also should learn more. It may feel like something that is happening far from home, but that is not entirely true.
First of all, many of the sex tourists come from these countries. You can call them “sick individuals” and ignore the issue because it is not something you will ever encounter. But the sheer volume (and that is just the Philippines, I did not even start yet about other countries where these issues are happening) show it is not just a small problem of a few exceptional cases. However, again, it is complicated. You can also not just accuse every white man that is coming here of bad intentions. There are many different reasons to be here, and not every guy that walks around with a Filipina is only in it for her looks and her age. So understanding this is important.
Next, and which is maybe more rampant, just as damaging, and much harder to identify, is the use of cyberpornography. It is relatively new, quickly growing and anyone could be involved without others ever finding out. Meanwhile, children here in the Philippines are abused in front of live webcam feeds, performing anything the customer asks, sometimes with their parents involved. Terre des hommes estimated that at any given moment 750 000 (!!!) people are looking online for cybersex with minors. Imagine how many that is on a daily basis.
Lastly, and this is a tricky one to get right, is our involvement in poverty and inequality. You cannot simply say western countries are selfish colonizers that never really left their practices behind. The Philippines, and other countries, are independent now and their governments should be responsible for the situation in their own country. However, the world order never really changed since times of colonization and we do have to carry some of the blame.
Besides, we tend to see slavery and trafficking as a human rights issue, an ethical issue. But on a larger scale, it cripples economies. Imagine scientists not being able to do new discoveries, entrepreneurs to start innovative ideas, engineers and IT’ers not to be able to develop life changing technologies, simply because they never got that far, being stuck in factories, mines, brothels, cyber den’s, and tourist resorts. It is a waste of human capital. Buying cheap products, travelling these countries as cheaply as possible, and excluding them from important decisions in international contexts keeps them right in the position where they are.
I saw that my camera lens came from the Philippines. Trust me, it was not that cheap. But most likely, either it should have been even more expensive to ensure fair wages and labor conditions, or the price was right and money just got stuck in the wrong place. I wondered how likely it was that the designer was a Filipino. Not one of the rich ones that can afford expensive education abroad, but an average one, that simply found out he or she was talented and decided to go to university after high school. Like the actual designer probably did…
And that is what I mean when I talk about a waste of human capital. And it is exactly that waste of human capital, a bad economy and overall poverty that keep inhumane practices as human trafficking and slavery thriving. We need to acknowledge that, educate ourselves, and reflect what our own role is (no matter how big or small that role) and seek opportunities for change. That is not charity, if we are -maybe unwillingly! – part of the problem it is simply our responsibility. At least to the level where we are not contributing to the problems anymore, from there on it is up to you!