Battling Covid-19 fears and rising cybersex crimes, one shelter in the Philippines fights to provide a safe refuge for young survivors.
As the Philippines went into crisis mode during the pandemic, massive lockdowns were imposed, schools were shuttered and curfews kicked in last year. Amid the chaos and fear swirling around the coronavirus, one shelter in Cebu kept its doors open to take in young survivors of online sexual abuse – even when other shelters were turning them away.
The shelter had another urgent matter on its hands – the rise in tip-offs about cybersex crimes during the pandemic.
Bart van Oost is the executive director of C.U.R.E. Foundation, Inc, a child protection foundation that operates Rancho ni Cristo – the only aftercare shelter in the Philippines that exclusively takes in victims rescued out of online sex trafficking.
He cites how an alarming phenomenon has emerged, where the Covid-19 pandemic has paved the way for more rampant abuse of vulnerable Filipino children.
The country’s Department of Justice recorded a threefold increase in online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) cases, following massive lockdowns which began in March 2020.
Restricted by the quarantine measures, sexual predators increasingly turned to cyberspace to satisfy their urges – and poverty-stricken families eager for cash in turn offer a ready supply of visual materials featuring their children.
“Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and helpless seeing the rise in cyber tips, knowing that hundreds of children are trapped and not rescued yet. But there are many cases that never get reported,” he said.
Philippines’ dark underbelly
In recent years, the Philippines has become the global epicenter of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), with Cebu being a hotspot for cybersex trafficking in particular.
A study by UNICEF in 2016 showed that 2.5 percent of children in the country have had their nude bodies or sexual activities shown on the Internet or on a cellphone.
On average, the children are about 12 years old and are groomed to perform sexual acts in photos or live stream for the consumption of sexual predators who hail mostly from first world countries.
For Jane* (not her real name), it began with an innocent request from her aunt to visit her home after school, when she was 11 years old. But when her aunt instructed her to stand in front of the camera, the young girl was doubtful.
Do it for the sake of your little cousins, urged her aunt. Money was tight, and they could barely even afford to buy formula milk. Jane tried to ignore her feelings. After all, her aunt had been there for her when Jane’s parents abandoned her, leaving her under the care of her grandparents.
Her aunt, who was not working, had three young children to support. Despite being desperately poor, their family still found ways to create small moments of joy in their household. Jane remembers how they had fun singing karaoke and dancing together at her grandparents’ home. Through their close-knit relationship, her aunt helped to overcome Jane’s feelings of low self-worth and inadequacy.
So when her aunt made these requests, Jane downplayed her discomfort. But then her cousin – only two years old then – was made to pose in front of a camera too. Jane was torn between keeping it a secret or bringing it up to her grandparents.
The abuse continued for over a year. She couldn’t remember the exact number of times the abuse took place, but it always happened the same way – she was told to enter her aunt’s room and stand in front of the camera multiple times.
Until one day, her aunt was caught.
Jane remembers it vividly. She was 12 then. One moment, she was asleep in bed and the next, she woke up to the sight of a social worker and two policemen entering her grandparents’ home in the middle of the night. Everything was just a blur and no one explained what was going on at first. Finally, during the interview process, they explained what her aunt had done to her.
Jane broke down. “It finally confirmed that what my auntie was doing was wrong. I never knew this was considered human trafficking. I felt so angry towards her, but I blamed myself too because I thought it was my fault.”
The road to recovery
After her ordeal, Jane was transferred to Rancho ni Cristo, located atop a hillside overlooking verdant green fields.
Here, the girls are provided food, shelter, medical care, and can complete junior high school at the school located on-site. They are also taught music, dance, arts and sports and undergo life skills training to equip them for future jobs.
However, OSEC is a highly complex issue. One disturbing aspect is that OSEC is typically a family-based crime. Data shows that abuse was perpetrated by their own biological parents (41%) and relatives (42%), according to non-governmental organisation International Justice Mission.
“Parents perpetuate these misconceptions. They think, ‘It doesn’t harm my children because I’m there to watch it.” But then it starts from photos and then it gets worse and worse,” explains Bart.
The Covid-19 stay-at-home measures also make cases harder to detect, said Bart. Confined to their homes, young children have little to no access to teachers or other trusted persons to confide in about the abuse.
In fact, the shelter saw three survivors who experienced online abuse that started during the lockdown. All three had contacted social services through Facebook simply because they were not allowed to leave the house.
Bart recalls how the staff at Rancho ni Cristo swung into action. To cope with the rising number of rescued survivors during the pandemic, they created additional space for them until the shelter reached full capacity. They also hired extra staff, including security personnel, to ensure the health and safety of the shelter’s residents and staff.
Currently, 34 girls are living there, says Bart. Since it opened in 2015, the shelter also works closely with the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare, International Justice Mission and local police, which conducts raids and pursues legal action against perpetrators.
Even after the rescues, children end up blaming the justice system, excusing their families for having done it out of necessity. Sometimes, it takes years for them to realise that what their families did to them was wrong, said Bart.
“In the Philippines, family is very important. People accuse us of creating dysfunctional families when we take the children away from their families,” he said.
“Many survivors feel like they are being punished by being taken away from their community and isolated, even though they feel they did nothing wrong.”
A huge stigma towards children who have been sexually abused exists as well. Many survivors choose not to testify in court, fearing that they bring shame to their families. It is also hard to find foster families for them.
The process of rehabilitation is a tough and painful road. Survivors live through intense trauma – ranging from trauma from the abuse, the separation of their family and post-trauma. Triggers such as cameras, people entering the rooms without permission or even the way people look at them can cause great distress.
Through counselling and mentoring, some survivors can learn to forgive and let go, while for others it is a “lifetime process”, says Amazing Grace Salitrero, the shelter’s social worker.
The hope is that these survivors will be able to graduate, find good jobs, have the skills and coping mechanisms to move on, become a positive influence in their community and eventually “break the circle of poverty,” said Bart.
Still, Bart admits that at times the work can be overwhelming. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job where you can just log off at night and call it a day. Working with survivors and their families can be very challenging, frustrating, emotional but also very rewarding from time to time.”
Seeing success stories of survivors excel despite their challenging backgrounds has given the staff strength to continue with their mission, says Bart.
In Jane’s case, she found solace in talking about her past, writing poems and listening to music. It took a long time before she chose to forgive her aunt, who she has not been in contact with since she was sent to prison.
“Even if the pain it cost me was unbearable, she will always be my aunt, and that fact will never change,” she says. “But even with that, it will not be a reason for me to stop seeking for justice. It just means that I am no longer willing to be a victim of the situation, but a survivor.”
Now 16 years old, Jane has since left the shelter, is thriving well in her community and has “excellent grades,” says Bart. She continues to keep in touch with the staff at Rancho, sending regular updates on her life and wishing them on all of their birthdays.
“At the end of the day we believe that what we are doing is making an impact. Not just in the lives of the survivors but also in the lives of their family and community,” said Bart.
“It strengthens us that in all of this mess, darkness and pain there are still good things happening.”