Managing Editor: Juliana Zhu, Esq.
Volume 2, Issue 2, Winter 2013
CHILDHOOD DREAMS AWAKEN TO NIGHTMARES: POVERTY, VULNERABILITY, AND EXPLOITATION IN THE PHILIPPINES
By Mark Fisher, U.S. Director of Red Window Project
Gina is from a poor family in the Philippines and had a dream about attending college. She was realizing the dream until the cost of tuition revealed the limitations afforded by poverty. She dropped out of school to find work and someone offered a job as a singer-dancer in Malaysia, which promised high pay. Like many who have been trafficked, arrival in the foreign land was followed by confiscation of her passport – not to mention her identity – and forced sexual bondage to a host of strange men. Fortunately, despite captors’ threats and other obstacles, Gina escaped and was referred to Red Window Project. Red Window Project nurtured and educated Gina, helping her fulfill her dream of a university degree, which she eventually obtained. Her trafficker? He now has life in prison to think about the choices he made.
While still in elementary school, Gina had a dream. Like most wild childhood aspirations, Gina’s dream was a grand one. Gina’s bold dream was to earn a college degree.
She was one of seven siblings growing up “dirt poor” in Cebu, Philippines, the country’s second largest metropolitan area with over 4,000,000 people (1). 22% of them live in extreme poverty, struggling to survive on less than $1.25 per family member each day (2).
Poor children around the world face a daunting minefield of obstacles (3). Compared to kids who aren’t poor, they are more likely to suffer developmental delay, accidental death, childhood disability, malnutrition, illness, poor health, and mental disorders. They are also more likely to be victims of neglect, abuse, physical assault, rape, and human trafficking.
Girls born in the bottom 40% of the economic class are 8 times more likely to be undereducated at 23 than girls born into the top 40%. By the time Gina turned 23, unemployment in Cebu would be over 30% and more than 80% of entry-level jobs would require education beyond a high school degree.
Gina didn’t know those statistics about education, but she knew that no one in her family had ever gone beyond 6th grade.
Whether naïve or determined or both, Gina became the first in her family to enter high school and then graduate. She even enrolled in college until the tuition fee came due. That’s when Gina’s glorious goal was exposed for being just a silly schoolgirl’s dream. The reality check came in the form of a bill she could not pay. Gina’s cherished dream shrunk to a tiny shard of hope that she stuffed into a secret corner of her heart. Then she followed her mother into the labor market as a maid.
Poor girls who are idyllic dreamers occasionally get an opportunity that seems to reward their optimism. Such is the glittery stuff of princess tales. If you ever met Gina, you would wish her the brightest glass slipper and the happiest of ever afters.
Gina’s chance was an adventure overseas in a gig that was just perfect for her. A neighbor said she could join a band with four other Filipino girls and perform in Malaysia, making three times what jobs in Cebu paid. Gina loves to sing and dance—she was even in a dance troupe at school. Surely, Gina’s natural talent, extra-curricular experience, and positive outlook all coalesced into good fortune. She quickly agreed, joined her band-mates, and rehearsed routines for a month before flying west. They arrived in Miri, a city that thrives on the petroleum industry and tourism.
Despite the excitement of becoming professional performers and confidence from hours of practice, “stage jitters” on the first night were to be expected. Those jitters were exacerbated when their employers took away their passports and return tickets.
Jitters became terror when they learned that their singing and dancing were just preludes to what customers actually filled the bar to purchase. The girls’ polished routines were mere appetizers to the main course, which was sex for sale. Gina and her friends had been ruthlessly trafficked, and their young bodies were nothing more than menu items.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 4,500,000 women and girls are victims of sex trafficking around the world. The primary vulnerability factor for the vast majority of them is poverty.
Even if Gina knew she was just one of millions in global statistics, she wouldn’t accept such a fate. An assessment of Gina states that she is “decisive on her decisions and is focused on her goal.” Although a redundant observation, Gina would need a double-dose of decisiveness. Her goal of graduating from college had steadily become less and less likely since childhood. From a silly fantasy of a poor schoolgirl to the improbable hope of a penniless graduate. Now, as a modern-day slave, it was simply impossible.
Yet while that dream was pushed further and deeper into her heart until it was just a sliver of a glimmer, she refused to let a slave-trader or anyone else snuff it out. From being sold nightly in a foreign city by vicious men, she needed to return to the birthplace of her dream.
Despite threats from their captors, an inability to speak the local language, and the lack of money or passports—this heroic troupe of five songbirds fled. Their harrowing escape was more perilous as Malaysian officials refused to help them. But sympathetic Filipinos played a role in this miraculous deliverance through the Philippine Embassy and finally back to Cebu.
International Justice Mission helped prosecute the case against their trafficker and, after almost four years of relentless determination, he was sentenced to life plus 20 years. In the meantime, Gina was referred to Red Window Project (RWP), an innovative nonprofit aftercare organization that specializes in equipping survivors of sex trafficking to land and succeed in promising careers.
Recognizing that poverty is the leading vulnerability factor for re-trafficking, RWP empowers survivors through a comprehensive program of career counseling, market-based job readiness training, and employment placement services so they can reach economic self-sufficiency. In three years, RWP has served 274 survivors of trafficking and criminal exploitation.
Because education is critical to employability, RWP also provides scholarships for program graduates to qualify for their dream jobs—134 have gone to school with those scholarships over the last three years. They encourage their students to “dream big,” so many of the girls eventually pursue college, a destination few of them ever considered before.
When Gina learned she could earn a scholarship during RWP’s 12-week career program, the dream that had been suppressed flourished to the forefront. She was granted a scholarship in April, 2011. In December, 2012, Gina was still persevering in school despite dire poverty and intimidating challenges. She praised RWP staff for believing in her ability to overcome: “Sometimes I feel weak when there are obstacles, so I am thankful for their support.”
Then she asserted: “Nothing is impossible for God.”
Perhaps she was prophetic.
Just five months later, she was awarded her university degree in hospitality management.
“Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” Prophet Isaiah
Mark Fisher is the U.S. Director of Red Window Project. He has served in the role for a year after being asked to join the organization, which meant becoming a rookie as a non-profit organization staff member after 23 years of sales, marketing, and publishing experience in the sporting goods industry. He is a Justice Campaigns State Leader for International Justice Mission, a Western Seminary student, and a columnist about sex trafficking for Examiner.com.