The director of Cebu's Department of Social Welfare and Development, Teodulo Romo, admits, "We were not ready when we stepped up the rescue operations.... Aftercare was the weakest link." Hence, the escapes. HerSpace, he noted, is "surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire to prevent people from the outside coming in." After the air conditioner escape, "We had to reinforce the perimeter, and so far there have been no more escapes since that happened in May." IJM helped to improve security at another facility, called The Haven, as well, by building higher walls and fences--ostensibly meant to protect the women and girls but perhaps even more effective at making sure they couldn't leave the shelters.
One NGO, called Bidlisiw, takes a drastically different approach to its counter-trafficking work. Huddled in the shadow of a bridge overpass, the Bidlisiw building houses a classroom with a green chalkboard and rough chairs, and a staff office with wooden desks crowded in rows, as in a schoolhouse. The floor of the office runs down at a slant, with the effect of making one feel a bit drunk when traversing the room. Bidlisiw was once funded by USAID but saw its funding dry up when that organization began to shift from its safer-sex approach to a more abstinence-based policy in 2002 and 2003. European funders then stepped in to support the organization's work.
Over the course of twenty years Bidlisiw has developed a rigorously holistic program for children in the commercial sex industry. It reaches out on all fronts--offering the families and children comprehensive psychosocial counseling, livelihood initiatives, microloans and tutoring and vocational training. It also educates clients on the anti-trafficking law and HIV prevention.
Last year 140 families graduated from the program--preliminary indicators show that 30 percent of the children have left prostitution. "That's a lot for us. If we can't stop them, at least they can help themselves a little bit more with our support," says executive director Lolita Ganapin.
Under Philippine law, every one of Bidlisiw's clients would be considered a trafficking victim--all of them are underage children in the sex industry. Ganapin finds an organization like IJM useful for the most extreme cases--"when we know the child is in clear bondage or is being abused or severely taken advantage of by pimps"--and has also discreetly reported such cases to the police. However, she doesn't advocate for wholesale rescue operations to remove the majority of her organization's clients from the sex industry. Cebu province doesn't have adequate facilities for all of them, she said, and "after [the children are] released, they will go back. It's better...to proceed to a more planned-out intervention that has a longer impact."
A few women involved in Bidlisiw outreach programs filter through the office--20-year-old Maricel, stout, smiling, in a red shirt; Ronalin, 24, who speaks excellent English and worked for the organization as a peer educator; and Grace. Immensely pregnant, Grace has huge sloe eyes and a downturned mouth--she is snacking on a stick of grilled meat and slurping from a glass Pepsi bottle. Grace and Ronalin both started working the bars when they were teenagers--Ronalin was deceived by a friend; Grace was not. Maricel, however, claims she just started sex work two months ago, when her mother suggested she work the streets so they'd have enough money for rice. Her military boyfriend is her "manager" and that of Grace as well, who works in a friend's house along with five other girls.
As we continue talking, however, some of the stories begin to unravel. At first Maricel says she was caught in a police sweep just this year, as was Grace, who was then released because she was pregnant. Have they been caught in raids before? Maricel shakes her head vaguely. Grace snorts and says, "Stop lying! She was captured in a raid much earlier--when she was 12. She was lying to you before, you know. She's one of the runaways who escaped from a shelter."
Maricel speaks with her gaze in her lap. "It's true. I didn't want you to think badly of me. I've been working the streets a long time. But I'm good, you know. I always use condoms."
Another snort. "Liar! You don't. I know you want to get pregnant," says Grace. "You don't even go for the health checkups at the government clinic."
A hullabaloo breaks out. After five or so minutes of frantic gesticulating and rapid-fire Cebuano, Maricel has promised to talk over her decision to abandon condoms with a Bidlisiw staff member, who will also accompany her to the clinic the following Monday. Grace looks sideways at Maricel, gesturing with her now picked-clean kebab stick, and says, "Take a good bath before, because otherwise the nurse will get really mad and stick a ladle in you instead of a speculum." The group screeches in laughter. According to the Bidlisiw staff, Grace has a strong, salutary effect on the younger girls, pushing them to take care of their health, trying to encourage them to go back to school--so much so that the organization's leaders were eyeing her as a future peer educator. "But then, there's the baby," says Bidlisiw staff member Pam. "So who knows if she would have the time. But they really listen to her."
Maricel refuses to reply. She stands up, brushes off the top of her pants and announces she is going home to shower before going out to meet customers.