Touch me not
How UNICEF Philippines is upholding children’s right to protection from abuse and trafficking
Twelve-year old Caridad (not her real name) lives at a UNICEF-supported halfway house for abused and trafficked children in the Philippines. Four months ago, she and a ten-year-old friend were raped by six neighbours in her village, including the captain of the local barangay council.
Her mother reported the incident to social services and Caridad was brought to the halfway house for her own safety, while the men were arrested. One of the men tried to pay the family off but they refused. Caridad wants the men to go to jail. “We have the medical certificate as evidence against them,” her social worker Arlene says.
Despite her traumatic experience, Caridad is obviously happy at the halfway house and is very affectionate with Arlene, one of two social workers there. “I like living in the halfway house,” Caridad says. “There are lots of things to do, like cooking and arts and crafts. Every day we decide our own menu and cook it together with the other children. I also like making decorations from recycled materials like drink bottles and crisp packets.”
UNICEF’s work is based on upholding children’s rights, including the right to protection from abuse. In the 1990s, the Philippines adopted a law protecting children from abuse, exploitation and discrimination. However, children remain at risk of sexual and physical abuse, trafficking and child pornography.
“Sexual abuse has long been recognised as a major form of abuse in the Philippines,” Ani Saguisag, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Philippines, says. “The changes in the law have been a catalyst in raising awareness that abuse is not acceptable, that children have rights and that you can be punished for abusing them.”
In the past, there was a reluctance to report cases of sexual abuse because of the shame that this could bring on the family. “In most of the cases the perpetrator is someone known to the family or even part of the family,” Ani explains. “It could be a father, brother or uncle. In some cases there’s a fear that if you report these cases, you’ll lose the family breadwinner. Thankfully, attitudes are now changing and there has recently been an increase in the number of cases being reported, which is encouraging.”
The halfway house, has dealt with a number of cases like Caridad’s in recent months. In another case, social workers discovered that several children between the ages of 12 and 16 had been trafficked to work as child prostitutes in bars in a nearby mining village, where there had been a gold rush.
Thankfully, the children were rescued from the bars by social workers and brought to the halfway house. Treatment was arranged for four of the children, who had contracted sexually-transmitted infections. Social services in their home towns were contacted, so that the children could be returned home, and a court case was also brought against the bar owners.
“The children didn’t know they were going to be sex workers,” Arlene says. “Their families were told they were going to be waitresses or dish washers and they were promised a better life. But when they arrived in the town they were told: ‘You have food and shelter, now this is what you have to do to pay for it’. There was nothing they could do about it and no one they could go to for help.”
Children are trafficked for a variety of reasons in the Philippines. “This can be for work, prostitution, adoption or even for the sale and removal of organs,” Ani comments. “Armed conflict can increase children’s vulnerability, as can the size of families. If a poor family has more than five or six children to feed and send to school, this can put the older girls in particular at risk of trafficking.”
There are other factors that can lure children and families into trafficking. “There is a perception in poor, rural areas that life is better in urban areas, with more opportunities for work and study,” Ani says. “There is also the issue of supply and demand – if there was no demand for sexual services in brothels and nightclubs, then the supply of children wouldn’t exist. You can’t blame it all on poverty.”
UNICEF’s response to this issue is holistic and aimed at building a protective environment for children. This includes supporting halfway houses and rescue operations; improving the enforcement of child protection laws and the prosecution of offenders; and preventative measures to stop children being abused in the first place.
Another preventive measure is to identify at-risk communities, for example in poor rural areas or places where child trafficking networks already exist, and targeting education outreach activities there. “In those areas, we’re supporting parenting effectiveness seminars, life skills education for children at risk and further community education,” Ani adds.
The halfway house where Caridad is staying provides a range of services for children, using supplies and educational materials provided by UNICEF. “When the children arrive, we provide them with clothes, medical assistance and food,” Arlene says. “We then do group and individual therapy and some basic education. Many of these children haven’t been to school and don’t know how to read and write.”
Some children stay at the house for up to three years. “We prefer to reunite them with their families, where possible, or to find them foster parents,” Arlene concludes.
Caridad hopes to return home and go back to school once her court case is over. “When I grow up, I want to be social worker or policewoman,” she says. “I want to help other people, like the social workers here have helped me.”
Twenty years ago, the world made a set of promises to all children when it adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). While great progress has been made since then, children’s rights are still being denied and much remains to be done.
In the Philippines, child protection remains a critical issue that UNICEF continues to campaign and work on. Just this week, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo signed into law a bill making child pornography illegal, in a major victory for UNICEF and other child rights advocates who had been campaigning on the issue for several years. These ongoing efforts are essential if we are to prevent other children in the Philippines from suffering the kind of horrific abuse that Caridad was subjected to.
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