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Going home

© UNICEF/2003/Parungao
Elena (not her real name) yearns to go home after becoming a victim of child trafficking.

These are stories
that touch our hearts,
keep us grounded
to what we have
always believed in ---
children have rights.

They are after all
our future.


By Lanelyn Carillo
UNICEF works with a non-government organization to rescue children who have been trafficked from rural communities.

ELENA, 15, fears the city streets. People scurry from corner to corner. Vehicles jam major thoroughfares. The city streets are a lot different from the unpaved roads of her hometown in Balingasag, Misamis Oriental, a province north of Mindanao. There, life is simple, quiet and the air smells of golden rice fields.

“Pero mahirap po ang buhay namin doon. Mahirap pong kumita.(But our life was difficult there. It’s hard to earn money),” she says.

Elena is the eldest among three siblings. Her parents are both farmers whose income from tilling the soil is insufficient to support them all. Being the eldest, she was obliged to help her family eke out a living. And her parents thought that the offer of a recruiter for Elena to work in Manila was the answer.

Forced to work in the city
“Hindi ko gustong magpunta dito sa Maynila kaso gusto ng magulang ko. Nabigyan na kasi sila ng pera…P500. Sabi ko bata pa ako. Sabi nila hindi naman daw mahahalata. Pwede nang sabihing 18. Sabi ko isoli nila ang pera. Kaso nagastos na raw nila at kailangan din namin ng pera. (I didn’t want to go here in Manila but my parents wanted me to. They were already given the money…500 pesos. I told them I am still young. They said it would not be noticeable. I could be 18. I told them to return the money. But they already spent it, and we really needed money.),” Elena says.

She worked as a housemaid in Manila for only two weeks. Because she could not cook, her employer sent her back to her recruiter. After two days, her recruiter took her to the province of Sta. Ana, Pampanga to serve a family of a police officer. The police officer allegedly raped her twice.

Fear compelled Elena to beg the police officer to send her back to the recruiter. He agreed on a condition that she would not tell anyone of the incidents or else he would kill her. But Elena eventually told her recruiter of what happened.

“Kaso ang sagot po sa akin ‘O nagalaw ka na pala, di mag-prostitute ka na lang.’(But the answer to me was ‘So, you were raped, then be a prostitute then),“ Elena says.

The recruiter’s unaffected attitude forced Elena and four other children of her age to escape one night. She went to her uncle’s house in Tondo, an urban-poor district in Manila.

Rescued by an NGO and meeting other trafficked children
And because Tondo was near the Manila port area, Elena tried many times to board a ship going to her hometown. A port police officer saw her wandering inside the port and, upon learning about her experiences, took her to the Visayan Forum Foundation (VF), a non-governmental organization helping vulnerable migrant working children. At the VF center, she met other children like her. One of them became her best friend Len.

Like Elena, Len, 14, finds life difficult in her hometown in Samar despite the peace and beauty that the province offers. Her father, a fisherman, cannot fully support them all. It was a hand-to-mouth existence for her family of four.

Len went to Manila after a recruiter offered her a good and high-paying job, only to end up in the hands of Chinese employers who maltreated her.

“Kinukurot po nila ako, lalo na iyong nanay, kapag nagagalit sila sa akin. Kasi po, ako pa magpapaalala sa mga anak nya na maligo na. Ang laki-laki na, dalawang lalaki, mga 20-21 years old na, papaalahanan ko pa. Tapos pag hindi po sumunod, ako ang pinapagalitan ng nanay. Minsan nga po dumugo ang ulo ko kasi binato ho ako ng plastic na upuan. (When they’re angry with me, especially the mother, they would hurt me. I even had to remind her two sons to take a bath. But they’re too old, around 20-21 years old, to be reminded to take a bath. And when they didn’t follow, the mother would scold me. Once my head bled because they threw a plastic chair at me.),” Len narrates, pausing once in a while as she recalls her sad past.

Len endured the daily abuses for a year and half and received no salary. A neighbor took pity on Elena, helped her escape and hid her in her house. After a few days, the neighbor took Len to the VF.

The fate of Elena and Len in Manila is not an isolated case. There are many young children who are taken from the provinces and promised a good job and big income in Metro Manila only to be exploited by recruiters and employers.

According to VF president Ma. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, ports are the entry points of child trafficking. Every year an estimated four million people in search of work and opportunities flood Metro Manila thru the North Harbor alone, and a growing number is composed of young children who are forced to abusive work.

Cecilia describes child trafficking as the recruiting of children from the provinces to work in another land unfamiliar to them. These children, she adds, usually fall into the worst forms of child labor like prostitution, domestic work, factory work, construction and jobs that could endanger their health, safety and morals.

Children who were intercepted at the Manila port area are usually taken to the VF for temporary shelter. The foundation helps children overcome their traumatic experiences and start a new life. It also helps children understand the nature of child trafficking and the hazard of child labor. Once in a while, the VF holds an educational tour as a recreational activity for the children.

Although Cecilia doesn’t have the numbers of children being illegally recruited at the moment, a VF research however shows that young people from 15-22 years old, many are first-timers in Manila, are trafficked for child labor and prostitution.

“Thirteen out of twenty children travel to their destinations without any work contract. Despite such absence of protective clauses, some 34% did not experience any problem. But six out of ten revealed that their fare is deducted from their salary, 19% could not adjust with the language, and the rest experienced fear, jealousy and intimidation,” the research reveals.

There are now almost four million working children in the Philippines, according to the Philippine Survey on Children 2001 conducted by the National Statistics Office (NSO). Of the four million, 1.9 million (48%) are 10-14 years old and 1.8 million (46%) are 15-17 years old. There are more male working children 5-17 years old (2.5 million or 63.4%) than female working children (1.5 million or 36.6%).

Although a typical working child is male, female children are often employed as domestic helpers.

The growing number of child trafficking thru the ports posed a big challenge for Cecilia. In August 2000, she formed a halfway house called Bahay Silungan sa Daungan (Port Halfway House) to “assist, protect and inform women and children who are traveling or stranded at the ports …and strengthen efforts of groups and individuals in the port to monitor, assist or refer suspected cases of trafficking.”

Children stay at the Port Halfway House for a maximum of three months. During this time, the VF helps them get back home to their respective provinces.

“Yung iba naman nagtatagal kasi tinutulungan naming magsampa ng kaso gaya ng child abuse o rape. (Others stay longer because we assist them in filing cases like child abuse or rape before the court),” Cecilia says.

UNICEF campaign against child trafficking
Seeing the needs to protect the children, the Fifth Country Programme for Children (CPC V) of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) and the Philippine government has integrated a child protection approach for children in need of special protection (CNSP).

Thru the UNICEF’s Child Laborers and Advocates for Social Participation, youths and child labor leaders are lectured on the condition of child trafficking in the country. The program has also been conducting seminars, youth camps activities and signature campaigns in support of the VF to stop child trafficking.

Government agencies like the Department of Social Welfare, the Department of Labor and Employment and the Philippine Ports Authority have helped VF by verifying recruiter’s work permits, workplace visitation and taking legal actions or removal operations when needed.

VF’s partnership with private shipping companies, on the other hand, has provided them useful information on possible victims of trafficking during voyage.

However, some children who were returned to their respective provinces by VF were brought back to Manila by the parents themselves. A mother herself, Cecilia knows that no mother would want her child to work at such an early age. But poverty forces parents to do otherwise.

Cecilia says that education and livelihood projects in rural areas are two vital keys that would help lessen child trafficking in the country. “Kaya kailangan talagang mabigyang pansin ng ating gobyerno ang kahalagahan ng edukasyon lalo na sa probinsya. Importante rin na maturuan ng livelihood ang mga nayon para hindi na nila ipapadala ang kanilang mga anak dito sa Maynila para magtrabaho. (The government should give importance to education especially in the provinces. It is also important to teach livelihood to people in the rural areas to avoid sending their children in Manila for work.)

Just like what Elena says, “Mahirap po ang buhay namin doon.(Our life was difficult there.)”. At her early age, she knows of poverty. And she knows that education, not hard labor, is the answer.

Elena looks at the city with dread. "Hindi po pala maganda dito. (It is not nice here)." In the meantime, she is undergoing counseling to help her put her life on track again. She tries hard to deal with what happened to her. Deep in her heart, she knows she can leave these memories behind and move on.

"I just want to go home."

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