Let’s start off by introducing what human trafficking is defined as, considering the mixed message people garner as a way to avoid and sometimes justify the issue.
Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
For two weeks I was honored to become a part of the Wipe Every Tear organization in order to pursue the mission of providing girls that are trapped in the sex trade a future of freedom, love, opportunity and restoration. During my trip there were 11 amazing women in total, myself included who took on the daunting task of traveling into a third world country and doing this tremendous work.
The bond that we created as a group is something entirely different from a normal relationship. We went in not having a clue what to expect and not knowing a thing about each other but over 14 days of long flights, multiple living quarters and several emotional nights we developed a bond that is insurmountable. I couldn’t be more grateful to know them and to have shared this experience with them.
So I’ll start off at the top. It took me alone three flights to get to Manila. We landed extremely late, mind you there was a 13 hour time difference from North Dakota. Upon arrival and getting through customs we had some amazing Filipina leaders meet us with some vans to take us to our first stay which was a bit of a ride, and not to mention their traffic conditions are like nothing I have ever experienced even in other Asian countries. Once we got to finally got to bed it was around 2 am and boy we were exhausted.
For reference, please understand that I will not disclose some of the information details such as locations, true names of the girls in our care or from the bars and I will not be posting any photographs of these women to protect their identities. Their safety is paramount to us and I appreciate your support on that matter.
Something that initially weighed on my heart as we walked through the streets and saw the different areas of the city is actually acknowledging the state of poverty that this country resides in. You hear it time and time again about third world countries, how they have poor infrastructure, struggle for jobs and hurt for food. Yet, when you see the slums in real life, you walk on the crumbling dirty streets, you can’t use toilets with logical cleanliness and plumbing and see a flood of stray animals that’s reality hits you. When you walk by homeless women in the city sleeping with their barely dressed toddlers on the street, there is nothing more heartbreaking. Now we didn’t go here to save the homeless, to fix their struggling economy, to feed the hungry but only the Lord understands the pain that we felt bearing witness to these circumstances. It’s not possible to walk on by unaffected by what you see in their everyday normal.
Over the first few days in the country our first true experience was going to each of the safe houses and spending time with the girls getting to know them, allowing them to share whatever they wanted, (which many times included teaching us their different dialects and how to say different words) we did hours of Zumba – and they are incredible at it by the way! We also just got to give them time to be who they were, love on them, support them and hear about their aspirations or their families back in other provinces. Oh I can’t even express in words how amazing these women in our care are!
After the first week it was time for the part that seems so challenging. We went into Angeles City. We stayed in this hotel, close to the Walking Street, this is where all of the bars that host the women are. This is where are story gets tough, because it was easy to see women who already have a new hope, its joyful to love women who are already working for their future. It is so extremely difficult and painful to go into bars where women are exploited, so beat down and downtrodden. It is gut-wrenching to see men partake in these behaviors, men who could be your father, or coach or mentor. Men who choose to be oblivious, who choose to make excuses or simply choose that they do not care the cost it takes because they can do it so they will do it. Yet we did witness this and we did show kindness and respect with these men even when we felt they were undeserving.
Here’s a run down of what you expect in any given bar on the street. Before entering they usually have door girls who sit out side in an inviting manner. We split into small groups with some Filipina leaders (some of which are brave women in our care who originally worked in the bars!) I was custom for some bars that you can’t get into the bars without a male escort which was quite the hindrance for our teams. Once we could get into a bar we figured out where we were going to sit or we were seated by a “waitress”, you were typically required to order a drink to stay so that was usually the first thing we did, different bars had different layouts as you could expect.
Each bar has a mamasan or maybe even multiple mamasans – these are the older women in charge of the girls, usually women who were involved in the trade until the were to old to “perform.” The one thing the bars shared in common was the stage. What you could expect to see is women scantily dressed standing often times uncomfortably on stage or moving slightly in effort to appear as they are dancing. Thee women would be anywhere from 18 to over 30, different in every aspect of the word, different confidence portrayed. When we felt compelled to speak to girls we would have to ask a girl who had this laser pointer. We would tell her who we wanted off stage and they would point the laser at her until she noticed and made her way towards you. It was not uncommon to watch their faces drop and see their anxiety or disappointment in being chosen. Once we have the girls seated with us we are expected to purchase them drinks where we are charged double and they get half that commission for the cost of the drink. We would talk to them, try to make them feel at ease and the invite them to a week-long getaway at an Island hours away from the city. This task was not accomplished with ease since several factors stood in our way.
Mamasans and bar owners would tell the girls we would traffic them for their organs and kill them. They would tell them that; should they go on our vacation when they came back they would lose their already miniscule salaries. Anything to prevent them from going with us. If a mamasan saw our cards she would take them from the girls and rip them up so you would see them hid our cards in their bras or undies.
Now you may ask, is prostitution and sex trafficking legal in the Philippines? The nature of these bars sure would make it seem plausible. But no it’s not legal and yet they have found their way around the law. When a customer wants to purchase a women for the night he will pay a “bar fine” – this is essentially stated as paying a 60 dollar fine (3000 Pecos) for her to leave her shift early. Except this isn’t by the choice of the girl and she is not obligated to say no. Once she is “bar fined” she remains the property of the customer until the next day when he sends her on her way after doing what ever he felt inclined to do with her. Almost nothing was off-limits.
We did outreach for four nights, four painful, amazing, eye-opening, and difficult nights. We made relationships with girls in the bars, we would invite them to lunch or breakfast after their shifts which end at 3 and 4 in the morning. Sometimes they would show up to McDonald’s which they LOVE to eat by the way, and other times they wouldn’t which was a hard revelation to deal with. The last morning the girls we told to be at our hotel by 7 am to go to the island, we would be able to accommodate 50 girls on this trip should they choose to come. In the end we only had 7 – but that was 7 girls who took a chance, 7 girls who risked everything for a glimmer of hope.
For the next 5 days us 11 women, the staff and leadership of Wipe Every Tear both American and Filipino and our 6 girls got to go on this vacation. We got to show these girls a care free environment where they didn’t have to pretend, they didn’t have to stress and worry, they didn’t have to be fearful. We got to do so many activities with them, from snorkeling, swimming, riding a banana boat and karaoke. We laughed, cried, joked and slept! We ate many meals together and an unforgiving amount of rice and mango (though you guys don’t know what you’re missing on some true fresh and delicious mango). I skipped on the Fish – sorry ya’ll I just couldn’t bring myself to eat fish even there!
At the end of this trip 5 of the girls who took a risk – chose to come to our safe houses pursue an education and live a life of freedom. We continue to pray for all of the others. The ones who are uncertain, fearful, and can’t leave as they provide for families in far away homes. The new ones, manipulated and confused. The long time girls who know no other way to provide, who thinks life is to far wasted to start over. It’s never too late. I could never fully put into words this experience, I could never say the impact it has made, the heartbreak I have felt, the love I have gained. It is a world we do not understand, and that is okay. God provides and restores and I will eternally be grateful to have had this opportunity to know these women, to even for one moment show these girls trapped in the sex trade that someone loves them, someone cares and that they do matter. I can’t exaggerate their need because it is so great all around, though I will ask that you pray. Keep these girls in your thoughts and if you ever feel inclined get involved and do more. It only takes one person to create change whether that is in the hearts of many or you just change the life of one person.
Please understand this is such a brief overview of my experience. If you have any questions, comments, curiosities feel free to ask. Some things I will share and some thing I am still processing so I may choose to politely decline to answer with hopes you’ll understand. It so difficult to put all this into words, and there was so much we experienced that simply covering the entirety would take a novel to explain. The last thing I will ask is to just keep the girls who went over to do this ministry in your thoughts and prayers as well – as this was such an emotional rollercoaster and processing all of this has been hard on all of us as we transition back into a somewhat normal routine.