Monday, September 15, 2008

A Father to hundreds of daughters

Last Monday we stepped onto a 7:30am flight to Cebu, one of the 7,100 islands that make up the country of the Philippines. Initially weary of a flight piloted by Captain “Snappy Gusto” we arrived safely in Cebu and into the what would become truly incredible week of both excitement and frustration. For our first several days we spent time touring the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation a remarkable organization in Cebu that, through their portfolio of social services to the community just seems to do everything right (More to come about this later). Then, after a few days indulging in the white sand beaches of the Philippines, we headed back to Cebu for a last minute visit to some of Austin’s acquaintances from El Paso. Hilary and David are wonderful young couple that has spent the past five years building their maternity clinic Glory Reborn to serve the slums of Cebu, and Hilary took some time to introduce us to a friend of their’s Father Heinz, a German priest from the Society of the Devine Word who has spent the past several decades of his life severing the young women of Cebu who have fallen victim to the sex trafficking industry. When Hilary and David offered to accompany us on one of Father Heinz’s nightly walks into the red light district to provide free health care to sex workers, Austin and I both quickly agreed that this opportunity could not be missed…
Standing at the gateway to Cebu’s red light district, I waited nervously as Father Heinz explained himself in Cebuano yet again to the pimp of all pimps, who stood watch at the entrance to a narrow, muddy street enclosed by tall shacks and dim yellow street lights. Father Heinz, a tall man in his late fifties, sported Birkenstocks with socks a carried a large duffle bag which he had meticulously packed with three shallow plastic boxes, each with a dozen small compartments filled with pills of every shape, size and color. Hilary stood guard at my side, armed with her own duffle bag stockpile of fruity condoms. “He’s the head pimp, he decides if we get in tonight.” Father Heinz tells me in German as we finally get an official nod. “Let’s go.” Taking our first steps past the male guards at the front of the street we are quickly swarmed by a crowd of friends. “Fahderr” one older woman calls, and Father Heinz reaches out to place one hand on her shoulder as his other hand grabs her child’s upper arm. No fever it seems but the child has a cough. Father reaches into his pack, pulling out a colorful box of cough syrup and a candy bar for the mother. It seems they have not eaten for several days he explains, she is too old to be sold to men. Not more than a minute into his conversation with the mother several more “Fahderrs” can be heard and we move towards the calls, into a circle of young women, from their looks no older than 18. Father Heinz reaches out a grabs a vanilla ice cream cone from one of the girls, takes a huge bite and hands it back to her grinning. She pouts, but quickly returns his smile along with a long hug. This young woman, he explains, is taking medication for an STD. He lovingly draws the number “2” on her forehead with his finger reminding her she must take her pills twice a day. Explaining to the young girls he has work to do, they all lunge forward, hugging him in turn and wishing him a speedy return. Further down the street we gradually enter a tunnel of young prostitutes lining the streets on display in white plastic lawn chairs. Hilary asks those who are allowed by their owners (usually older women called “mama sans“) to speak to us if they would like a box of condoms and if so which fruit flavor. Hilary explains that giving them a choice of which flavor they would like is one of the only decisions they can make for themselves in their lives. Instinctually I begin to make conversation but am quickly reminded by Hilary that my questions regarding age, family and where they are from are not allowed in the red light district. Most girls are forced to lie about their age anyway, presuming that many are much younger than 18 years old. Hearing a young cry for “Fahderr”, Father Heinz returns from his rounds of chatter and diagnosis to a young girl sitting right next to me in a weathered lawn chair. Her name is Genevieve, she is beautiful, 16 years old and I am quickly informed that her 1 year old daughter, Maria, is playing in the street in front of us. Father Heinz tells me in German about her past pregnancy, as Genvieve’s owner is standing right inside the brothel behind us and Genevieve is not allows to talk about or acknowledge her daughter while she is at work. Instead an older, “unusable” young woman must baby sit young Maria in the street while her mother works.
Walking back on the dirty streets ringing of techno music and nasty thug hip-hop Father Heinz begins to narrate the Filipino sex industry. The young girls I have met, no older than my sister, are promised opportunity in the rural provinces and then sold to middle men who transport them via boat into larger cities such as Cebu. Finally pimps and brothel owners mama-sans purchase the girls for wholesale prices and “rent” them to clients. (The word in Cebuano for renting a house or renting a woman is the same Father Heinz explains). When girls cannot buy food or fall ill they must barrow from their owners and they never can pay back. It is a never-ending cycle of debt and repayment. A form of slavery. On the last stretch of red light street, I am approached by a middle-aged client who is on vacation from a nearby country to “tour Cebu” with his friends. He is trying to pick out five girls to bring back to his friends‘ hotel, but he’s having a hard time deciding. I’d lasted two weeks in the Philippines without getting sick, and I suddenly began to feel incredibly sick to my stomach…


The picture above is map of all the night establishments in Cebu, as investigated by Father Heinz.

~sam

4 comments:

lo said...

Sam, this story is so incredible and perverse that I even read it aloud to my mom. I cannot believe the lives that these women are forced to lead. Are they all locals from Cebu or are they brought there? Is the island specifically known for the sex industry? Thank you for sharing these stories and keep posting! I always look forward to your posts in my mundane world.

Good luck in India! post more pictures!

Lauren

kozawa said...

Sam...what an incredible opportunity. Thanks for sharing this amazing story. Best of luck in India!

Kevin said...

Wow, what an introduction to the dregs of the earth. Your post-graduate education would make most people ill as well, but you'll be better for it. - MisterCee

Anonymous said...

The library called. Your books are overdue. If you think for one minute that I'm getting stuck with yet another of your unfinished pieces of business, you've got another thing coming!

DAD