When Liza was 10 years old, she was raped by her uncle and older male cousin.
By Ana Santos
Photos by Mitch Mauricio
Now 31 years old, Liza recalls, “I was so confused. I could not even define what my uncle was doing to me as abuse because after each time that he would do it, he would stroke my back and tell me that he was doing it because he loved me.”
Once, an aunt walked in while the actual abuse was taking place. “She caught my uncle on top of me,” says Liza.
Instead of helping, her aunt even blamed her. “She said I tempted my uncle into doing it. She called me a slut, saying I was just like my mother.”
“My brothers and sisters and I have different biological fathers and people looked down on my mother because of that. For as long as I can remember, my character was always linked to that of my mother’s,” explains Liza.
From then on, Liza’s identity was defined and reinforced by the years of abuse she endured at the hands of her uncle and cousin. At that time, she did not realize that she was growing up with a deep distrust of men.
Liza found that the only way she could escape was to run away and find work elsewhere. From her province of La Union, the then 17-year old Liza found her way to Manila and worked as a nanny for a family in Alabang Hills.
“Even there, abuse and molestation followed me. My boss would stay in my room whenever his wife was away. He would caress my thighs and just always walk around in his underwear,” Liza recounts, slightly shuddering at the memory.
Liza endured it just to make some money for herself. She was surprised that after several months of not getting paid, her employer told her that her aunt had gotten her salary. “She claimed that I owed her money for my fare to Manila and needed to pay her back.”
Prostitution: a way out with a dead end
With nowhere left to go and no money, a friend of Liza’s introduced her to the world of prostitution. “I didn’t even know that it was prostitution. I was told that it was a ‘gimmick’ where I could earn more money waiting tables,” she explains.
She was brought to a club in Cubao’s nightlife district and a pimp immediately took her under her care. “I didn’t have a choice anymore,” laments Liza.
This started the series of downward spiraling events during which Liza says she felt like she had no control over herself or her life.
“I started drinking, smoking, and gambling.” Every new customer brought new feelings of humiliation, of shame at allowing herself to be used. Every beating by her pimps, every threat by the street gangs who asked for protection money gnawed deeper and deeper into her character, destroying any bit of self-esteem that she may have had.
Liza told herself that this was her fate and the way that her life was supposed to be. “I thought: I’ve been abused and used all my life. Prostitution is no different, except that now I am being paid to take the abuse.”
Because of the Revised Penal Code Article 202 which defines vagrants as prostitutes, and therefore considers them as criminals, Liza was also often imprisoned.
“For two years, I was imprisoned on and off. Even in prison, we were treated differently. They (wardens and prison guards) really made you feel that you are very low if you’re in for prostitution. Prostitutes are treated as the lowest of the low.”
Prostitution and trafficking in Asia
Human trafficking is the recruitment of persons for the purpose of among other things, sexual or labor exploitation.
It is a global problem and a wildly lucrative industry. Trafficking is the third largest and most profitable crime in the world next to weapons and drugs.
Sex trafficking is the recruitment, employment, or matching of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are about half a million women in prostitution.
According to Jean Enriquez, Executive Director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific (CATW-AP), “Studies show profiles of trafficked persons as women, mostly from rural areas. They usually belong to huge families, with a low level of education – elementary to high school, and young, usually between the ages of 14 to 24.” CATW-AP is an NGO that assists victims of trafficking by providing them shelter, legal assistance, and livelihood training.
“Those trafficked to prostitution mostly have had previous abuse experiences or may belong to second-generation prostitution,” adds Enriquez.
CATW is also working for the abolishment of the vagrancy act and lobbying for the passage of the Anti Prostitution Bill. “The Vagrancy Act does not benefit victims. We want it removed through the Anti-Prostitution Bill which will decriminalize prostitutes, but will criminalize those who buy and sell them.”
The passage of the Anti-Prostitution Bill has been pending for 10 years now.
Walking away from the trade
There were many times that Liza tried to leave the world of prostitution, but she couldn’t. “By the time, I was 20 years old, I already had a child with my boyfriend. If I didn’t work, we would have nothing to eat.”
Her daughter also provided a turning point.
“My daughter was also abused by an older child when she was 2 years old. That did it for me. I said, “Enough. I had to break the chain and could not let it happen all over again,” Liza says with a sad, but hard resolve.
With the help of CATW-AP, Liza received counseling, which allowed her to deal with what really happened to her as a child many years ago. “I know now that it was abuse and it was wrong. But more importantly, I know that it was not my fault; I did not invite the abuse nor did I want it to happen.” As she says this, Liza slightly lifts her chin, with a quiet confidence. She has finally found her peace.
After years in prostitution, Liza founded a group called Bagong Kamalayan (Renewed Knowledge) Collective, Inc. (BKCI), comprised of about 30 women who are sex trafficking survivors.
With the help of CATW, Bagong Kamalayan (BKCI) provides counseling, support, and livelihood skills training for victims. “We help them re-build their lives, overcome the trauma, and acquire new livelihood skills so they don’t have to go back to the trade,” Liza explains.
Currently, BKCI is setting up a bakery as a cooperative for the other women.
Liza also has another responsibility apart from overseeing BKCI. “I help with the counseling of the women who come to the center. When they talk to someone who has experienced what they are going through now, they are more receptive. They are more inclined to listen.”
Liza, now healed, has taken it upon herself to heal others so they may find their own peace.
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