by Father Shay Cullen Profiles in Catholicism
It was a massive international solidarity March in 1999 along the streets of Geneva. Thousands of children and supporters from all over Europe and Asia were there to encourage and support the approval and signing by the world’s nations of the document, “Worse Forms of Child Labor Convention 1999.”
I was there with other NGO representatives giving voice to our deep concern for all children and especially the Filipino children that were enslaved in unjust, exploitative labor practices. A huge problem then but an abomination that is still with us today despite the passing of the convention that inspired new child protection laws in the Philippines and around the world.
I marched with Filipina activist Cecilia Flores-Oebanda and my friend and fellow child right’s activist Kailash Satyarthi of India who had campaigned and promoted non-violence action against child labour for many years for the children of Asia and in particular India. He was awarded in 2014 the Nobel Peace Prize along with Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan for their work “focusing attention on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.” They promoted the rights of the child to be free from labor and to have an education.
At the Preda Foundation, our team had campaigned since its founding in1974 and continues to work to end all child labor especially the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. For that work, we were honoured and recognized by the awarding of four nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and other human rights awards. These have helped to highlight the importance of standing against child exploitation which is the challenge and duty of all persons who recognize the rights of the child not to be exploited and abused and turned into commodities and dehumanized laborers especially as sex workers.
Twenty-two years after the convention was passed, we are still rescuing teenage girls from sex brothels and motels, sex traffickers and child sex abusers. The victim-survivors are broken and suffering as their dignity was taken from them. This is symbolized in Geneva by the huge 12 metres (39 feet) high sculpture of the “Broken Chair” in front of the Palace of Nations. It is a sculpture in wood (5.5 tons of it) by the Swiss artist Daniel Berset, made by the carpenter Louis Genève. It is an ordinary chair with one leg broken that reminded us, as we marched under its shadow of the dark cloud of pain, of the broken lives of victims of violence. A reminder of our duty to always stand for and take action to prevent, rescue and heal the victims-survivors of exploitation and abuse.
The dark cloud of deprivation, loss of education, family care and love and personal freedom and loss of dignity and self-confidence so necessary for the development of a child is taken away when the child is maltreated and abused. The Philippine nation-wide survey of 2011 revealed that there were 2.1 million children aged five to 17 years of age in labor, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) government survey.
This has surely increased today due to the economic decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey showed that 95 percent of them were in hazardous work, 65 percent of these children were aged 15 to 17 years old. Fifty-eight percent were working on farms, the rest divided to working in mines, on the streets, in sex work or as domestic laborers.
Every year Preda Foundation rescued and saves dozens of abused children. In one of several operations four children were rescued from dehumanizing sex work aged 14 to 17 from sex hotels in Olongapo City. One of them, call her Julie, is only 15 years old. She had been groomed by “friendly” traffickers after she had suffered physical abuse and rejection by her mother and brother. She ran away from home and eventually went to stay in the house of the human traffickers who had groomed her and took her to meet male customers- local and foreign sex tourists- and they collected most of the money. One day, she was brought with several other girls to a sex hotel and there was a rescue of the victims by police and social workers and Julie and other girls were brought to the Preda Home for trafficked girl victims.
They were shocked at first at the abrupt arrest of their three traffickers who were taken away by the police and charged with human trafficking and put on trial. Julie and the other three children were brought to the Preda Foundation home. They were welcomed with respect and dignity and given personal needs and a nice bed and shower room and new clothes. They had never been treated with respect and their rights were explained to them and the opportunities to study, learn and have therapy to heal from all the abuse they had suffered since childhood.
They realized that for the first time in their lives, they were free of the abusive control of exploiting adults. They felt personal freedom and protected. They never had such freedom of choice before. They had medical treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and were cured.
Julie and the others with the guidance of the therapists, counsellors and social workers accepted the opportunity to study, learn and have Emotional Release Therapy. There in the padded therapy room they cried and shouted out all the hurt pains and anger of their lives since childhood. After months of therapy and a happy life in the community where they felt fully accepted, respected and part of a family of twenty children like themselves, they felt stronger, self-confident and empowered They overcame the fear of their cruel parents and pimps and testified against them in court leading to convictions.
They were free from the traffickers for the rest of their lives. Today they are stronger and learning a new livelihood so they can support themselves with a small business helped by the Preda Foundation. These are just a few of the 100,000 or so children trafficked into the sex business every year, according to UNICEF. A shocking number of child laborers in the worst form of hazardous exploitation of children.
Working together with good people that are determined to end this child labor and with committed government officials that will implement the law, there is hope to greatly reduce the extent of the child labor and exploitation.