Monday, June 04, 2007

Helping girls flee brothels

Helping girls flee brothels 
By Craig and Marc Kielburger
The Star (Canada) - June 04, 2007

For 40 years Father Shay Cullen decried the treatment of neglected and forgotten children in the Philippines, but it wasn't until he helped smuggle a television camera inside a jail that the world started paying attention.
The tape showed hundreds of children as young as 5 locked in cages stacked a half-dozen high. Most were child prostitutes, caught in that country's rampant sex tourism trade.
Broadcast on CNN, it highlighted an issue the world couldn't ignore, and hit hardest in North America, where many of the children's regular customers live.
Father Shay was in Toronto last week with the urgent message that those children, and thousands like them, still desperately need our help.
The 64-year-old Catholic missionary leads an organization in the Philippines called PREDA that has been rescuing children exploited by pimps and brothel owners, then sold to tourists who have come to prey on them.
It's not a job for the faint of heart. He spends his days with young girls who are sexually, physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis, as well as with johns who are convinced they are doing the girls a favour by paying them for sex.
"The worst kind of slavery today is child labour," he told us during his visit. "And the worst form of that is the sex trade."
More than 60,000 Filipino girls work as child prostitutes. They are recruited by pimps in rural areas of the country from unsuspecting, desperately poor families who send their daughters to the city to earn extra money.
"It's everyone from the sleazy to the elite," Father Shay says of the tourists who frequent child brothels. "All levels of society and every nationality."
Girls are sold in the brothels and on the streets for as little as $25 and can see as many as 10 customers a day. If they don't make enough money, they are beaten.
Father Shay works with local authorities to conduct stings, posing as a john and negotiating prices for girls. He tells us "cherry girls"– ones new to the business – are in highest demand.
We had the opportunity to visit some of the girls rescued by sting operations at PREDA's rehabilitation centre in the city of Olopango. There they undergo a primal therapy session with social workers to deal with the pain and fear they have endured.
It's a heart-wrenching scene – a dozen or so girls sprawled out on the floor, wailing at the top of their lungs and pounding the floor in agony. Tears stream down their faces and their bodies shake as they relive years of abuse. Father Shay and the others try to console them.
This industry is allowed to thrive under the radar. Unless we make combating child prostitution and sex tourism a global priority, thousands more children will have their lives torn apart.
Canada has legislation to prosecute citizens who abuse children overseas; since 2002, it's only been used twice.
That's because police here rely on authorities overseas to provide them with evidence – authorities easily bribed by rich brothel owners.
Despite local corruption and weak international laws, Father Shay is not discouraged. He is slowly but surely shining a light on a once dark industry.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists who co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.

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