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Filipino group helps women find life outside of trafficking

By David Challenger, CNN
  • Angeles' sex industry is fueled by sex tourists who travel from all over the world
  • One former prostitute was able to leave the sex industry with help from Renew Foundation
  • U.N. estimates 60,000 to 100,000 children in the Philippines are involved in prostitution rings

Angeles City, Philippines (CNN) -- Sitting in the backyard garden of a women's outreach center, a woman recounts a life that seems to belie her young age of 20 and her name, Joy.

"I started working as a prostitute in Fields Avenue when I was 15," said Joy, a native of this city in the northern Philippines.

"I needed the money to support my baby, as I was already so poor. But after awhile the bar's "mamasan" (the name given to a woman who oversees work in businesses such as brothels and bars) said I should go to Malaysia to work, where I could make a lot more money."

After her mamasan organized the contract, Joy found herself working in Sandakan in eastern Malaysia, but the promise of good money and working conditions quickly evaporated.

"First I was made to take drugs. Then I was made to service as many as 20 men a day. If I refused they threatened to put me in jail without food," she said.

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The traffickers refused to let her go home, and she was only able to make her way back after her grandmother's continual pleading with Philippine government officials. Six weeks later, Joy returned to Angeles without having received a cent.

Broken financially and in spirit and determined to leave Angeles' sex industry, Joy was able to make contact with a non-government organization called the Renew Foundation, established in Angeles in 2005 in order to help eradicate trafficking and empower victims of prostitution.

Funded by individual donations, as well as grants from UNAIDS and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Renew offers shelter-based programs, housing, food, legal representation and education courses, all of which aim to help women return to their families or reintegrate into the community.

I was made to service up to 20 men a day. If I refused they threatened to put me in jail
--Joy, former Angeles prostitute

Renew also has a keen interest in helping child victims of the sex trade; an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 children in the Philippines are involved in prostitution rings, according to Minette Rimando, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'S International Labour Organization's Manila office.

"Most child prostitutes are recruited from rural areas to work in urban areas or even abroad," she said. "They are exposed to hazards that include contraction of STDs, physical violence and harmful psychological effects."

Cities such as Angeles can present all of these hazards for girls and women.

A two-hour drive north of Manila, Angeles (pronounced "angle-ease") sits opposite what used to be the massive Clark U.S. Air base.

In 1991 the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo helped prematurely close the base, culminating in some lean years for Angeles' well-established prostitution trade, experts said.

But the city's sex industry has since come back, fueled by sex tourists who travel here from all over the world. Many are older men, looking for their version of fun with some help from so-called "Viagra" pills -- sold on street corners like candy, chemical makeup unknown.

The city appears grimy and soulless. There are no pristine beaches or tropical forests, the traffic snarls and the poverty is endemic. But there is sex for sale, it's cheap, and there's a lot of it.

"Mate," an overweight, chain-smoking Australian growls in between gulps of a San Miguel beer as he teeters on a bar stool. "This place is heaven -- the girls are young, the beer's cheap, and it's never cold. What's there not to like?"

Along Angeles' main road of Fields Avenue where Joy once worked, the bars are filled with inebriated men leering at young women walking by. Most of the women are dressed in skimpy outfits and walking shakily as they plod along in poorly made high-heels.

The road is lined by countless bars where sex is readily available from dancers for about 1,200 pesos ($26).

Just over 80 percent of women who enter our program don't return to prostitution
--Paulo Fuller, Renew Foundation director

Focusing on those bars and brothels in Angeles City, Renew uses outreach workers to identify women who have been trafficked or abused, said director Paulo Fuller.

"If someone needs help escaping from the industry," he said, "our outreach workers liaise with police and authorities to help initiate a rescue. We also have cards with contact numbers that are distributed throughout the area, and flyers."

Most of those helped fall into four categories: Girls and women subjected to sex trafficking; girls exploited in the commercial sex industry; and girls who are at risk of being prostituted and/or trafficked.

Renew director Fuller claims a high success rate. "Just over 80 percent of the women who come into our program don't return to prostitution," Fuller said. "After providing them with the support they need, like housing, education courses and employment, that's the figure that don't return back to the bars."

Joy has been living at Renew's shelter now for just over two months. She says she's not sure when she'll leave, but wants to try and finish her studies first. "After I leave I hope to get work to support my son and work as a hairdresser or in a beauty salon," she said enthusiastically.

Back at the bar, the chain-smoking Aussie is informed of Joy's harrowing experience in Angeles. He shrugs his shoulders half heartedly, weighing his reply as a bunch of Harleys driven by riders adorned in Swedish flags rumble past.

"I don't know, I mean it's just all a bit of fun. Those girls have a free will, right?" he asks. "Live and let live, I say."

And with that, he walks off down Fields Avenue through the stifling heat, dodging the tumult, lighting up another cigarette.