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Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
Speaking Out and Providing Services

Blazing Trails, Confronting Challenges, Aida F. Santos









The Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in the Philippines


In the Philippines, there are between 300,000 and a million women in prostitution. The estimates for the number of children used in prostitution vary from 75,000 to 100,000.

For some years now, governmental and non-governmental bodies have recognized issues of prostitution and trafficking under the rubric of human rights. This development has come about as a result of the dynamic advocacy of the women’s movement in general and certain groups, such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)-Asia Pacific, Women’s Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organization (WEDPRO), Buklod, the United Women of Angeles City Multi-Purpose Cooperative (Nagkakaisang Kababaihan ng Angeles City Multi-Purpose Cooperative), an organization of survivors of prostitution which was co-founded by WEDPRO, and the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women (PNATW).

            The problems of sexual exploitation and violence against women have been rightly recognized by other sectors of Philippine society. Under the section on women, peace, and human rights, the “Philippine NGO report to the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women” identified sexual violence as one of the problems facing Filipino women. “Women in militarized areas are especially vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual violence, aside from the usual illegal arrest, torture, and salvaging [summary execution]. Prostitution develops around military detachments, increasing cases of women and children abandoned by military personnel…." (Philippine NGO Report, 1995).

            It is difficult to ascertain the actual incomes derived by the women or for that matter those who profit from the sex industry. What is known, however, is that the communities of Angeles and Olongapo, former sites of two of the biggest U.S. facilities in the Philippines, prior to their withdrawal, were cities that breathed and lived and developed from the income of prostitution, euphemistically called the “entertainment industry." In Manila, the mayor of that city closed down the “red light” district in Ermita, a move that merely sent the pimps, bar owners and brothel keepers, along with the women, scampering to other areas in the metropolis. The shift to other locations proved that it is indeed a widespread, highly organized, and profitable industry that will not be coerced into inactivity by a decree of banishment.

International Migration

            International migration has been the anchor of trafficking, not only for the labor, but for sex as well. In 1994, some 719,602 Filipino workers were deployed abroad in different work situations. In 1994, women constituted more than half of these figures. While it is difficult to ascertain how many of these numbers have been trafficked, it is easy to see the basis for potential and real trafficking. Undocumented migrants have been a national headache as well as an international concern. In Japan alone, Filipino women working mainly as “entertainers” constitute a huge 65 percent (as of January 1992) of that country’s total intake of imported “entertainers,” many of whom come from other Asian countries. This number is a dramatic increase from a low of a little over 9,000 Filipinas in the early 1980s. The majority of Filipina “entertainers” in Japan are young and vulnerable. Japan has the biggest sex industry in Asia (WEDPRO, Prostitution and Trafficking of Filipino Women, 1997).

            If the monetary figures related to migration are one basis to deduce the profits derived from trafficking, potential as well as real, then the reality is staggering. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) estimate that by the 1990s overseas migrant workers, more than half of whom are women, generate some US $2.7 billion in remittances.

Condition of Women and Girls in Prostitution

            The CATW Asia Pacific branch-sponsored consultation held 17-19 April 1997 in Cebu City in the Visayas brought together direct service organizations, which target women and girls (and some men) in prostitution, and government agencies that directly offer programs and services to women and girls or have something to do with the legal system (see Appendix 1 for the list). This list compiled in the consultation reflects the present situation of women and girls in prostitution. 

            The problems faced by women and girls in prostitution can be summed up in four major categories: problems related to health; the law or the legal system; services; and violence against women (CATW, April 1997).

Problems Related to Health

·           Lack of comprehensive health services, and not just on sexual health.

·           Women’s lack of knowledge of health issues, fear of doctors or medical professionals, and useless or risky health practices.

·           Drug use and risk from drugged clients.

·           Expensive and compulsory check-ups for issuance of health certificates.

·           Compulsory HIV tests and the lack of pre-test and post-test counseling, as well as the violation of confidentiality (publicly announced results) or no results given.

·           Lack of funds for hospitalization and health emergencies.

·           Need for AIDS or other reproductive health education.

·           Forced intake of contraceptive pills and unsafe abortions.

·           The lack of privacy for health checks (e.g., in Cebu City, the pap smear test was being conducted in a public market; in some Social Hygiene Clinics, waiting patients could actually see the test being done on half naked women).

Problems Related to the Law or the Legal System

·           Abusive, discriminatory conduct of raids, including arrests, maltreatment during raids or while in custody, extortion for release.

·           Women held in debt bondage.

·           Restriction of movement.

·           Anti-vagrancy laws are unconstitutional, i.e. they violate equal protection and are classist and sexist in their enforcement.

Problems Related to Services

·           Lack of education, especially in the areas of literacy, rights awareness, and peer education.

·           Women have the status of criminals.

·           Inadequate support systems in the areas of counseling and legal assistance, as well as child care.

·           The need for skills development, such as organizational and management skills, leadership, negotiation and documentation.

Problems Related to Violence Against Women

·            Trafficking in women by syndicates that practice active, deceptive recruitment.

·            Economic abuse, i.e. no work, no food and poverty.

·            A high rate of rape.

·            Domestic violence.

·            Violence caused by barangay (village) officials (fees, competition, harassment).

·            Harmful physical, emotional, and psychological effects on the women.

·            The “salvaging” or summary execution, especially of sick women.

In another report written collaboratively by WEDPRO, CATW-Asia Pacific and Buklod, the situation of women and girls in prostitution was highlighted. The report, “The Philippine Report—Women and Children, Militarism and Human Rights: International Planning Meeting” May 1-4, 1997, Naha, Okinawa) summarized the socioeconomic and cultural impact of prostitution on the women and their communities. In a nutshell, the report underscored the situation of sexual exploitation and its relationship to violence against women, women’s health and the low status of women. The report contextualized the situation of women and girls, especially during the presence of the U.S. military bases in the country, but noted as well that the situation has not radically changed despite the withdrawal of the foreign troops from Philippine territory. Survivors of military prostitution continue to feel and suffer the trauma of their situation, as no programs were set up for them or their families after the bases closed. Moreover, prostitution continues, albeit in the context of heightened sex tourism in the former baselands, and within the context of “national development” and base conversion plans.

Elsewhere in the country, the same situation applies, and industries or businesses related to prostitution have become lucrative economic activities for everyone, except for the women and girls. For example, in Cebu and Boracay in the Visayas, Davao and General Santos in Mindanao, once sleepy placid towns, prostitution is thriving as much as in the relatively unknown town of Laoag and the once-indigenous community of Baguio in the northern part of Luzon, and of course in Manila and Quezon City. Honky-tonks have not spared even the remotest barrios of the land. Further, poor men have become active "clients". It used to be believed that only rich men could “afford” the sexual services of women and girls in prostitution. For many families, reliance on daughters leaving for the cities to work in the “entertainment industry" has been seen as another way out of poverty, despite all the attendant risks for women and girls in the industry.

The Mail-Order Bride Phenomenon

            The Philippines is one of the global sources for mail-order brides. Type in “Filipino brides” in the search mode on the Internet, and a deluge of information flashes across the screen. The classic racism and sexism in the descriptions about Filipinas, along with other Asian women, makes one’s blood boil. Peddled off the Internet as “virgins,” “loyal,” “obedient,” “loving,” “family-oriented,” “petite,” and “comely,” the Filipino women have become mere commodities in the worldwide sales of women via marriage. In 1989, more than 7,000 Filipinas were married or became fiancées, most often engaged to Australians, Germans, Taiwanese, and British nationals. The total number of women involved reflected a 94 percent increase from the previous year. In Australia alone, there are a total of 20,000 Filipino women in marriage to Aussie men, some 90 percent of whom came through the system of serial sponsorship. A 1992 study found evidence of 111 serial sponsors: 53 sponsored twice, 57 in three occasions, and one over seven times. In 1996, an Australian report on “Violence Against Filipino Women” revealed that Filipino women who emigrate to Australia are “particularly vulnerable” to domestic violence. Australian immigration authorities reported that 80 out of 110 cases they handled had domestic violence incidents.

            Japanese men have also been known to particularly like Filipino women from farming communities, especially from the northern part of the country where indigenous communities live, such as the mountain people of the Igorot tribe. As brides to Japanese farmers, Filipino women are believed to be able to endure the hard work in remote rural villages of Japan where the women are taken. In the Philippines, there is one NGO specializing in programs and services to “Japino” children alone, children borne out of Japanese-Filipino marriages.

            In 1994, a noticeable number of South Korean men came to the Philippines to begin their search for their Filipina brides; in 1995-96, hundreds of Filipino women were married in a mass ceremony to South Korean men through an organization called the Moonies. Protests over this wholesale of Filipinas were launched, and the case is now in the court in the Philippines.

            In the United States, some 50,000 mail-order brides have been reported. In European countries, their husbands have sold a number of brides to other men in countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany. Filipino brides are also found in Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Italy, and Spain, to name a few more countries. There are "pen pal" agencies or marriage bureaus that even guarantee their clients’ satisfaction‑in the “discovery process,” the men can have sex with the potential bride in the agencies, while the thirty day guarantee allows the men to return their fiancées if they prove to be unworthy of the male criteria.

            The case documentation of the mail-order bride phenomenon is far from being extensive due to the private nature of the transactions and the exploitation. Yet, of those that had been reported, the prevalence of violence in all its forms, from physical to emotional to economic, is something that is approximating the level of a global disaster that calls for national and international interventions.

Sexual Exploitation and Violence Against Women 

            Sexual exploitation is the most fundamental situation common to all those in prostitution, trafficking, and the “mail-order bride” system. The Philippine Report to the Okinawa Conference stated:

“Through this phenomenon [prostitution], women’s subordinated status further became entrenched, as female sexual service for male needs was normalized in the paid-sex setting. The good versus bad women dichotomy pitted women against each other and provided a scapegoat for many social problems.”

            In 1992, in a focus group discussion with women in the community, WEDPRO encountered the popular thinking among local women of Angeles City—and possibly in many societies—that prostitution allows them to be “freed” from the sexual services that their husbands demand of them, and these include sexual acts which the wives felt were only done by “bad” women, the prostitutes. One woman emphatically said that she allowed her husband to “use” a prostituted woman because to her, his sexual practices were perversities meant only to be done to “pigs.”

            Sexual harassment, abuse, and rape are normalized in prostitution. Despite the advocacy, direct action and services of NGOs in the area of prostitution—not that we are that many—there remains a strong and popular notion that women in prostitution can not be raped, and when it does happen and gets reported, prostituted women are blamed for inviting the violence. In the WEDPRO studies of 1990 and 1993-94, a number of the respondents pointed to abusive childhood and sexual abuse from male relatives. In fact, their own kin and partners in intimate relationships sold some of them to the casa.

            After nearly nine years of legislative advocacy, SIBOL‑acronym for a coalition of women's groups and institutions than means "Collective Initiatives for Change in Law and Society"‑made possible the passage of an anti-rape bill. This action was a nodal point in our struggle against patriarchy. The predominantly male legislators who sat in the committee that examined and approved the bill, however, still refused to recognized the various way through which women could be sexually abused and attacked, or that all women, including wives could be raped. The marital rape aspect was diluted when the bill was amended to include the wife's pardon as an element to allow the husband-rapist to escape. The men also found that non-penile penetration was merely an act of sexual assault a notch lower than penile rape. Still, it was a victory in the right direction. 

            Verbal and psychological abuse and economic deprivation characterized the lives of women and girls in prostitution. Moreover, the ways in which women experienced abortions also included various ways in which they had internalized the violence against them. The ill treatment they received from boyfriends, families and the medical workers all constitute violence as well.

Reproductive Tract Infections, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV/AIDS

            The pervasiveness of reproductive tract infections, which include sexually transmitted diseases and HIV and AIDS haunt the lives of the women and girls in prostitution. A woman tells of her experiences with a customer who bar fined her for a month [meaning he bought her for a month]. She found crab lice in his genitalia, and tried to persuade him to get treated. She herself was infected, demanded money for treatment, and suggested that he, too, see a doctor. He found this suggestion insulting, and threw her out of the house into the streets, along with her clothes.

            In a health project began by WEDPRO in 1995 in Angeles City, the participants who worked in the bars during the base period and up to the present openly discussed the various reproductive tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases which they had when they were active in the industry, and almost all the usual types of sexually transmitted diseases had been experienced by them. Finding medical treatment expensive, a great number of women learned various ways to treat their sexually transmitted diseases; some simply were too embarrassed to seek medical attention. Abuse of antibiotics and douching were and continue to be prevalent, exposing women to infections and illnesses. The findings in the medical component in the project of the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women (PNATW) suggest the vulnerability of women and girls to sexually transmitted diseases and other reproductive tract infections, including unwanted pregnancies. Violence punctuates the issue of reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS. The use of condoms and other contraceptive barriers is something that is negotiated delicately by the women with their clients, and in not too rare cases, violence would accompany the negotiations for safe sex. Women are either beaten up or their bar fines are refunded to the customers. The fatalistic psyche of Filipinos, oftentimes attributed to the ideological content of Hispanic colonization, contributed to putting women in vulnerable circumstances, such as those in prostitution, at risk for unwanted pregnancies (Okinawan Report).


            Abortions are common. Abortion-related hospital admissions have become the number two problem in hospitals in Manila and other key cities of the country. It has become an urgent public health issue, according to the report that was released by the Population Institute of the reputable University of the Philippines in 1996. Some stories about unsafe abortions are definitely traumatizing to the women, and underscore the need for reproductive health care services, as well as the need to review the policy of illegality of abortion. Because abortion is illegal, backyard abortionists are the last resort of the women and girls, causing thousands of maternal deaths each year. Unsafe abortions render women vulnerable not only to infections and other health complications, but even to actual death. In WEDPRO’s work with the women of Angeles City, abortion has been a real concern. One story among the many which we have encountered emphasizes various problems and concerns.

            Marilyn (not her real name) worked the bars of both Olongapo and Angeles in the 1980s up to the 1990s. She became pregnant and took Cytotec, an anti-ulcer medication with an abortifacient effect. She had heard from other women in the bars that the drug had been effective in some cases. Then, Cytotec could be bought over the counter; even now when it is a banned drug, it is not difficult to obtain a prescription from some doctors, for a fee. When that was unsuccessful she had her abdomen massaged to induce abortion. Still later, she took a labor-inducing drug, which induced labor in her seventh month. Without any assistance, she managed her own abortion, pulled out a dead fetus, which she had not realized had by then badly deteriorated in her womb. She was saved from bleeding to death when her landlord found her slumped in her room and got some help from a traditional midwife nearby (Okinawan Report).

            Women in prostitution have adopted and re-adopted many forms of drug-induced abortion techniques, which they combine with traditional methods, as they usually can not afford to go to a doctor for safe abortion procedures. While abortion is illegal in the Philippines, women who have the means as well as the access to safe abortion clinics could actually have this procedure. Clearly then, abortion is not only a reproductive health issue, it is obviously a class issue as well.

Drug and Alcohol Use

            Drug and alcohol consumption dominates the lives of the women. Most of them regard these practices as part of their trade, and a number said that consuming drugs and alcohol made them less shy and able to do the sexual acts required by their clients. In the bars of Angeles and Olongapo, the women earned their income by enticing clients to buy ladies drinks from which they got commissions and some tips. The more they drank, the more they earned was the philosophy. Their clients, boyfriends and colleagues, on the other hand, pushed drugs on to them. The most commonly used were tranquilizers, marijuana, cough syrup and shabu (metaphetamine hydrochloride)‑a "poor person's cocaine."

            The women and girls experience other health problems. Anemia and respiratory infections as well as stress-induced illnesses continue to plague the lives of many women, as is the case with their children. Their life and work styles aggravate their malnutrition and general ill health.

Amerasian Children

            The presence of Amerasian children born specifically out of unions between Filipino women and girls and the foreign troops present during the stay of the U.S. bases in the country is a particular concern that now faces the women and the Philippine society in general. Estimated at 30,000, Amerasian children receive little or no assistance at all from the U.S. and Philippine governments, save for the very minimal and oftentimes difficult to access educational grants from one American organization. Moreover, Afro-Asian children are the targets of racism and ostracism.

            A study conducted by a task force convened to examine the phenomenon of Amerasian children, found that two-thirds of Amerasians live with and are being cared for by their natural mothers in single-headed households; others are either under the care of surrogate parents, who often are relatives of the women or with non-relatives, and some live on their own or are in institutions. The burden of raising these children falls predominantly on the women and their families, with no support from the American fathers. Nearly one hundred percent of mothers of Amerasians interviewed for the task force study said that they had no jobs or were employed minimally. The top six needs of the Amerasian children identified during the interviews were education, US citizenship, employment, housing, livelihood, and skills development


            Documentation of human rights violations and the various ways in which women and girls experience violence in prostitution is beginning to be an urgent agenda of groups working with women in this trade. At this point, I would like to especially cite a recent report, prepared by Buklod in April 1997, regarding the experiences of women in Olongapo bars during the period 1972-92:

            Five of the six women were from different provinces, mostly from the Visayas in the central part of the Philippines. Three had come to Olongapo in the early 1970s, three in the 1980s, to work as waitresses or household help but eventually ended up in bar work. One woman was an Amerasian whose father was an African-American. One woman had been married to a serviceman who divorced her when he was back in the U.S. Without exception, the women had Amerasian children.

            Most of the servicemen were young, white or black Americans. A racial divide marked the establishment in the town of Olongapo; the area with bars for the black Americans was known as “the jungle.” The women, too, were known as being either for the use of whites or blacks. Officers also frequented the bars, even admirals. Officers were known as choosier clients for whom Madams would select “classier” women, sometimes sending them to the officer’s hotel rooms or houses. However, officers would also sit in the bars with their men. An officer once took one of the women to a nearby island where military exercises were being held, and after having sex with her, the officer asked if she wanted to make extra money by “servicing his boys.” One woman’s regular client was the base chaplain. All the women agreed that the Marines were particularly bad clients, prone to rough or violent behavior.

The Vietnam and Gulf War Periods. Particularly during these times, men exhibited what the women called “crazy” behavior, using many women a day, some as high as ten women. There was a lot of drug use, and the men also made the women take drugs, such as speed, hash, and cocaine. There was the case of the man who, during sex, bit off the woman’s clitoris. She bled heavily and had to be taken to the hospital.

Health Issues. The Social Hygiene Clinic was a joint U.S. Navy and Olongapo City government operation, with the U.S. providing drugs, other medical products and testing for HIV/AIDS. In 1987, all the women working in the bars were ordered to submit to HIV/AIDS testing. There had been no previous explanation or orientation nor were results later given to the women. As regards sexually transmitted diseases, the women knew that any woman with an STD would be publicly identified; her name, as well as the name of the club in which she worked would be posted on base to indicate which women the servicemen should avoid. Nevertheless, most of the men refused to use condoms.

            All the women had infections of sexually transmitted diseases and knew of no bar women who hadn’t. The U.S.S. Midway was particularly suspect, and women heard that half of the men on the Midway had sexually transmitted diseases. After this ship had been in town, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases often rose sharply and in one bar, all of the women tested positive after Midway men had bar fined the women. Some men said that it served them right to be infected by men.

            All the women had abortions, usually through uterine massage, which was very painful and left the stomach black and blue, or through the use of catheters. They knew of women who died as a result of abortions. When women went to the hospital for treatment of complications from abortions, they would often be made to wait and bleed or suffer pain before being attended to.

Acts of Violence. When she was very young, one of the women went to visit a Filipino woman friend whose U.S. serviceman boyfriend happened to be visiting with a friend. At some point, the other man began to make physical advances, and then went on to rape her as the others looked on. It was her first sexual encounter. She remembered how the men laughed as she left the house.

            Women were often hurt, hit, or raped if they resisted anal sex, giving blow jobs, allowing clients to put objects in their vaginas, or other acts. A client tried to choke a woman, another bought a belt on way to the hotel room to use on the woman, another shoved a bottle into a woman’s vagina, and there was verbal abuse during sex. A woman’s ear had to be sewn, at the hospital, after a client almost bit her ear off. He gave her $200 in compensation.

            If clients were angry, they falsely accused the woman to the police or to the bar manager for stealing something from him or to the Social Hygiene Clinic that she had infected him. For the women, this meant fines and days of no income, or exposed the women to police abuse. In some cases, the client had the woman fired from the club.

            The men also sometimes refused to pay after sex; one man said he had already bought her three hamburgers. While the woman slept or was out of the room, others stole back the money that had been paid to the woman for sex.

Murders of Women. One of the worst murders of a woman was by her steady boyfriend. She was found with part of her uterus scraped out by a broken bottle and with three barbecue sticks stabbed into her vagina. She was the neighbor and friend of one of the women in the discussion group, who saw her dead body. The serviceman was arrested and imprisoned for one year.

            Another brutal murder was of a streetwalker who had police protection. She was found killed and dismembered with her breasts cut off. It was thought that the killers were police punishing and making an example of her for having stopped giving them a cut of her earnings.

            There were other murders where the men were given into the custody of the Navy and sent away. In one case, the murderer got off by paying the woman’s family about $2,000.

            The men bought women because the women were cheap, because they could make the women do things even if the women didn’t want to do them, because they were not American women, because the men could hurt and insult them and the women could do nothing. (Okinawan Report)

Environmental Damage

            It is not only on the women and girls that prostitution wrought havoc. Communities continue to suffer not only the stigma of the industry but the health hazards posed by the presence of military facilities. In the former baselands in Angeles and Olongapo, the issue of toxic waste remains, and direct service organizations, together with environmental groups, have bonded together to expose the environmental damage wrought by the presence of the bases in those areas, as well as demand that the U.S. and Philippine governments be responsible for the ecological disaster that the bases left behind. Accounts of injuries, illnesses and even deaths have been reported in the former baselands.

Actions by NGOs

            Some women’s organizations have taken up the issues of prostitution and/or trafficking in the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women (composed of WEDPRO, Women’s Legal Bureau, Women’s Crisis Center, Women’s Health Care Foundation, Conspectus, Kalayaan); Samaritana and BUKAL in Quezon City; the Nagkakaisang Kababaihan ng Angeles City Multi-Purpose Cooperative (NKAC, or United Women of Angeles City Multi-Purpose Cooperative) in Angeles City, Buklod in Olongapo City, Talikala in Davao City and Forge in Cebu City. Talikala and Forge began their work through HIV/AIDS programs. The Ateneo de Manila University and the Center of Women’s Studies of the University of the Philippines are two academic institutions that are conducting research on the issues.

            Two major networks, the CATW-Asia Pacific and the PNATW, are the most active in pushing the issues of prostitution and trafficking at national, regional and international levels. They have taken part in press conferences, rallies and demonstrations as well as implemented, in the case of WEDPRO and Buklod, concrete programs on the ground to assist women who work in the “entertainment” industry, and their families, during the presence of the U.S. bases, and beyond.


            BUKAL‑meaning “spring”‑is a project which addresses women in the streets, the so-called “streetwalkers,” which in the parlance are also referred to as “jocards.” BUKAL was established in 1995, a spin off from an earlier project; so in one sense, BUKAL’s herstory is much earlier than 1995. Staffed by three women, and assisted by its Board of Directors, BUKAL conducts educational sessions and provides services to women through its mobile center. The major objective of BUKAL is to assist the women in setting up their own organization to address their needs in the streets and outside of them. It covers two major areas in Quezon City; Cubao, a major shopping and commercial district, and Quezon Avenue, the major stretch of road that cuts through many districts of Quezon City. The streetwalkers make use of a mobile vehicle, which serves as a drop-in center for the women during their “break time.” The van contains a thermos bottle, cups and saucers, coffee, tea, choco drink, some comics and other reading materials, as well as informational brochures on such issues as vagrancy law, violence against women, and others. BUKAL offers referral for the women’s health needs including HIV/AIDS.

            BUKAL has also recently completed research on vagrancy law, and its impact on the women. One of the more successful activities of BUKAL is its prison visitation, a program in which the staff visit the arrested women and give them education and training. This activity has been most appreciated by the women, particularly due to the boredom that accompanies such a situation. Significantly, the data on the vagrancy issue has come from the actual lived experience of these women in prison.

            In BUKAL’s annual report on “Visitation, Organizing and Advocacy Project for Streetwalker Prostituted Women in Quezon City,” the following were noted. In eleven months, BUKAL visited the areas ninety-seven times and talked to a total of 249 women, eighty-one on a regular basis. The original target was set at three hundred women. Jail visitation is also part of BUKAL’s programs. The education modules currently being used for education were pre-tested in jail where the women have more time for concentrated discussion with BUKAL staff, partly because of their detention and partly due to the absence of drugs.

Problems and Areas of Concern

·            Education is difficult to sustain in the streets because of the women’s need for money. Staff try to hold short conversations and distribute reading materials (on violence against women, reproductive health and rights, sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS). Community visitations are also being done where the women seem to have more time for discussion.

·           Drug use as a mechanism to stay awake at night, to help the women handle difficult situations especially with clients and harassment from the police.

·           Police actions, i.e. patrols, which the women fear will lead to their arrests and possible detention.

·            Violence, such as battery, sexual harassment, rape, incest, family and intimate relationships, pervades the lives of the women.

·            Referrals made for counseling and legal advice or action are usually not used to maximum advantage. The women are slow to use the services of women’s groups offering these services (e.g., one out of five women referred to a woman’s health NGO, Likhaan, availed of its services.  Only one, to date, accessed a women’s legal NGO, the Women’s Legal Bureau. Referrals to the Women’s Crisis Center failed because the cases were outside staff expertise or the women simply did not go).

·           In cases where the women themselves asked for a service, e.g., an HIV test, BUKAL feels acutely its internal resource limitations for supporting women who may test positive.

·            Sustainability of the program, as the project is only funded for another two years.

Strengths and Successes

·           Won the trust of the women as shown through the disclosure of their personal stories and experiences for documentation, and as a form of counseling.

·            Popularized condom use for safer sex and protection of women, which they see as controlling some aspects of their health.

·           Women contribute to BUKAL’s newsletter, enabling them to tell their stories, providing a forum for their creative potentials and developing a sense of ownership of the project and this particular activity.


            WEDPRO began its involvement with the women of Angeles City in the aftermath of the base closings. When no programs were forthcoming from the national and local governments, despite the promise of then President Aquino, WEDPRO assisted a group of bar women and urban poor women in their cooperative building. This first group has since evolved into an autonomous organization. The first group was called Laka ng Kababaihan (Strength of Women)-Angeles City. In 1993, WEDPRO assisted once more another group, the Nagkakaisang Kababaihan ng Angeles City (NKAC, or United Women of Angeles City). WEDPRO helped organize this group and just like in the first group, extended support in organizing, educating, training, and developing micro enterprises for the women. This support continues to be given to the NKAC. WEDPRO also has developed micro credit facilities for the women, and trained them in cooperative building. As part of its continuing advocacy, WEDPRO does research on prostitution and sex trafficking, and has published information on these topics, as well as information, education and communication materials (posters, video, flyers, comics). WEDPRO, with the help of another women’s NGO, put up a community-based clinic and does health training in reproductive rights, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Buklod in Olongapo City has a similar program.

CATW-Asia Pacific

            Apart from the above activities conducted by CATW-Asia Pacific, other efforts, both at the national and regional levels, have been addressed by the Coalition. CATW and its network have protested to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and have met with DFA officials to demand that the entry of U.S. and other military vessels for “R and R” shore leaves be disallowed. These same organizations campaigned for many years for the rights and welfare of Filipino Amerasian children of U.S. military personnel.

            On the occasion of the World Congress Against Child Sexual Exploitation in 1996, CATW met with the delegation from the Pentagon to express its concerns regarding the practices of sexual exploitative behavior of U.S. servicemen in Asia. CATW and Buklod coordinate with the Asia-Pacific Center for Justice and Peace in Washington, DC, which lobbies on issues of military prostitution in connection with “R and R,” the rights of Amerasian children, and toxic wastes left in the Philippines by the military at and around former baselands.

The Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women

            WEDPRO acts as the secretariat for the “Pilot Project Against Trafficking in Women,” a two-year project supported by the Government of Belgium through a bilateral agreement with the Government of the Philippines. The National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW) acts as the executing agency for the project, on behalf of the Philippine government. The Philippine-Belgian project is being implemented by a seven-member network—the Ateneo de Manila University, Conspectus Foundation, Kalayaan, Women’s Crisis Center, WEDPRO, Women’s Health Care Foundation, and Women’s Legal Bureau—which bonded together under the name Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women, or the PNATW. The University of Ghent in Belgium is the partner academe of the Ateneo de Manila University.

            The project has three major components: the preventative aspect, which is concretized through research, community-based education and training and advocacy; the social assistance component, which features counseling and shelter, legal and medical assistance and referrals; and, the repression component, which deals with legal reforms on national and international levels.

            Some of the groups have greater working relationships than others, in part a result of their geographical coverage and shared perspectives. In particular, BUKAL, Buklod, WEDPRO, and NKAC are presently discussing more collaborative efforts in several areas, one of which is a planned human rights documentation project of the violations against women and girls in prostitution. While some germinal efforts have been started, a consortium approach project doing this documentation has been conceived and is currently under discussion (as of June 1997). It is hoped that this consortium approach brings together closer direct service NGOs and organizations of women in prostitution for a more sustained, connected and heightened advocacy and direct actions. It is also envisioned that such a coming together in a more defined manner will bring about in the near future a coalition of groups working in the area of prostitution and trafficking.

            Another agenda that is currently under discussion is a sharing of a systematic assessment of the programs of the four organizations in the areas of socioeconomic activities for the women as alternative sources of income, organizing, education and training, crisis intervention, support services such as day and night care, income support, and others. The objective is to identify the weaknesses of the programs and identify key lessons learned for future planning. The groups are also finding ways to make sexual exploitation issues a “national” concern and a priority for intervention and legislative reforms.

            WEDPRO’s response to the issues of sexual exploitation, particularly prostitution and trafficking, is multi-pronged and multi-level. Its mission statement and programs indicate a framework, which sees these issues in the context of development and the institutions of patriarchy. Some of the responses include the following:

·           Training and education on various women’s issues, including a deepening of their understanding of prostitution and violence against women: in early 1990s, we ran a twelve-week educational course; subsequent educational sessions echoed the themes of the previous sessions; in 1995-96, we ran a three-month training on sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS in the context of development and patriarchy from which fifteen grassroots women were eventually given a more in-depth training to become peer educators and community-based health workers.

·            Together with another organization, the Women’s Health Care Foundation, WEDPRO sponsors a clinic in Angeles City. Twice a month the clinic goes to the communities and renders medical services to the urban poor communities, specializing in reproductive health issues, including services for pap smear, referral for HIV/AIDS testing, etc.; this program originated in Olongapo City, with Buklod as the implementing organization in that city.

·            Organizing in the communities in Angeles City, at the moment, are four priority sites (Balibago, Malabanas, Anunas, Capaya II)—these are the most marginal areas in the region and where the rate of prostitution and the potential for trafficking are highest.

·            Together with SIBOL, and other women’s organizations, the support for the policy advocacy on the vagrancy law as pioneered by the Women’s Legal Bureau (WLB). The vagrancy law is used as the main basis for arresting women and girls in the streets. The Women's Legal Bureau contested the constitutionality of the law using specific cases, and had been affirmed by a regional trial court; however, much has to be done as this law has to be completely amended by two houses of legislators and moved on for further testing in other branches of the judiciary.

·           Since 1992, WEDPRO has implemented micro enterprise training in management and micro finance activities for survivors of prostitution; presently the program includes women from poor communities in Angeles City. One of the concrete results of this program is the establishment of food stalls in Angeles City as the pioneer attempt to assist women survivors right after the removal of the U.S. bases.

·            WEDPRO belongs to national and local networks in Metro Manila, Quezon City and Angeles respectively, doing advocacy and networking on the issues of violence against women, sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, military base toxic cleanup, and so forth. 

·            WEDPRO, along with CATW, Buklod and other organizations campaigned for programs that can benefit Amerasian children and their caregivers. A coalition project currently being implemented by various organizations was born out of this advocacy. The coalition project aims to address the needs of Amerasian children and their caregivers through educational scholarships for the children, socioeconomic programs for them and their caregivers, and other psycho-social activities aimed at the plight of this sector. In particular, WEDPRO shall lead the last activity in cooperation with other women’s groups.

Weaknesses vs. Strengths of Programs

            WEDPRO’s programs on prostitution could be considered pioneer in the field. The integrated social and economic package of assistance, which earnestly began in 1992, continues to take shape, and still remains unique. The other organization, which has developed its economic component, is Buklod in Olongapo City. As a pioneer undertaking, therefore, it was not surprising for WEDPRO to find its programs, directly related to and servicing women and girls in prostitution, peppered with problems especially during the early formative years. Some of the problems that hounded and to a degree continue to hound the programs are:

·           The need for sustained crisis intervention for the women and girls. In Angeles City where WEDPRO’s communities of women are, there is not a single NGO-led crisis center, apart from the government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development, which may need improvement in terms of a women’s perspective in counseling and crisis intervention especially suited to women and girls in prostitution. There is one government-initiated NGO, which has its own building, but its officers admit that they are not yet capable of organizing crisis centers in the city, or of taking on programmatically women in crises. WEDPRO, however, has served as a crisis center, accommodating, from time to time, women and their children in crisis, although admittedly the facilities and resources of WEDPRO are not conducive to sustain these efforts. Most of those in crisis are therefore referred to other institutions, including the WCC. However, the geographical distance is a problem. WEDPRO has realized that it has to strengthen its own capability for crisis intervention, including possibly some forms of sheltering.

·           The need to plan and organize an adequate and comprehensive response to women and girls escaping from prostitution and trafficking situations as well as domestic violence. In the last few months, WEDPRO saw itself responding, albeit unprepared organizationally, to rescue calls from women and girls. Rescue of girls in sexual slavery from brothels or pimps calls for a comprehensive package of security assistance, legal advice, temporary sheltering and immediate counseling, as well as alternatives to situations like uncooperative or violent families, and need for income, among others. WEDPRO, in the meantime, has stopped actively pursuing rescue operations, until the infrastructure of support is planned and set in place. The absence of such may jeopardize a girl’s life and the lives of other girls (or women) in sexual slavery situations, as well as the lives of our own staff. In Angeles particularly, although there is no distinct proof, it is widely known that brothel owners, pimps, police and some local government officials are actually operating together and have some links due to the profit that this industry provides

·           The need to review existing practices of micro finances activities, which mutually empower WEDPRO and the women. Since 1992, WEDPRO has innovated various approaches to social credit and other economic assistance to women and girls in prostitution, together with the urban poor community, that genuinely and strategically benefit them. Approaches such as no or low interest loans for micro enterprises were and are being undertaken by WEDPRO. This approach has been critiqued by development workers utilizing mainstream approaches, because this does not promote a two-way empowerment, and this does not allow women to develop a level of business sense and responsibility to the partner organization providing the loan. Further, in terms of cost-benefit analysis, it does not deliver back enough resources to the sponsoring organization, resources that in turn can be used to fund administrative costs of the program, and as another pool of cash that can be used by other women. WEDPRO’s dilemma lies in the fact that the beneficiaries-participants in its program are women of marginal incomes, in single-headed households buffeted by the double day, multi-task situation, and where the possibility for earning more income according to the needs of the household is constrained by the low level of skills of the women and girls.

·           The “entertainment industry" is a highly controlled industry where police and government officials benefit along with establishment owners and security of women and program staff. In Angeles City, for example, drugs and sex work are so integrated that those who control the drug scene also control the industry. WEDPRO’s advocacy for immediate reforms and strategic planning to benefit women and girls in prostitution have consistently met with stiff resistance from these actors. What makes it much more difficult is that the community, which has traditionally benefited (as to how much in real terms is another question) from the presence of the prostitution industry, especially during the presence of the U.S. bases in the country, offers some forms of resistance to change. In Angeles City, the local government, together with big business, has sold the idea to the people that without the bars and related establishments of “entertainment,” its economy would suffer, creating massive unemployment, etc. Moreover, up front and pro-active advocacy also poses danger to the program, the women and the staff, as harassment in various forms from time to time is initiated to intimidate the above.

·           Highly mobile program participants. WEDPRO’s integrated package of assistance and services presupposes a strategic timeframe and sustained commitment of the program participants. Women and girls in prostitution, or especially after engagement in it, face myriad problems, including re-integration into a society that stigmatizes them, and adjustment to an entirely different environment.

·            Psycho-emotional baggage of women and girls and burnout syndrome of staff. WEDPRO’s experience shows that long-term counseling and re-integration processes are necessary basic steps for the women to benefit fully from our organizational programs. However, in many cases, women and girls are afraid to confront their own demons, so to speak, and understandably so, so that competition and a high degree of individualism are burdening the program approaches and implementation. They are often burdened as well by the “othering” stance where they feel that women who have not been in prostitution may not be able to understand their difficulties. This “othering” does not help the program personnel either, and burnout syndrome is the result. A high level of commitment from both parties is therefore a fundamental need, which can only come from a sense of moving forward, learning lessons and gaining concrete material and non-material gains, particularly for the survivors. Having come from a thoroughly dependency-creating environment, survivors also feel strongly the need for more “stable” circumstances, such as having a man to look after them. Unfortunately, a number of survivors also end up with men who tend to either take advantage of them (e.g., being economically dependent on women’s incomes or exploitative of the emotional instability of the survivors). Admittedly, survivors in particular crisis situations see going back to prostitution as an easier option as the environment is familiar, and therefore much more negotiable, than in the mainstream society.

·           Lack of resources for program sustainability. WEDPRO, as with other organizations, does not have the institutional funds, which greatly help in long-term planning and experimenting with various innovations that address particularities of women’s situations. In an organization that sustains itself from project to project, long-term programs and projects are nearly impossible to implement. Further on, staff development is also jeopardized, since workers with tested skills and capability are not enticed to stay long term with a program which can not promise sustainability and tenure. The level of wages of NGO workers in the Philippines is also a problem, especially in the face of continuing poverty in the country.

On the other hand, WEDPRO can chalk up a few successes. The strengths of the programs of WEDPRO are in the following areas:

·           Direct organizing of women and girls in prostitution, along with women in the community, into a multi-purpose cooperative, which over time allows the survivors, together with other members, to set up their own self-propelled organization with its own set of activities and manage their own resources. WEDPRO was instrumental in the setting up of Laka ng Kababaihan ng Angeles City in 1993-94, which was the first ever cooperative of women in the “entertainment” industry. Lakas had since been an independent organization. The second co-op assisted by WEDPRO is the Nagkakaisang Kababaaihan ng Angeles City (NKAC, or the United Women of Angeles City). The NKAC has been an autonomous formation since over a year ago, and is beginning to manage its own micro enterprises and run its own organization, with WEDPRO as its partner.

·            Provision of support services even on a limited scale. WEDPRO has provided a set of support mechanisms for the program participants which hopefully create an environment that allows women to take a more active role in their empowerment; these are daycare services, medical checkups and occasionally, when possible, free medicine, emergency health funds, counseling and referrals.

·            Advocacy on women’s human right. Together with other non-governmental organizations, WEDPRO has promoted a perspective that protects and enhances women’s human rights, particularly for those trapped in prostitution and trafficked situations; these efforts contribute to the international campaign to address the human rights of women and girls victimized in sexual exploitation.

How can harm to women and girls be made visible?

            There are various problems that need to be addressed before women and girls can make visible the harm done to them by sexual exploitation.

·           Stigma. Women and girls often find it difficult to speak about their experiences due to the stigmatization. Moreover, they themselves are not very clear on their analysis of their own situation, which in many cases are simply a manifestation of their self-internalized stigmatization. Women and girls in prostitution, for example, see the violence in the industry as “natural” hazards of the trade—“ganoon talaga ‘yon” (“it’s really like that”), is an oft-quoted response of the survivors and those still trapped in the industry. Advocates can merely provide the nurturing environment for the women and girls to come to a point in their lives where they can feel strong enough to leave the industry and move on to other less exploitative alternatives.

·           Lack or absence of viable economic alternatives and comprehensive programs and services to address over time the scars wrought by prostitution, which is the material basis by which getting out of prostitution and other sexually exploitative situations can be made possible and sustaining. Over time, the presence of this material alternative has been seen to allow the survivors to take control of their own lives, albeit slowly and painfully, and begin to unravel by themselves an analysis that make the harm to them visible, and tangible.

·           A sense of community with the women, especially in post-prostitution or trafficking, is essential. WEDPRO’s experiences point to the need to help survivors link up with one another in a healing process, in an environment of trust and respect, an environment which is hardly known to them in prostitution. Organizing survivors however, must go beyond therapy or counseling sessions, as proven by our experience, and address long-term solidarity and sisterhood among themselves and with the advocates.

·            Documentaion. CATW-Asia Pacific, in collaboration with HURIDOCS, a human rights organization based in Switzerland, conducted a series of training sessions among women’s groups, people’s organizations and human rights groups on how to systematize human rights documentation. The current challenge facing this task is making the system gender sensitive, a task that is currently underway within the system; in WEDPRO and BUKAL, a total of five women have been trained.

·           Media advocacy/campaigns where the stories of survivors are told with dignity and respect by media practitioners who have imbibed a perspective that does not exploit for sensationalism’s sake and with a “scoop mentality” the stories of the women and girls. Many women are appalled by the distortion in the press about prostitution and trafficking, which in turn generates a “blaming the victim” mentality in society.

·            Continuing advocacy to expand the conceptual framework of human rights and violence against women, and to include in the programs of human rights organizations and crisis centers appropriate and timely responses to all forms of sexual exploitation against women and girls.

·           The regional and international exchange of information and review of programs and services, taking lessons from across the world, and developing a sustained program of exposure trips to countries especially where CATW has chapters among survivors, to ensure a continuing dialogue and solidarity.

·            Legislative and policy advocacy at all levels, including the United Nations, to bring to the world’s attention the gravity of the situation.

One of the obvious needs of WEDPRO and all other organizations working in the area of sexual exploitation is the sharpening of its analytical framework through the synthesis and evaluation of programs and projects on the ground. Women who take part in the programs and projects need to play a crucial role in the evaluation. In Beijing during the Fourth World Conference on Women, CATW sponsored a workshop in which one of the key discussion points was centered on the similarity between the torture-trauma of women in political detention and the treatment of women and girls in prostitution. This approach needs to be discussed and sharpened, and used to further validate the experiences of survivors. Human rights violations among women political prisoners are easy to understand and make manifest. The same could be done in the area prostitution, and further studies in this area are urgent.

            One of the dilemmas of WEDPRO is summed up by this reflection: there are thousands of women and girls in prostitution, and the little that we have reached still need so much assistance and intervention and support. If we have been instrumental in making these few woman and girls be human again and feel life to be worth living, have we actually succeeded? Or have we in fact failed in the face of the continuing misery and exploitation that thousands of others continue to bear?

The work among and for prostituted women and children is just beginning to take roots. The debates on whether to legalize prostitution as an industry or not have proven to be a forum for continuing education and advocacy, despite the insistence for a dominantly economic view of the problem. In many ways, the work that has been promoted by the organizations working with women in prostitution, has been a challenge as well to the entire women’s movement in the Philippines, who for many decades had refused to see prostitution as a central issue to women’s liberation struggle. Other groups and people’s community-based organizations have slowly moved towards a recognition of one of the gravest problems that beset Philippine society, and that has marked one of the most dramatic instances of women’s subordination here and elsewhere,


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Aida F. Santos is the project director of the "pilot Project Against Trafficking in Women" currently being implemented by the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women. She was the Executive Director of WEDPRO, Inc., a Women's NGO working with women in prostitution, since the early 1990s to 1998. Ms. Santos co-founded several women's groups in the Philippines and a pioneer in lesbian rights advocacy. She has authored and edited several publications, and is a multi-awarded poet and essayist.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu