It's a common sight in Manila to see single male foreigners
with young girls on their arms. Jessa has experienced what
it is like to be one of those girls - and much else besides.
I’m Jessa and I’m 17. I live in Ermita [the tourist hub of Manila]. I still have parents, but my father is in jail. My mum is a parking collector. I have four siblings – three are with my mum, but my youngest brother is living with me right now. Last Saturday my mother had a stroke, but it’s only a mild one.
It’s difficult for me to bring back the memories because I grew up on the streets. It’s not something I had dreamt of; it was an accident. My father was taking drugs and when he was on a drugs low he’d beat me, even if I hadn’t sinned against him. Terrible beatings. You would be thrown into the sea or beaten with a two-by-two wooden plank or a steel pipe. You’d be tied up as if you were a doll and not a child. Sometimes my mother intervened if she knew I hadn’t done wrong. She would fight with my father.
Sometimes I felt my life was in danger. It’s my parents, see, so they can beat me at any time. Since they are my parents it’s OK for me to be beaten by them, especially if I have made mistakes. But whenever I felt that I’d been beaten too much, that’s the time I really felt bad. I wouldn’t beat my own little girl – I will explain to her the ugliness of the things that I have experienced.
I began to run away but would come back after three days or so. I was only ten when I ran away for good. I soon experienced how difficult it is to be on your own with no-one on your side. You don’t have any source of food. When it rains you don’t have a roof or a shelter to go to. That’s why I was forced to do things against my will; I did them in order to survive.
I begged when I first ran away. I had family on the street from my mother’s side who helped me. I also have six cousins on the street. My mother didn’t know I was with them. They helped me. If someone passes by with food, you beg. Sometimes you go in the jeepney to beg. Foreigners give some things. ‘Don’t use this money for drugs, use it for food!’
The friendly pimp
Friends got me involved in drugs – rugby [synthetic glue], solvent, shabu [an amphetamine], marijuana. My relatives didn’t react. They didn’t bother at all. They just let me be. When you have problems it’s like... use drugs to forget them and happiness will come if you’re high. Eventually I got into prostitution.
All things need to be experienced before one becomes aware of them. I felt the drugs were good things, up until the time that I made myself aware. If you don’t have money to buy them, you will prostitute yourself.
The first time I was in my friend’s home. Her mother is a bugaw [pimp]. All the girls in her room would be sold to the foreigners. All of us were virgins. I remember my friends were 10, 8 or 9... like that.
The foreigner and the bugao, they go to the hotel with us, then you go to the foreigner’s room. Then they tell me: ‘Play, sex, picture’ – the three kinds of jobs with the foreigner. Play – they only touch the parts of the lady. Sex, you know that. Picture – they take pictures without clothes with their camera or videos.
The first time I was a virgin; he paid 5,000 pesos [$92], but not all that money was given to me. Only 2,000 [$38] was for me. Sometimes my friends were just eight years old and she would sell them to foreigners. All of those friends now have babies. They are still selling themselves.
The pimp was very kind to us. At first I didn’t know she was a pimp. She let us stay in a room to sleep, eat, take a bath. All the children in her room – plenty of girls there – they use marijuana, shabu, drugs like that. So even if you don’t, they encourage it. It’s good to take drugs before you sleep with foreigners, because if you’re high you don’t feel what you are doing to yourself. If you’re a virgin, it’s very painful. Afterwards the money they give you, you’re just staring at nothing. Empty.
The first time I was crying to the foreigner. He was Japanese, 60 years old. I was 13. Before I had to go to him, the bugaw had been my friend. I didn’t expect that she would do that to me. She used to say: ‘You want to go to Jollibee [Philippines fast-food chain], you want to eat something?’ I didn’t know she did such bad things, so I went with them. She saw me when I had run away from my mother. And she said: ‘Why are you crying?’ I said: ‘I’ve run away from my mother.’ ‘OK, you can come in with me. I will give you money, I will give you food, I will give what you want.’ She gave me earrings, clothes, everything. I slept in her bed, nothing was done to me. The days, weeks, months passed, before she sold my virginity. She took pictures of me having sex. The man who took my virginity was very bad, because he abused my kindness. I didn’t know that he would do that thing to me.
I have a husband but we have been separated for nearly a year now [it is unclear whether Jessa means ‘husband’ in the legal sense or someone with whom she had a relationship]. I have a baby girl who is a year and three months old. He also takes care of my baby. One day he and one day I. He also buys the milk, because I have no job. But sometimes you know, because of my experience, sometimes if the guest [meaning client] comes to me, then OK for once, for the money. You need money, so why not?
I sleep in a park now [in reality a small square between congested streets] with my baby. There is a restaurant which closes at 10 pm and we sleep at its side – laying down some paper. Because of the vagrancy law [which puts street people at risk of being rounded up by local authorities at night], sometimes we sleep only at two in the morning. But my baby sleeps by seven or eight pm.
I live with my second husband. My mother lives in an abandoned building nearby on the third floor. They live in a small space, so how could I sleep there? There’s only room for four people. There is only water downstairs, so it’s very difficult to carry. My second husband brings illegal water. You can wake up at four in the morning to take water or a bath. There is a pipe which we replace with a hose and this is connected to the abandoned house. It’s closed by six o'clock because too many people pass by.
Sometimes I’m very tired in the morning. So after I fill water, I go to the park and sleep again for two or three hours. Sometimes my baby wakes me up. She beats me, babbling: ‘Mummy wake up.’ She says: ‘Milk, milk,’ because she’s hungry.
Sometimes if we don’t eat all the rice at night, we use it in the morning. We fry it right there in the park. We have a kerosene stove. Every Saturday missionaries give out food in the church. So no need for me to cook. We only cook Monday to Friday.
My second husband used to be a car-wash boy. Cleaning a car earns 50 pesos [about 90 cents]. The most he would earn in a day was 150 pesos. Now he sells cigarettes.
I don’t work as I have my child, but now and then someone comes to me with a pimp [Jessa says the pimps in the area know her]. My husband takes care of my baby when I have to go; he knows my job. He says: ‘It’s a job, it’s only money.’ It’s very difficult for him but it’s OK because there is no money sometimes, no food.
Hand in glove
The police also encourage us to be pimped. They get money. For example, the police will tell me: ‘We’ll catch that guest of yours. Because that foreigner has plenty of money.’ They try to trap and blackmail the foreigner; they will accuse him that he is a paedophile. I will also act as the victim and the police will extort money. I experienced that. The police tell me: ‘OK, you cry, you claim abuse.’ The police gave me only 2,000 pesos [$38] but the police asks the foreigner for 50,000 to 100,000 [$914 to $1,827]. I know their corruption.
Oh yes, I have known many police people, they want me to go with them. I laugh. I say: ‘Kuya [literally ‘older brother’, a term of respect], please don’t joke like that.’ There are cases when the police have a desire for a certain girl in the area. They will catch the girl and put her in prison so that the girl will have no choice but to have sex with them.
I was supported during my schooling by many agencies – MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières], Kaibigan Foundation, Childhope. Childhope has been helping us for a long time now, especially when you have a problem. I had a STD [sexually transmitted disease] when I was 13 years old. After I lost my virginity, I went with another guest, so I didn’t know who had given that disease to me. It’s very difficult if you have no partner or parents with you. That time I went to my mother; I was crying, I didn’t know what to do. It’s very painful [clutches abdomen]. My vagina was full of blood. Nanay [literally ‘mother’, her street educator] helped me. We went to the doctor to get medicine. I had a big one to put in the vagina and some drink. One month’s medicine and it was better. So I am very thankful to Childhope, because they helped me through that time.
They taught me about using condoms, but you know some guests they don’t like it, so we didn’t always use them. The situation is different now. Before it was me who invited the guests, now it is the guests who invite me and it’s not really very often that they call. I choose.
The foreigner who sexually abused me the first time was apprehended. But he paid us 50,000 pesos [$914] to not file charges. Because we didn’t have money, we agreed. When that happened, we did not inform Childhope that we were negotiating with the foreigner. When they found out, they told me: ‘Why did you agree that the foreigner only paid you money?’ But I told them that it’s a long process and it’s tiring.
For me these foreigners’ perception of women in the Philippines is that the women can be got easily because they [the foreigners] have money. As long they have money, they can buy, whatever the cost. Why do they view Filipinas like us like that? And they do not think that we are young. Why do they do that to us? It’s as if they are doing it to their own children.
Sometimes a mother sells her own daughter. I experienced that because I have friends whose mothers sold them.
I’ve been to some seminars. A UNICEF funded Convention on Adolescent Sexuality – what is adolescence, how you grow up, how to be aware of abuse: sexual, physical, mental. Many agencies, many girls like us. We stayed for three days in a hotel. At a hotel you can eat in nice plates, nice food. To experience that makes you proud. At the hotel I was trying to cut a crab with my knife and it slipped and I picked it up from the floor [laughs]. It’s good that nobody saw it.
There is a celebration for girl children’s rights in March, coinciding with the women’s month’s celebrations. I was involved through Laguna [another agency working with children, Los Baños Laguna] on a committee that made a pamphlet on the rights of the child that was printed in both Tagalog and English – I didn’t expect that at all. I am happy because I’ve seen the result of what we’ve worked for.
My new husband is good to me. You know boys usually easily get bored or fed up. Because before me there were two girls, then me. The first wife had two children, the second one none. He is OK but he is still young you know. If a person is still young, it’s difficult for that person to have a family. My husband is 21, going on 22. I live with his mother’s family on the street.
I am not going to school now. I don’t want my baby to imitate me, to do what I did. I will send her to school. I’ll give her what she likes to have which I did not experience from my parents. I will make her feel and experience the things which I did not experience from my parents. If I can, I will try my best.
While the world is still moving, we should not lose hope. There is a need to make ourselves strong. Whenever I think of this or say this, I get emotional. I feel like crying. Always make yourself strong, because all problems, all that has happened, has happened already; you cannot do anything about it anymore. So just face the future.
Paying Jessa a visit in the evening, she is keen for us to meet her family – her new ‘husband’ with his little tray of cigarettes and his mother. Her baby is with her previous partner that evening. We go across the street to get the family a meal – fried chicken from a fast food place, Jessa’s favourite ‘treat’. The door staff look us up and down in a decidedly unfriendly manner. Jessa explains that she and her family sometimes run up the stairs to use the toilets when no-one is looking. While we wait for our food, she shows some crude tattoos on her arm. They are related to her father’s gang in prison. It’s her way of remembering the man who drove her from home in the first place.