On the Streets

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Our work
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We’ve been in Manila for nearly a month, and after days of language school, orientation with three different organizations, and three weeks of Friday-night outreach training, it’s time to venture into the world we’ve been hearing and reading about for the past several years, the world of prostitution and sex trafficking.

This past Friday, after two hours of training at Samaritana,* half our group of volunteers prepares to head out to the bars; the other half stays to pray for the safety of the group and the conversations we will have. We are excited to meet these women face to face―this is why we’re here―but also a little scared.

We go to an area just a few miles from our house on Commonwealth Avenue (one of the main roads through Quezon City). It’s an area we’ve passed by many times on our way home from work or school, with one dingy “karaoke barafter another. These bars are often little more than shacks of corrugated metal and plywood, with a fluorescent tube or string of Christmas lights to attract attention, a lone TV up front for the sham entertainment, and tiny curtained-off rooms in back where the true, sordid business goes down.

These poorest-of-the poor women mostly wear T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops, and spend hours standing or sitting on the curb, breathing exhaust from the 8 lanes of passing traffic, and pimping each other, or letting their bar owner or pimps advertise them to passersby to avoid the potential shame of being rejected directly.

During the hour and a half that we’re out, we sit and talk with women from two neighboring bars. In our halting Tagalog, we attempt to ask their names, ages, and whether or not they have kids (most of them do).

A pretty, petite girl catches our attention, because she is the oldest daughter of the bar owner. We’ll call her Lucia. She is my first “woman-friend,” a term we use at Samaritana rather than “prostitute” or “sex worker.” It’s a distinction I’ve come to appreciate: these are women who have had to make a “choice” when there isn’t another option. Lucia says she is twenty-six, but she looks more like sixteen. She and the other girls with her are continually rubbing their noses and sniffing, a mannerism we later find out is the result of sniffing “rugby,” or rubber cement. (Incidentally, Lucia tells us that she gave birth to a baby boy just a month ago, and yet she started working again almost immediately after he was born.)

As we’re talking, the bar owner grabs two of the youngest-looking girls and touts them as virgins to men walking by, who eventually decide to move on to another bar. At one point we walk to another bar, and even though I’m standing right beside Nate, I see every girl we pass eyeing him, doing their best to pose for him and catch his attention. As soon as I reach over and hold his hand, it is as if I have flipped a switch, and they are just girls and women again, slouching back into their resigned stance of waiting. All of the girls we talk to seem surprised to see a man who isn’t there to use them.

One of our first days here, a cab driver told us a girl can be bought for 100 pesos, a little over two U.S. dollars. One girl tells a fellow Samaritana volunteer that she has “no life, because she hasn’t had any customers today.”

This is just the first of what will be our regular Friday nights, but it’s clear to us already that God is at work here in a powerful way―but that doesn’t mean the work is easy. Transformation happens slowly in these lives among the slums of Quezon City, but there is hope.

*Samaritana is a local NGO dedicated to fighting sex trafficking, and the main group that we will be working with this year. We’ll discuss our work with in more detail in upcoming posts, but for general information though, please visit their site listed in our sidebar.

  1. Jennifer Rolander says:

    Wow-thank you for keeping us informed. It sounds very exciting to finally be out there doing what you have been wanting to do for so long..help these women who seem to have no hope. I can’t imagine the things you are seeing, hearing and experiencing, but am so glad there are others there with you that are doing such good work. Keep the posts coming and know that our prayers and support are with you both.

    Much love,
    Jennifer & Raymond

  2. Robin Davis says:

    Thank you for writing in such detail. I will pray specifically for these Friday missions and your language acquisition. Heartbreaking to read your descriptions of these poor girls, particularly the bar owner selling his own daughter. I’m proud of you both for the work you’re doing.

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