Interns working against abuse

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    By Jillian Ogawa

    At first, 10-year old Jennylin seems like the classic portrait of a street-tough girl – she is defiant of elders, picks fights and teases younger children. However, Miranda Johnson, a BYU alumnus and former UNICEF intern, learned that behind the street-savvy and outwardly confident demeanor, Jennylin was sexually preyed on by her own father and brothers.

    Had she not been rescued by a social worker and brought to the Laura Vicuna Center for Sexually Abused Girls, this abuse would have been the only life Jennylin would have known.

    Unfortunately, Jennylin”s experience is shared by many other sexually abused children in the Philippines.

    “The Philippines is a whole different reality,” said associate professor of heath science, Dr. Len Novilla, who grew up in the slums of Manila. “Here (in Utah), we live in a very trusting community, and we can”t imagine anyone betraying the innocence of children.”

    The Philippines” lush, green landscapes earn the country”s nickname “the Pearl of the Orient.” Yet, its beauty is masked by the run-down buildings, crowded streets and notorious shanty towns, which are make-shift homes made of single sheets of tin or other scavenged raw material. Poverty, Novilla said, perpetuates the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines.

    Since 2001, BYU interns have worked with UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help victims of commercial sexual exploitation. These students help victims through informal therapy or by reaching out to children on the street and educating them.

    “Working here (in the Philippines) and seeing children in these situations has opened my eyes to the world, and how much protection and help these kids truly need,” said Ashley Sanders, a pre-nursing student interning with Child Hope Asia Philippines.

    Jini Roby, an assistant professor at the school of social work, has explored the worldwide epidemic of child exploitation. She said exact data tracking international commercial child exploitation is hard to obtain because of underground sex trafficking, but the United Nations Development Programme estimated 1.2 million women and girls enter the global commercial sex market every year.

    In the Philippines, about 60,000 to 100,000 children are victims of sexual exploitation, according to the Philippines Counsel for the Welfare of Children and UNICEF. The organizations also found that 90 percent of these victims in the Philippines are female. The average age of the victims is 16, but some may be as young as 8 years old.

    The child victims of sex abuse suffer greatly from physical and psychological harm, Roby said. For example, a child”s sexual organs are not prepared for sexual activity, and sexual abuse causes bleeding, tearing and intense pain for the child.

    “Along with physical dangers associated with sexual abuse, many children in the sex trade become victims of physical violence,” Roby said.

    Child victims also have a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, Roby added.

    “The mother of the girl is desperate for money, so she takes her daughter to the port to wait for men to get off the ships and will sell her daughter for a night,” Sanders said of a street child she met in Manila. “This girl has had many STDs and is suffering from her mother”s actions, emotionally and physically.”

    The psychological impact of sexual exploitation is hard to measure, but sexually abused children are documented to have an extremely negative worldview, Roby said.

    “Unfortunately, sexual abuse leaves a lasting scar on a victim, particularly the young,” Novilla said. “They have a lower self-esteem and tend to continually remember that they were betrayed and their innocence violated. This may lead to a vicious cycle of abuse or eventually, to suicide.”

    Roby said poverty perpetuates child exploitation because many parents or other family members sell their children to the sex trade industry in order to feed themselves. Roby also cited irresponsible sexual behavior from local and international people as encouraging this lucrative business. The ECAPT reported there is a parallel between the increase in tourism in the Philippines and sex tourism.

    Currently, 14 BYU students are working in the Philippines through the Kennedy Center internship program. The interns work with UNICEF and other NGOs in the Philippines and each organization tackles a different angle of child exploitation: some promote awareness on an international level, others work directly with victims in care centers, while organizations visit shanty towns and concentrate their work there.

    The interns get to know the victims, sometimes by learning what happened, and at other times, only by imagining the pain as they observe a victim”s silent suffering.

    Brooke Hixson, a biochemistry major, interns once a week at a shelter for sexually abused children. In an e-mail interview, Hixson said she does not talk to the victims about their past, but noticed the unusual quietness of a girl, Emily, may be her way of coping with her past.

    “She is exceedingly shy,” Hixson said. “When we ask her questions, she just stares at us. She is also very self-conscious and unsure of herself. She (hardly speaks) to the girls she lives with. Whether her issues are a product of the abuse or not cannot be proven, but I am sure that it contributed to her low self-esteem.”

    Sanders helps with Child Hope Asia Philippines”s street education program, where she tracks street children and teaches them about education, health care, substance abuse prevention and other issues.

    Through interacting with the children, Sanders learns their heartbreaking pasts.

    Sanders related the story of a girl named Nora. When Nora was 10 years old, a woman approached her and said she was her grandmother. She said she would take Nora to Manila. In hope of a better life, Nora believed the woman and accompanied her to Manila. When they got there, the lady sold Nora to a family as house help.

    At first, the family treated her well, but a couple years later, the father of the family repeatedly raped her. Nora tried to tell the wife, but the wife did not believe her. Nora ran away, but learned she was pregnant. Today Nora, 17, has a 2-year-old boy named Borace, who is crippled with cerebral palsy. Child Hope Asia Philippines is trying to find a shelter for both of them.

    Still, many interns see success stories of abused children rising above their past.

    “I interviewed three former street children and their foster families, and their stories are so depressing yet amazing,” said John Searcy, a marriage family human development major, working with UNICEF on a publication to promote foster care. “All have moved from the streets, from eating their meals from the garbage and sleeping on the concrete sidewalks, to living in a home with a loving foster mother and father. I hope I can do these stories justice and offer some tangible contribution to begin the eradication of institutions here in the Philippines.”

    The Philippine government has promised many ways to fight child exploitation. In 1991, the government signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Child, a document that outlines the basic child rights.

    Since Philippine President Gloria Arroyo was elected, she has made the prevention of child exploitation a high priority. But some think child exploitation is still rampant because of corruption from past and current Philippine officials.

    “My supervisor and many others joke at how, according to policy, the Philippines is the most advanced nation,” Searcy said. “I agree, but they are not able to implement these wonderful policies because they are not held accountable. Money is power, not policy.”

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