Tales of prostitution and survival in Davao City

Oct. 22, 2023
Photo courtesy of pxhere.com

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Juy, 30 years old, used to roam the streets of Davao at night to find ‘clients’ who would pay her in exchange for sexual activity. She was then age 13 and was drawn into this work after her mother left her and two younger siblings.

That was seventeen years ago. Now, Juy goes back to the very same dark streets in downtown Davao. But this time she is a volunteer for Talikala, a non-government organization counseling and helping women and girls on the risks of prostitution.

Along with Talikala staff and volunteers where some are former prostituted women, Juy talks to women and girls in these places known as prostitution areas, where they offer time to talk with them, about their personal lives, health and hygiene, protection from HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

“We do not just talk to them about how to protect themselves. We are also there for them to listen to their stories so that we understand why they engage in this activity,” Juy said in Bisaya.

Talikala estimates that there are 6,000 women and girls who are involved in prostitution, 20% or around 1,200 of them are girls under 18 years old.

Their stories

While Talikala engages with local government agencies to address the prostitution of women and minors, most of their work focuses on counseling and support for women and girls.

On one of their visits to an identified prostitution area in San Pedro Street, Juy and other volunteers met Ana, 16, who used to attend Talikala’s program two years ago.

At age 14, Ana attended educational sessions with Talikala, but eventually stopped and went back to selling her body to pimps despite having given birth to a child. he is now a mother of a two-year-old boy and has a new live-in partner.

Ana is now their key person in these areas. She introduces them to girls whom she calls “gawas girls’ (outlier girls) or prostituted women without handlers. Volunteers handed them food as Juy and others started to talk with them.

“Daghan sa amoang maistorya kay mga batan-on pa. Maong amo gyud ginapaningkamutan nga makasabot sila sa ilang kahimutang, sa mga risgo nga ilang atubangon sa ilang ginabuhat (Most of the people we talk to are very young. That’s why we work hard to help them understand their situation, the risks that they’re facing in this kind of work),” Juy explained after the talk.

The volunteers asked simple questions that allowed the girls to open up and understand their intentions. Soon, some of the girls began sharing their experiences.

But sixteen-year-old Liz, who had just entered prostitution that month, sat silently and listened. Just like other teens, Liz was forced to this work to support her schooling. Her parents did not know about this, as she made them believe she was working part-time in a small restaurant.

“Wala man gud nay ikasuporta ang akong ginikanan sa akoa kay mga tigulang na sila ug naglisud pud mi (My parents couldn’t find support and they are already old, and we are very poor),” Liz said shortly.

Single mothers

The volunteers also met single mothers, Maria, age 35, and Jessie, 37, who have been engaging in sex work for more than a decade but kept this a secret from their children living in Samal City.

“Wala kabalo ang akong mga anak nga mao ni akong trabaho. Ang sulti nako sa ilaha kay sa restaurant ko nagtrabaho tighugas og plato (My children don’t know what my work is. I just told them I wash plates for a restaurant),” said Maria, a mother of two children. age seven and thirteen.

Both Maria and Jessie started as waitresses in different bars but shifted to selling their bodies to local pimps to earn more for their families.

Even with their age, they said they still have customers who offer them from 300 to 500 pesos for an hour. On good nights, they can get three to four customers before heading home in the morning. But there are also nights when there are no customers.

“Sa karon naa gyud mga gabie nga wala gyud mi. Kung ana wala gyud mi mabuhat, mubalik ra mi na pud pagka-ugma. Ana ra man gyud ang ginahimo namo dire kay di man sab namo sila mapilit (Tonight there’s nothing. There’s nothing we can do, but wait for tomorrow. We can’t force them, it’s just what it is),” said Jessie.

Jessie was forced into prostitution after her husband left her and their four children for a younger girlfriend. Maria has been widowed for eleven years, losing her husband who was killed in a fight with their neighbor. She decided to accept customers who were willing to pay her double the pay she received in her old job as a househelp.

“Wala man gud koy choice kay nagadaku na akong mga anak. Dili sab nako kaya nga sabay-sabay sila paeskwelahon kung taman ra ko helper. Mao naka decide ko nga mag-ani na lang hangtud sa nasanay na lang (I have no choice because my children are all growing up. I can’t send them all to school if I remain as a househelp. So I chose this, now I’m used to this kind of work),” told Maria.

Another girl in the group is Irish, who comes from Basilan and was prostituted at age 12.

“Gikuha ko sa akong auntie para himuong katabang. Sa una ato kay gatabang tabang pa ko pero sunod kay gibaligya na diay ko sa mga lalaki tapos siya ang gakuha sa bayad (My aunt brought me here saying I would be working as a househelp. That was in the beginning, but then she sold me to men, and she gets the money),” Irish said. 

She is now nineteen years old and one month pregnant with her second child. Her husband does not have a stable job to sustain their family as he is only a part-time construction worker. 

Irish said this work comes in conflict with her religion and being a Tausug, but she explained, ‘it is better to work this way than to die in hunger’ as both did not even finish their elementary education.

Prevalence in Davao

Davao City is one of the top five growing cities in the Philippines, but it is also one of the top areas for child prostitution and sex tourism, as noted by government agencies focused on women and child trafficking.   

Talikala has been counseling women and teens forced into the sex trade for decades. But finds a lot of challenges.

Jeanette Ampog, Talikala executive director said that there are laws against prostitution such as Republic Act (RA) 7610 or the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation, and Discrimination, RA 11930 or the Anti-Online Sexual Abuse or Exploitation of Children (OSAEC), and RA 9710 or the Magna Carta of Women (MCW), which “needs active implementation”.

“But the biggest challenge now for barangay local governments and also government agencies is the changing landscape in how women and even children are being sold,” said Ampog.

She noted that handlers and pimps now maximize social media for their transactions. Making it more challenging to monitor the women and teens.

Ampog also raises concern on some provisions of the city’s Women’s Development Code which contradicts national laws, especially concerning occupational permits that recognize prostitution as sex work.

These occupation permits of P125 for first-timers and P156 for renewal were required under the Davao City Ordinance No. 5004 to women “in the entertainment industry in amusement places such as “clubs or day clubs, cocktail lounges, super or family clubs, disco houses, minus-one or sing-along houses, bars or beer houses/gardens, fast food centers showing sports competitions or replay shows by direct hook up via satellite or those showing video cassette films/movies, beach resorts, and other places of amusement where one seeks admission to entertain himself whether by seeing or viewing or by direct participation.”

Under the same ordinance, women in the entertainment industry are entitled to free regular medical check-ups and medicines.

Then there is the problem of ‘gawas girls’ as the city’s Business Bureau issues occupational permits as entertainers, dancers, and massage attendants.

Turning point

The ultimate goal of Talikala is to advise and support women to leave the sex trade, but Juy understands the difficulties of why many still cannot decide to do so despite active campaigns by Talikala and government agencies.

“Ang pag-address man sa kahimtang sa mga kababaihan nga anaa sa prostitution dili lang dapat band aid solution. Instead nga hatagan ra sila og assistance like pagkaon or kwarta dapat ginatrain sila ug ginapataas ang skills ug kapasidad aron duna silay katakos (To address the situation of women into prostitution, they shouldn’t just provide band-aid solution. Instead of simply handing assistance like meals or money, they should train women with skills and capacity to support themselve),” she explained.

Juy’s experience is no different from the women and teens she encounters during area visits or in programs under Talikala. At age 13, she had to take care of the family as the eldest daughter after their mother abandoned them. Her friends introduced her to the sex trade.

When she attended Talikala sessions years later, she saw her two younger sisters, aged 11 and 12 at that time, were part of the prostituted children the group was counseling.

“Murag gikumot ang akong dughan sa dihang nagkita mi sa akong mga igsoon nga mao pud diay ilang ginabuhat. Mao to nga nagsabot mi nga mangundang (It broke my heart to see my sisters there. We decided to stop),” said recalled.

It took two more years, with sessions in Talikala, for her sisters to stop. In 2012, Juy eventually stopped five years after that incident, when she had saved enough for her siblings and her education. She also joined trainings to become an educator and volunteer for Talikala.

“Sa sige nako attend man gud didto nako narealize nga mahadlok ko magkasakit. Kapoy kaayo man gud ang akong trabaho sa una ug gusto gyud ko nga maka trabaho nga legal aron nga maka ipon (From attending these sessions, I realized it’s scary to get diseases. My body was also exhausted and I wanted to find a legitimate job so I can save enough),” Juy said.

Juy looks forward to her diploma in senior high next year.

“Dili sya sayon nga desisyon pero kung naay determination ug willingness kay makaya ra gyud (There’s never an easy decision, but with determination and willingness, I have made it),” Juy said. (davaotoday.com)

(Names of women in this story have been changed for their privacy)

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