Reasons to leave
Her pint size belying the herculean task she has set for herself, 43 year-old Lalai Pangilinan Garcia shares her involvement in helping prostituted women (PW) in the bustling city of Cagayan de Oro.
Prostitution is a problem that continues to grow as this once quiet place in Southern Philippines rapidly transformed itself into a destination city for local and foreign investors and tourists alike. With the economic downturn arising from the global financial crisis, it is feared that the number of women exploited as sex workers will increase further.
“Official records from the government shows there are 1,145 prostituted women working under business establishments. But the figure excludes the girls plying in the streets, student prostitutes, those in the casas, ” Lalai explains.”We believe that there are more than 3,000 undocumented PWs in the city.”
“Most of them come from vulnerable sectors: victims of dysfunctional families, of sexual violence within the family, from poor families in rural areas. They are scarred as many are victims of incest rape.”
Nine years ago, Lalai Garcia used to head the local militant womens’ group of GABRIELA, a national movement of women known for their advocacy for women’s rights and nationalist aspirations. As a leader, she was invited to speak before a group of prostituted women on gender discrimination and women’s rights.
“I developed my bonding with these women after holding several education sessions with them, “ she recalls .”If ordinary women are discriminated, it is worse for them because they experience multiple discrimination.”
Working with them, Lalai saw that most of these cases are due to poverty. Thus, in partnership with the Religious of the Good Shepherd sisters, they embarked on providing alternative livelihood through microfinance.
“By providing them livelihood opportunities, they now have a reason to leave prostitution.”
Through the microfinance, women were able to get a starting loan of 2,000 pesos to start a business. When a client shows she pays her loan on time, she can get a higher credit the next time. After two years, they have helped 50 prostituted women start their own business. One of these has become an organizer herself and is now active in raising awareness among prostituted women of their rights as women.
“It’s not easy though. They are the most unstable sector, having been scarred. At times our efforts are met with cynicism and hostility, ” she narrates.
Lalai also sees the hand of the government in encouraging the rise of prostitution through commercial tourism.
That is why they engage the local government by urging it to promote “clean entertainment” like eco-tourism.
“We have to make the government agencies do their job.”, she points out. Thus her group makes sure that the Social Welfare agency attends to the cases of violence against these women. They also work in partnership with a Women and Children legal group that provides free legal services.One recent celebrated case they are following up was against two Danish nationals who were busted after operating a cybersex den victimizing 15 young girls.
“Right now, we are negotiating with the head of a state university to hold special classes for these women. Most of these women have low education which makes them vulnerable to prostitution,” she shared. Her group has tapped the technical education skills agency to train these women in food processing and other skills.
These women also undergo psycho-social therapy to help them overcome their frustrations in their lives.
“We need to give them a chance to realize that there is an alternative, that they can live a life with dignity. Under our initiatives, we treat them not as beneficiaries, but as partners. Only they can make the change.”, she finally concludes.
Prostitution as a problem is a tough one to lick but for this equally tough woman, even a small gain is reason enough for her to continue with her advocacy.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.