Judith Padasas: “The Philippines has become the global epicenter of child sexual exploitation”

Judith Padasas, ccv, works in Tahanan Vedruna Children Center (Vedruna Home Children Center) in Tagaytay City (Philipines), and carries out at the same time an intense advocacy work worldwide to raise awareness among administrations and society about the increase in sexual violence against children. She was one of the participants in the UISG Advocacy – Forum 2023, an event that brought together in Rome representatives of the various organizations that work against trafficking in the Talitha Kum network.

We know that you have been invited to Rome by the UISG. Do you explain what the “Talitha Kum” project is and how you develop it in your reality?

Talitha Kum Philippines was organized in 2009. It is the Mission Partner of the Major Religious Superior in the Philippines. It is a group of Sisters with the goal to end human trafficking. In 2015, we divided ourselves into groups for Prevention, Protection, Partnership and Prayer in charge. I continued to be a part of Prevention group, because I committed myself together with the Women Religious in Washington, DC, to do the Campaign giving Awareness and Education to the students and Young people whether in the slum areas, parishes, or dioceses, starting 2010. I was doing it alone. When Talitha Kum invited me to join, then we intensified the Prevention Group by giving Awareness and Orientation Seminars Against Human Trafficking to the Students, Youth in thee Parishes, Church Workers, Priests and Religious Sisters in the Dioceses. The Holy Spirit Sister and I, the CCV, belong to Protection Group because we run Children Center, but still continue with the Prevention Group. We intensified also the Partnership Group and Networking by helping other Religious Sisters in Asia to organize Talitha Kum Asia in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, India…, others are still joining. Every 4 years, we hold a Talitha Kum Asia General Assembly to learn from each other’s experiences. The Prayer in charge Group, takes charge of the Celebration of International Day of Prayer Against Human Trafficking inviting all the Partners: NGOs, Ecumenical Groups, Government Agencies, civic organizations, etc. that have the same advocacy.

In 2018 our Protection Group entered into an agreement with the International Justice Mission to focus on the issue of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) or cyber sex, after the published report of UNICEF, that Philippines is the epicenter of this crime. The number of children (the youngest is 2 months old), victims of this sexual exploitation is increasing. United States of America Security Agency reported to the Philippine Government Authorities that thousands of pornographic videos, lewd photos of girls, were sent to USA. The Philippine Government was very much alarmed, and investigated the source of this crime.

Is human trafficking that you know of for sexual exploitation or other purposes?

OSEC or Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, is a kind of sex trafficking. It is very difficult to detect, it happens inside the private homes, and the perpetrators of this crime are the parents themselves, or the closest relatives of the victims. Victims are forced to pose nude and do sexual acts in front of the web cam. These lewd materials are sent to costumers abroad or Filipinos, mostly are Pedophiles, in exchange of money.

The Talitha Kum International, First Leadership Training in Rome in 2018 and 2019, help me to analyze the OSEC problem. The Dead Tree identifies the OSEC problem- the high prevalence of OSEC cases. The roots of the Tree show the Root causes of OSEC, and the dried leaves and branches, its effects and dangers that the victims are encountering.

Talitha Kum Philippines tried to respond to few of the identified Root Causes: Poverty, drove the parents to do OSEC Crime for this is the easiest way to earn money. There is High demand of Sex Exploitation on line from Abroad Unsafe Shanty Homes, the Lack of Awareness and Education, Easy Access to Internet and Technology and Money Sending Shops.

Do families know where their daughters go? What role do mafias play?

The worst side of OSEC problem, and is worrisome, is that, what I said the parents or the close relatives are the perpetrators, for they themselves were victims of OSEC or they are sex workers. Majority, the mothers are the ones forcing their children to perform the sexual acts, moved by their desire to become rich and to possess what they want.

What is the recovery and integration process of someone who has been exploited? 

We refer OSEC cases to our Religious or NGO partners, who are having transit houses as hiding place for the rescued victims of OSEC. The victim is kept safely and secretly from the family. After one month, the victims are brought to religious shelters together with other OSEC victims, to feel that they are not alone, knowing that others have the same experiences. The program is called Peer Counselling of one Religious Congregation whose charism is to protect and accompany the girls who are victims of sexual abuses. Also happens the transition from being a victim to becoming a survivor. Survivors are again transferred to shelters that offer scholarships to them. When they become professional and empowered, they themselves become advocates against OSEC. They are allowed to decide whether to go back to their families or remain separated from them specially when they brought to prison the perpetrators: the closest members of her family. When they recover and are healed, they turned into advocates against sexual abuses. They share what they experience to the young people or students with courage, for they feel liberated from the traumatic experiences.

From left to right, Gabrielle Muntukwaku, coordinator of the Kekeli center in Togo;Ana María Vilca, coordinator of the Kawsay Peru Network; Jean Quin, executive director of UNANIMA International, and Judith Padasas

What avenues or paths of solution do you see to end this situation?

The government recognizes impossibility of ending OSEC, because it is done secretly within the confine of a private house, Because of this, TKP aims to decrease the number of OSEC cases by intensifying its awareness and orientation campaign against OSEC. Students and children are informed on how to report the cases, giving them direct contacts with the National Police Unit, Department of Security and Welfare Development and the how to be safe in using the media, technology or cellphones. 

TKP added the topics in its campaign, the teen pregnancy, because Philippines is the number one in Southeast Asia with the highest number of teenage mothers, and is one of the effects of OSEC, Another topic added is incest, because homes are no longer safe. The girls’ privacy is not maintained and respected, families are sleeping side by side without minding that the teenage brothers who are discovering their bodies, often subjective their younger sisters as experiments for pleasure. Mothers are informed of the possible negative effects on their daughters.

You have also had experience in training sailors and fishermen. What can you tell us about the awareness or lack of awareness that exists about this problem and to what extent can we become complicit in this situation, being near or far from it?

When we, the 3 TK Philippines delegates, attended the TK Asian Assembly held in Thailand, the TK country host (Thailand ) brought us to the center of Thailand’s fish port, the place where all the fishing boats bring everything what they caught from the sea. We heard the shocking stories of the trafficked fisher folks who survived from the appalling conditions that they experienced. Many hours they work to find and catch the pricey lobsters and shrimps, so much demanded by the 5-star hotels catering foreign tourists. They worked so hard and fed very little. Those who fell ill are left to die and are being thrown to the sea. Many victims are coming from the third world asian countries like Burma, Laos, Indonesia, etc. I learned that Thailand government was proud to announce that the country had reached the goal of bringing 40 million tourists that year. The reason why sex tourism is booming. If Philippines has a belt of red houses, Thailand has clusters of red houses. It is appalling to see teen age girls clinging on their foreign costumers. Another reason of the influx of tourists and made Thailand very attractive, according to the report that I heard during the conference in UN, New York, is Thailand’s cheap offer of health and medical services, as well as hospitalization and organ transplant. Children kidnapped or adopted from Africa and Asian neighboring countries, branded as “raw materials”, are the sources of these organs for transplant. I gave these information, depending on the kind of audience that I have, to the fisher folks and sea farers, or to the women working in the bars or to the elementary pupils , to be aware of these crimes. What I find helpful is to keep thousands of names and contacts in FB Messenger, of my former students working abroad as nurses, caregivers, domestic helpers, engineers and sea farers, and make follow up how they are and to be open to tell what they need. The five former students who were able to open their loneliness and depression, for to have no one to talk to were saved from the brink of committing suicide. Two female students victims of trafficking were rescued and were brought back to Philippines. One was able to report to the Department of Foreign Ministry Office of the illegal and unregistered Agency that recruited her, which resulted to the closure of that agency, and the lebanese employers’ names were put on the black list not to allow them to employ Filipino workers. I include in my talk on how to be safe in working abroad, the reminders what Government Overseas and Employment Office issued, to apply for a working visa through the list of registered recruiting agencies as guide. The government program offers courses on care giving or on other fields, including the studies of the language, to the applicants in preparation to work abroad.

What do you bring to your reality in the Philippines from this meeting of Talitha Kum held in Rome?

In the list of challenges that I mentioned to the big group, we will add in our campaign, how important the networking is, to work together. Not just to inform the young people the dangers of cyber sex, teen pregnancy and incest, but to encourage them to become active in spreading the information about these crimes, and the cry of Mother Earth, She is also a victim of exploitation, and to become aware too of the cry of the poor, affected by the climate change. Encourage the school heads to include in their program the tree planting for the graduating students, to follow up the Talitha Kum’s suggestion to the Department of Education to include in the gender and development program the topics on cyber sex, teen Pregnancy and incest, and how to be safe living in a dysfunctional family. To suggest to the Vedruna Schools, too, to inform the students about the safe way of using the media and technology, though it’s helpful.