In the summer of 2011 Juanita felt called to the Philippines to volunteer with street children. She had no idea when she would go, but was convinced that the opportunity would come along in the not too distant future.
Fast forward to August 2015, Juanita headed to Olongapo City, Philippines where she spent 6 weeks volunteering in anti sex trafficking at PREDA with Rev. Shay and his team of staff and foreign workers.
Some of her time was spent reviewing cases, but also included visiting juvenile detention centres, government facilities and homes where the children were caged like animals. CICL (Children in Conflict with the Law) boys and girls were often incarcerated for minor infractions such as disobeying curfew, playing card games or living on the street. The conditions were horrendous; it broke her heart and inspired her to create her own NGO that would emulate the work of PREDA; rescue and rehabilitate the CICL children and provide homes for the street children.
Juanita returned to the Philippines for 9 days during the summer of 2016 to pursue the possibility of partnering with ECPAT – Philippines; CATW (Coalition against Trafficking in Women); and Children’s Legal Rights. She also took this opportunity to further research the problem of sex trafficking in the Philippines, with a particular focus on the growing trend of online sexual exploitation. It was her intention to team up with Thomas Estler, Founder and Director of Freedom Ladder, and create a human trafficking comic book awareness tool.
During this trip Juanita had the opportunity to visit a number of orphanages where she was able to donate a number of new and unused English books; read to the children and play games with the babies and toddlers.
Despite time restraints she was also able to spend a short time at Grace to be Born, a home for girls aged 11 – 18 who were pregnant, usually as the result of incest, and often at knife point; and Jeremiah Home, where the girls were all victims of sexual abuse, assault or rape.
Before Juanita’s second trip came to an end she spent an extended period of time in the red light district of Makati City talking to the barangay and police. She wanted to get an understanding of how the local law enforcement operated in an area where the procurement of a prostitute so openly took place.
To her dismay one police officer told her that they only arrested the women if they were working without a “manager” otherwise they did nothing. Instead she watched as the officer hid behind a car and sprang unexpectedly onto a street child who he arrested and took to the nearby holding cell. When the officer returned, he informed Juanita that the child would stay in the cell overnight and be collected by his mother the next day.
This perplexed her greatly, but was in no way a surprise since she’d previously been informed that this was the country’s solution to the ever increasing problem of homeless children.
Whilst the police officer went off to do a general search of the area, Juanita continued to observe the behaviour of dozens of American and European men and the interactions that took place between them and the women. Her presence became known by some women behind her one of whom offered her a massage (that woman, she later discovered was a “manager”). Juanita responded, “I’m not a prostitute, I’m here to protect prostitutes.” One of the younger women then approached her and started to ask Juanita why she was there, and why she had been watching her so intently.
Juanita explained that she was there to protect women like her; to encourage them that there were alternative legal ways to make money without having to sell their bodies every night. Charisse* shared that she was 21 years old with a degree in hospitality management. When asked whether she performed sex massages, Charisse answered truthfully and said yes.
Juanita knowing that Charisse was Roman Catholic told her that God didn’t see them as any different from each other despite the choices and lack of choices that had led them to crossing paths; and that although they had very different lives; God saw them both as equal. Juanita promised Charisse that by 2026 she would have a restaurant in the Philippines and a job waiting for her.
When the conversation ended Juanita was left feeling frustrated that no matter how determined, resilient and passionate she was about fighting human trafficking that would simply never be enough to finance a restaurant.
In the early hours of another morning Juanita accompanied a Filipino male into a strip club where she met Diamond*. Just like Charisse, Diamond was honest and admitting having sex with the customers to earn more money. Diamond explained that she had become pregnant at 19; her boyfriend had left her and so she had the sole responsibility of raising her daughter.
Diamond said she didn’t like having sex with the customers and would “leave soon to become a waitress.” Juanita encouraged Diamond to give herself a realistic date to leave the strip club and then work towards that goal. She explained that without giving herself an actual date it was likely Diamond may never get the courage to actually leave.
Before leaving the strip club Juanita took Diamond’s cell phone number and said she looked forward to seeing her working as a waitress in one year’s time.
Leaving the strip club in the early hours that morning Juanita felt a heaviness and deep sadness as she recalled her conversation with Diamond. Juanita had told Diamond that she was a strong woman, strong enough to enter the life and strong enough to leave it, the question remained whether Diamond actually really knew that?
Juanita knew there was so much work to be done, and that she was merely scratching at the surface. She had yet to visit Angeles City, renowned for its Australian bars and paedophilia; that would be a journey for another time.
Instead as she left the Philippines that summer she knew more than ever before that she had to return soon; become fluent in Tagalog; co-author a comic book with Thomas Estler; and work towards building a restaurant and providing a job for the 21 year hospitality management graduate named Charisse.
*Charisse and Diamond’s names, some identifying details, and dialogue have been changed.