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.
Chennai; Bangalore; Chikmagalur; Kolkata; Shillong; Tezpur; Dehadrun; Delhi; Mumbai; Goa.
Those were the various locations throughout India where Juanita spent 5 months volunteering from April to September 2016.
It was definitely the most life transforming experience, that her previous trips to Thailand (teaching English for 3.5 months in 2009); Japan (tsunami relief work for 8 weeks in 2011); and the Philippines (anti sex trafficking work for 6 weeks in 2015, and 9 days in 2016) did not adequately prepare her for.
Seeing such abject poverty broke her heart, and it wasn’t until she travelled to Kolkata that she cried for the first and only time during her entire trip. Travelling in sleeper class meant Sari, linen and Chai sellers; blind singers; lame beggars; and book merchants to name a few. Nearing Kolkata it also meant child plastic bottle collectors.
As the train neared its destination some boys got on the train carrying large bags on their backs, they were all working so hard that they were not aware there was a foreigner in their midst. One of the tiny boys Juanita saw had creatively made a hole at the bottom of a black trash bag and placed it over his head, making two holes either side of the bag for his arms to prevent his clothes underneath from getting wet.
Seeing that Juanita cried silently; she cried because he was working so hard; she cried because he had a job; she cried because so many able bodied individuals begged when they could instead have jobs; and she cried because he was working so hard that he didn’t see her, the foreigner that desperately wanted to give him 100R.
Stepping off the train and seeing Kolkata filled with streets and streets of homeless families; men and women who were skeletal; children in unclean clothing, was overwhelming. There was so much need and Juanita had so little money, but she did not allow that to stop her. Instead she was simply creative aka she sometimes skipped meals and used that money to buy dozens of toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and head lice shampoo.
Some nights she would simply pick a street and hand out the items, other times she would leave them by the head of a sleeping man, woman or child, and although it didn’t solve their long-term problems it met an immediate need.
Asides from meeting the temporary needs of the homeless, Juanita also spent a lot of time with survivors of trafficking, one of whom had willingly crossed the border from Bangladesh but when she was taken in by a “kindly” lady was drugged and transported to a brothel in Tamil Nadu.
Such stories were not unheard of, and Juanita spent time talking to a number of survivors of sex trafficking that had been rescued and housed in Chennai. From the conversations she’d had with them and the local articles she’d read one common theme was that there were many women and couple traffickers; the victims were often drugged; and they frequently knew their trafficker who was often their boyfriend or husband.
Hearing the girls and young women talk about how they were befriended by an older guy who they fell in love with, and trusted when he said he could help her find better paying work. Sometimes the girl became pregnant and either had a forced abortion or the baby died mysteriously. She was often subjected to horrendous physical abuse at the hands of her partner until he got fed up & sold her to a brothel.
Each of the survivors were beautiful in their own way but had such insecurity and low self esteem that they considered themselves ugly. This is notwithstanding the fact that India has a cast system which considers people to be lesser than, plus the small matter of skin color.
The girls and women Juanita spoke with were receiving counseling but its effectiveness would never disregard of societal norms; knowing and accepting this made it easier for Juanita to understand the Indian culture with all its differences.
In doing so she also spent time at the Dalit School where an evening program was held each night for children whose mothers worked in the brothels. Although supervised there was no structure to the classes, and since Juanita had attained the reputation of being a game master the children would continually pester the teacher until she relented and allowed them to play. Teaching the children games like UNO, Greedy Greedy, and Jenga was always fun and not just for the children.
The children were a tremendous joy to be around; they demanded so little and had an attitude of gratitude for the simple things in life. That’s not to say Juanita did not experience her fair share of challenges, but nothing that would ever cause her to walk away from the work she was doing.
Juanita was making a difference, albeit a small one. She was spending quality time with the children without the use of harsh words, actions or corporal punishment. Instead their time together was about having fun, laughing, smiling, enjoying their life, youth and the lack of responsibilities they should have, as part of being a child. Of course the realities for a child growing up in India is vastly different from a child’s upbringing in the West but that did not stop Juanita from playing games with the children and facilitating other light hearted activities that they all thoroughly enjoyed.
In other parts of the country Juanita volunteered as a caseworker, reviewing the available evidence and witness statements in preparing requests for remuneration for the victims. She liaised with local law enforcement, lawyers and rehabilitative homes to assist in the impending trials; and reached out to foreign embassies and the media concerning a number of missing women and suspected human trafficking cases.
Lack of resources led to many failures in the Indian legal system, whilst the issue of corruption was always a matter of concern at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Despite this Juanita left there with hope; things were being done, the police were cracking down on traffickers, madams and brothel keepers; women and girls were being rescued from locked cupboards and under floorboards.
There was hope which was something Juanita wanted to be a part of; bringing hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved and change to all of India.