|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
Women in low-cut, body-hugging clothes start appearing on the streets of Quezon City’s red light district in Metro Manila. Some make their move on potential customers. Also in the area are other women dressed more conservatively in jeans and shirt. They are not around to earn money for the night. Belonging to Bagong Kamalayan Collective Inc. (BKCI, they have come to talk to their scantily clad "sisters" about their rights and to try to inspire them to rebuild their lives.
Liza Gonzales, recounting the scene to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, knows what life is like in the red light district. She was once one of those scantily clad women working in that neighborhood.
Most of the BKCI staff "used to ‘gimmick’ in Cubao and Quezon Avenue," Gonzales said in a recent interview.
With the help of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP), Gonzales and four other "survivors of prostitution" got out of the trade and formed BKCI in 2004.
"We want prostituted women to see that they can have a stable livelihood even if they quit," Gonzales said.
Today, BKCI’s original five members have grown to 50. They have found a source of income not just for themselves but for other victims of prostitution. BKCI recently opened a cooperative canteen.
"Hopefully our canteen becomes a big, big restaurant so we can help more women," Gonzales said in Filipino.
The place is barely half the size of the other eateries along a street in Quezon City, but BKCI members talk about it with pride.
What they have now is a far cry from what they had when the Inquirer first met the group in 2005.
They had no canteen then. Engaged in food catering, all they had were a few utensils for cooking meals which they delivered to meetings of various other advocacy groups. To reheat the dishes, they would bring along a "super kalan" (liquefied petroleum gas tank with a built-in burner).
For a time, they also offered laundry service, washing clothes with bare hands. Having no weighing scale, they would go to a nearby market to weigh their clients’ laundry.
They also ventured into small businesses, such as selling homemade soap, but these didn’t bring in much money. Three years ago, their money problems worsened.
"We didn’t even have a centavo in the bank," Gonzales said.
Gina (not her real name), one of the "survivors" that the BKCI had plucked from the streets, recalled a time when she could not even pay the rent for her family’s apartment and she had beg the landlord not to throw them out into the streets.
In those hard times, other members lived in the CATW-AP office. One of them, Rem (also a pseudonym), was attending high school and had to sleep in the director’s office, where CATW-AP employees also worked.
There were times when they had no money to buy food.
"When you have nothing to feed your children, it’s tempting to turn to prostitution for fast money but because of our good foundation, we remained strong. We survived without going back," Gonzales said.
Even as they struggled to live, they still conducted educational seminars and scoured red light districts in Quezon City and elsewhere on the chance they might help other women trapped in prostitution. Support from allied NGOs and their strong belief that “there is life after prostitution” kept them going, Gonzales said.
Eventually members learned skills from livelihood training seminars. Some even attended baking classes at Miriam College. Initially, they thought of setting up a bakeshop.
But they settled for a canteen because the girls found it difficult to make bread, Gonzales said.
With their personal savings and donations from CATW-AP and other supporters, the group earlier this year finally managed to open their 9-square-meter canteen.
Their profit and donations help them pursue their mission, support their families and send themselves and their children to school.
Gina has five children who are all studying. Her eldest is now in college.
Rem, 25, said: "Before, I could not even imagine myself going back to school. It seemed impossible."
She is now pursuing a bachelor degree in cooperatives at Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
Her sister, 20-year-old Rose (also not her real name) and also a survivor from prostitution, is now a fourth year high school student at Miriam College for adult education.
The two sisters want to take up courses on social development so they can better assist victims of sex trafficking.
Continuing the fight
With diplomas and newly acquired skills, some members have left BKCI to focus on their own lives. But others have remained because "we need to continue fighting for the rights of other victims of prostitution and be their voice while they are still in the trade," Gonzales said.
Gonzales is the only founder left in the organization.
Carrying thermos, packets of instant coffee and bread, BKCI members still pound the streets of red light districts.
Over coffee, they would talk with prostitution victims about laws protecting women’s rights and other issues.
"Most of them are not aware of their rights. When authorities take them to the precinct, they assume that cases are already filed against them even without any inquest," Gonzales said.
Afraid to stay behind bars, women simply give cash and their cell phones or, worse, give cops sexual favors in exchange for their freedom.
Gina said: "When cops like the apprehended woman, she is forced to have sex with them."
Nowadays, "kotong" (bribe) ranges from 3,000 pesos to 4,500 pesos (US$68 to US$102) , and transactions begin even before they reach the precinct, she said.
Fighting for rights
BKCI and CATW-AP are lobbying for the passage of the antiprostitution bill, which shifts criminal liabilities from prostituted persons to customers, pimps, brothel and nightclub owners and law enforcement officers.
The measure has been pending in Congress for 11 years.
Gonzales resents calling women in prostitution sex workers or prostitutes. "We call them ‘prostituted women’ because prostitution is not a job but a violation of human rights."
Women in this field are often looked at as sinners and home wreckers. "But we are not criminals…We are actually victims," Gonzales said.
"Some are victims of rape or incest. Some are girls from rural areas who were fooled by illegal recruiters…We are victims of different circumstances, but we all fell into prostitution," she said.
Gonzales said her group did not force women to leave their trade. "They have to reach the point when they no longer want to be there."
"We have healed our wounds," Gonzales said. "We may not be able to forgive those who abused us, those who raped us. But to be able to heal, to go back to the community and freely express ourselves and fight for our rights, we feel blessed."
Said Gina: "I am most fulfilled because I am no longer on the streets."