A story of child labor, sex slavery and those times when culture slaps you in the face.
The silence in the room conveyed uncertainty after I told my story to the six young girls residing at My Refuge House. As they were rescued from a life of child labor and brothels by International Justice Mission (IJM) in the Philippines, I believed sharing my story of domestic abuse would let them know I understood some of their shame and indignity.
I was wrong.
After listening to my story of suffering in an abusive marriage and feeling betrayed by my parents for keeping silent because divorce was frowned upon, the young Filipina girls asked if there was a chance of reconciliation with my ex-husband.
Hiding my disbelief, I faced six young girls concerned for the welfare of my three children growing up without a pair of unified parents. Never mind that my kids were already in their 20s, the girls couldn’t accept that there was no chance of reconciliation with my ex-husband.
Moments like those defined my trip in the Philippines. While sitting in on a meeting at the International Justice Mission headquarters, I was shocked to learn that a few girls who were recently rescued successfully escaped from the aftercare residence they were placed in to return to their pimps.
I barely disguised my distress. “WHY? I don’t get it! They were rescued so why would they go back to that kind of life?”
Several pairs of eyes gazed at me with empathy for my incomprehension. IJM Cebu Director, Andrey Sawchenko, explained how the victims viewed their pimps as “boyfriends” who took care of their material needs with cell phones, new clothes, and a home where they “belonged.” Someone also mentioned “the culture.”
In my personal experience of abuse and the six years of fighting against human trafficking I’ve learned that cultural norms perpetuate the cycle between victim and perpetrator.
As a Filipino woman I was raised with a cultural value of owing a debt of gratitude toward our providers. When I complained to my parents that my father wasn’t affectionate it was deemed as disrespectful because he provided all my material and physical needs.
In this article about imported Filipino brides settling in America, Dr. Annalisa Enrile, a Filipino professor in social work at USC, describes this debt of gratitude as “Utang Na Loob”. She attributes this cultural value to the reason why Filipino women stay in abusive marriages with American men.
“Thousands of Filipino women marry American men every year and it’s difficult to measure how many end up in abusive marriages and how many find the right mates, but there’s a spectrum of results.”
Filipino women aren’t the only group affected by cultural norms. Victims of abuse represent all genders, ethnicities, and social classes.
Upon meeting my beautiful friend, Daisy (name changed), you wouldn’t know she overcame a life of alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Now sober and restored, nothing in her demeanor would reveal her past life as a stripper who earned money to support her alcohol and drug addiction.
Daisy was raised in the South where “appearances are everything” and the cultural values dismantled her self-worth. Growing up with mixed messages such as—Don’t speak your mind unless someone asks for your opinion; be educated and smart, but not too much; drink like a man, act like a lady; learn to cook and clean or you won’t find a husband; women lose their looks after 25, so take advantage while you can—led Daisy on a downward spiral of self destruction and abusive relationships.
The defeated mindset of an individual who’s lost their self-worth is the perfect breeding ground for perpetrators and pimps searching for their next victim.
According to the Polaris Project, the pimp subculture is about manipulation and control of victims through “erecting the front of false love and selling the dream.” The victims are promised a better life with gifts, compliments, money, and grandiose promises.
A week after I came home from the Philippines I learned that one of the girls escaped My Refuge House to return to her pimp. She was convinced it was where she belonged and owed it to her “boyfriend.”
Changing cultural norms could be a daunting task but we can empower the victims to prevent them from returning to an abusive environment.
Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous helped my friend, Daisy, recover from her drug and alcohol addictions as well as learn to have a healthy relationship with a man.
Programs provided by Kathryn Griffin’s “We’ve Been There Done That” have given former prostitutes incarcerated in the Harris County Jail the opportunity to discuss their shameful past with affirmation exercises. Women are learning “how to like yourself and re-establishing healthy relationships with men”.
There’s so much work to be done but empowerment is crucial in leading victims to the point of no return.