In 2013, Sweetie, a 10-year old Filipina girl, found herself in an online chat room, receiving messages from 20,000 men around the world. But they weren’t interested in her favorite toys or the colors she liked. They wanted what no adult should ever ask of a child.
Although it was revealed that Sweetie was a computer-generated child by a Dutch children’s charity to track sexual predators online, this awareness campaign revealed a disturbing reality—that child prostitution remains a rampant problem in the Philippines. In fact, ECPAT, an NGO that fights child trafficking, describes the Philippines as a “traditional child sex tourism destination.”
Of the 13.4 million children who are suffering from poverty how many girls are coerced into prostitution and marriage? There are 1.8 million abandoned children, or about 1% of the population that are roaming the streets and begging for food and money. How can we ensure that they are protected from criminal groups?
Sadly, the problem remains unaddressed to this day. But there are glimpses of hope in the grassroots sector—organizations that are offering a platform for the unheard, sharing their experiences, and offering a support system. This small-scale approach has long been the advocacy of Tahanan Sta. Luisa ever since its foundation.
Back in 1999, Ms. Teresita de Silva saw that despite the presence of crisis centers for abused children, there weren’t any crisis centers dedicated specifically for abused street girls. She then set herself on a mission to fill this gap and provide shelter to street girls who are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Over the years, Tahanan Sta. Luisa has been home not only to stories of grief, but also of hope. By 2013, 560 street girls have called Tahanan Sta. Luisa their home, or “tahanan,” and each one had a unique story to tell.
What Tahanan Sta Luisa Does
Tahanan Sta. Luisa is located in Antipolo City, Rizal, Philippines, providing a comprehensive approach to rehabilitating street girls with a history of abuse. Girls aged 11-15 are surrounded by dedicated staff who can guide them in their journey to recovery. From making new friends to doing household chores, and eventually reintegrating themselves back into society, the social workers at Tahanan Sta. Luisa are there to help them. Seeing the girls enjoy normal lives and become productive members of the community after their stay has been the main inspiration for the center’s employees.
Given the limited space, the center can only accept 23 girls at a time. They come from different backgrounds. Some have been prostituted and are victims of sexual abuse, while others are neglected by their parents or are victims of drug abuse. The girls are referred by street educators from ChildHope Asia (Philippines) Foundation, Sun for all Children (SFAC) and Families and Children for Empowerment and Development (FCED), and government organizations.
Upon admission, they are assessed by the center to determine their needs. This includes a look into their school records and their medical history. A case manager will work with the child to implement a case management plan where the child is actively involved in gauging her progress. Together with the houseparent on duty and the social workers, areas for improvement are identified and properly addressed. They are provided with initial services such as food, clothing, a hygiene kit, and their own beds.
THE CHT FRAMEWORK
To help girls overcome their traumatic experiences and rebuild their lives, the center saw the need for an integrated approach that took into account their social, emotional, and spiritual growth. All of their projects and activities follow the Caring, Healing, and Teaching framework to make sure that girls have a holistic development during their stay.
The houseparents provide the girls with their daily needs and teach them basic life skills. From monitoring the girls’ hygiene to giving them daily chores, they are training the girls to become responsible adults. It is their hope that once they reintegrate themselves in the outside world, the girls can learn to become independent. As acting parents, the social workers become role models and they make up for the parental care that the girls were deprived of. Thus, it is not only the provision of material needs that is important to their task, but also the guidance, the laughter, and care that biological parents would give.
Healing is a priority for the social workers at Tahanan Sta. Luisa. Because of the complex background of the girls, they understand that this step must involve professionals from different fields. An initial assessment is conducted on girls who step into the center to determine any infections they may have acquired while scouring the streets.
During their stay, psychiatric and psychological services are provided, especially for girls who have gone through drug abuse. Individual or group counseling twice a month can have a huge impact on the way these girls perceive the people around them. They can determine their own personality and understand how best to adapt to different people. They will know how to resolve personal problems which they previously found overwhelming. Most importantly, they will learn how to trust again.
Healing is not only about visiting doctors; it is also about rebuilding one’s self-worth and character. Through various cultural and recreational activities such as music and sports, they develop skills such as perseverance and teamwork.
The center enrolls the girls in an alternative learning system where they learn about reading, basic math, values education, gender sensitivity, and sexuality. This is an important step for girls who missed out on primary education.
They also learn skills that can help them earn money once they leave the center. Short-term courses are offered by volunteers and partner organizations. These can include voice lessons, arts and crafts, dancing, t-shirt painting, soap making, and teambuilding exercises. For those who are having difficulties with the alternative learning system, Tahanan Sta. Luisa arranges tutorial sessions.
It is a policy of the center to use praise and positive reinforcement to manage their behavior. Nonviolent methods of reprimanding ensure that the girls are not reminded of their abusive past. This has worked effectively over the years, showing improved self-esteem and a cooperative behavior among the girls.
Photo from Tahanan Sta. Luisa Inc.
Once a child has been determined to be ready for formal school or to reintegrate with her relatives, a pre-discharge conference is arranged where they discuss the girl’s progress and the terms of her release. Aftercare monthly follow-ups or home visits are conducted for six months and another quarterly visit for the remaining six months by Tahanan Sta. Luisa social workers to ensure that the girl is in good company. A closing summary report is made once the girl has shown positive signs.
One of the problems the center faces is the case of girls who leave without permission. Often, they are found returning to their old ways because they cannot cope with change psychologically. Houseparents and other children discuss why the incident happened and try to think of ways to prevent it from happening in the future.
Tahanan Sta Luisa Inc. operates using the donations from kind individuals, organizations, and corporations. Donations can come either in monetary form or in terms of clothes, foods, and toiletries. They rely on hundreds of volunteers from other organizations to provide extracurricular training to the girls. By widening their network, the center hopes to sustain its program and services.
The work being done by Tahanan Sta. Luisa is a model that deserves to be replicated by other grassroots organizations working on girls’ education. This center acknowledges that saving street children is not simply about giving them some form of education. Rather, it has to be a comprehensive approach that tackles the root causes of their condition.
The problem of girls’ rights and education is not just a problem that affects girls. It affects everyone. Thus, we must be proactive in finding solutions to this crisis. By educating them and providing them with a strong support system we strengthen our communities, families, create jobs, and protect our environment. In fact, according to the Brookings Institution, a girl’s education is the most cost-effective and best investment against climate change. I echo the belief of Prime Minister Erna Solberg: “When you invest in a girl’s education, she feeds herself, her children, her community, and her nation.”