From prey to protector: Shielding Cebu street kids from cyberporn
(First of three parts)
CEBU CITY — She could have gone somewhere else, but Martha chose to spend her free time with poor children on a roadside near her school in Cebu City.
Clutching wide brown papers, notebooks, pens and other teaching aids one May morning, the 18-year-old college student gathered the street kids under a tent at Plaza Hamabar in front of Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral.
The children, some accompanied by their parents, listened to her intently as she taught them the alphabet and how to count.
Martha, a volunteer educator for the Cebu City Task Force on Street Children, said she wanted to help the children because she didn’t want them to suffer what she and her six siblings had gone through.
Seven years ago, when she was just 11, Martha and her four brothers and two sisters were unwittingly used as “models” in a home-based child cyberpornography operation in Cordova town on Mactan Island.
Following instructions from their parents, they undressed and posed naked in front of a web camera for the pleasure of pedophiles online.
This allowed her mother and father to make about P1,000 to P5,000 for each of their livestream performance.
First major Cebu operation
The cyberporn operation was busted on June 1, 2011, when agents of the National Bureau of Investigation, tipped off by the Provincial Women’s Commission (PWC), raided their house and rescued Martha and her brothers and sisters.
It was the first major cyberpornography operation in Cebu that involved minors who were victimized by their own parents.
Martha’s mother and father were charged with child pornography, qualified human trafficking and child abuse, and were detained without bail pending trial in a local court in Mandaue City.
While the law against human trafficking allows the media to identify the accused, authorities are not allowed to disclose publicly the names of the couple and the private-run child care center that took custody of the children to protect their identity.
Child cyberpornography is a billion-dollar global industry and proliferates due to easy access on the internet.
A report from International Justice Mission, a US-based nongovernment human rights group that combats slavery, sexual assaults on children and cybersex trafficking, said a majority of the customers of child pornography were located in the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Customers pay with credit cards for a live video feed of young girls and boys or use a money transfer service to pay the operators directly.
“It’s not easy to be a victim of your own parents,” said Martha, the third child in the family.
Although they felt bizarre doing what they did, Martha said she and her brothers and sisters didn’t know that their parents’ livelihood was illegal.
“We thought what we were doing was all right. We thought we were just playing games,” she recalled, adding that some of their neighbors at Barangay Ibabao were doing the same thing.
Her mother was eight months pregnant when arrested.
Her youngest brother was born at Lapu-Lapu City Jail and was handed over to the care of a private nonprofit institution, which, for seven years now, has been providing safe haven for Martha and four of her siblings aged 16, 12, 10 and 6.
Their two elder brothers had left the center to work. The eldest, 22, is a cook on a cruise ship abroad, and the other, 20, is a production operator for an industrial company.
A middle-aged, unmarried woman serves as their guardian.
Their “nanay,” Fe Saclot, has been trained to take care of abandoned children whose parents are languishing in jail.
Saclot, who started working in the private facility in 2011, said she noticed several changes in the way the young victims behaved since arriving at the shelter.
“After the rescue, they were so quiet. They were depressed and won’t even open up,” she said.
With the help of the center’s interventions and psychosocial programs, the children eventually started talking about their parents and their anguish.
“Now, they openly talk about life. They must have gotten past the anguish. There’s just so much difference,” Saclot said.
Source of ‘pure joy’
She was happy with their progress, adding that she treated them like they were her own children.
Saclot earns P600 daily as administrator of the shelter, which is home to 118 children whose parents have either abandoned them or were in jail.
Her hope is that the children will have meaningful and productive lives.
“As their nanay, it would be my pure joy to see them finish their studies so that they can have a bright future. When they each have families of their own someday, it would be nice to see them standing on their own feet,” Saclot said.
Mario Victor Baang, the center’s director, said they were happy to see Martha and her siblings responding well to their programs.
“After everything they went through, these guys were just very resilient. They don’t consider themselves victims but survivors,” he said.
Martha admitted that their journey was not easy, but they chose not to give up.
She had heard stories that victims like them had committed suicide.
“I’ve accepted what happened. Yes, I could still remember it. I was traumatized. But instead of thinking about it in a negative way, I used it as a stepping stone and moved on with my life,” she said.
Now, one of Martha’s life goals is to keep children and families away from cyberpornography.
Inspired by the social workers who watched over them since they were rescued, Martha took up Bachelor of Science in social work at a private university in Cebu and was on her final year in college.
As a volunteer street educator, she devotes her time during class breaks from Monday to Friday educating poor children, hoping to empower them.
“Aside from basic literacy lessons, I tell them about their rights as children in the same manner that parents must know about their responsibilities. It’s just amazing to be able to reach out to children. I learn a lot from them,” Martha said.
Martha said she also wanted to return to her village in Cordova to tell the people about the menace of cyberpornography and its effects on the victims.
There’s still time to change
“There are many ways to earn a living, and they just have to think well without compromising the rights of children. Parents should consider our future,” she said.
“For those who continue to expose their children to cyberpornography, there’s still time to change. Do it now while it’s still early. Remember regrets always come last,” she added.
Martha said she and her siblings felt no hatred toward their parents and they missed them.
“I’ll always love them. Though we don’t see each other often now, I hope they remain strong in jail. What we’re going through as a family isn’t easy. But I believe there is a reason for everything. It’s up to us to give up or to move forward in life,” she said.
Cebu Vice Gov. Agnes Magpale said Martha and her siblings had asked them to allow their parents to enter a plea bargain for a more lenient sentence.
But Magpale, who is cochair of the PWC, said they had to deny the children’s request, especially since their mother had not shown remorse for what she had done.
“It’s the worst crime you can commit,” she said.
“We see the damage it does to children. Can you imagine how some mothers could do this to their children? They know very well that cases were already filed against persons who abused children but they don’t seem to be afraid,” she added.