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‘CHILDREN NEED TIME TO HEAL’

Revisiting Cordova’s young cyberporn victims

/ 07:05 AM October 14, 2013

With eyes closed and fingers of one hand dancing up and down the neck of a violin, Martha* glides a bow across the strings.

The melody of “Perpetual Motion in A Major” pours out beautifully.

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Perhaps music has the power to make personal shadows fade as well.

“Hinay-hinay na ko nga nakalimot kon unsay nahitabo sa una – ang Internet, ang foreigners,” the 14-year-old girl told Cebu Daily News.

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(I’m starting to forget what happened in the past – the Internet, the foreigners)

Violin lessons are part of her new life in a private-run child care institution somewhere in Metro Cebu.

It’s a long way from Cordova town in Mactan island, where Martha and her five siblings used to be unwitting models in a home-based cybersex enterprise.

On their parents’ instructions, they would undress and pose naked in front of a web camera for the pleasure of online pedophiles.

Martha was 11 years old when her family was earning $25 to $100 for each live performance on line.

FIRST CYBERPORN BUST

The cybersex enterprise was busted on June 1, 2011 when agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), tipped off by the Provincial Women’s Commission (PWC), raided their one-story house and rescued the children in the first major cyberpornography bust in Cebu involving minors victimized by their own kin.

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Both parents were charged with qualified human trafficking, and remain in jail without bail while the trial moves along in the Mandaue Regional Trial Court.

The raid was a headline shocker in all Cebu papers and broadcast news even as media outlets held back from naming the arrested Cordova parents, in an effort to protect the identity of the children.

Martha talks about the family’s illegal livelihood with understandable hesitation.

“I thought we were just playing games,” she recalled in Cebuano. Besides, the neighbors in barangay Ibabao were doing the same thing, she pointed out.

It’s a different life today for Martha, who has a better chance of moving on.

For the past two years and two months, a private non-profit institution has provided safe haven for Martha and her five siblings now aged 18, 16, 11, 8, and 6 and their 15-year-old cousin.

CDN is withholding the names of the children, the center as well as the children’s guardian to protect their privacy.

The minors attend classes in a public school nearby, and live in a compound sanctioned by the Dept. of Social Welfare and Development.

TOGETHER WITH NANAY

A middle-aged, unmarried woman serves as their guardian. Their “nanay” was trained to take care of abandoned children or kids whose parents are languishing in jail.

The children do household chores such as cleaning the house, washing their clothes and dishes, and cooking. They also have time to play, pray and interact with neighbors.

“When I first came here, I wanted to go home to Cordova. I wanted to escape. But later on, I realized that it’s actually nice here because we are taught many things,” Martha said in Cebuano.

She and a younger sister have been taking violin lessons for the past few months, something she never expected to happen in her life.

“Before, I really didn’t like music. I hated it. But now, I’m playing the violin. It makes me feel good,” said Martha.

The high school student is also involved in community work as a facilitator for the Cebu City Task Force on Street Children. Martha was scheduled to deliver a talk about “human trafficking and online safety” in one of the task force’s activities.

Her youngest sibling is in kindergarten and taking ballet lessons.

A brother in grade school joined a choir in the private center while another brother in high school is a good dancer. The eldest child is a college freshman enrolled in a course in hotel and restaurant management.

Martha and her five siblings lived under one roof for several months after they were rescued. Last year, her two older brothers moved to a youth facility in another part of the compound.

TRAUMA AND REHABILITATION

Cebu Vice Gov. Agnes Magpale was all smiles when she visited the seven children last month and allowed Cebu Daily New to meet some of them on condition that their identities would remain confidential for their own safety.

“It took us about three years to rehabilitate the children,” she said.

“The healing process is never easy. We’re not even sure how deep the trauma has been for them. But seeing how the seven of them are doing, I feel good and I will not stop until the work is done.”

She brought bottles of vitamins and merienda of pancit and sliced bread.

The compound where the children live has 12 family houses, a community center, a library, and a kindergarten.

Magpale is co-chairperson of the Provincial Women’s Commission, which sought the help of the NBI after being tipped off in 2011 about the Cordova cyberporn family through copies of DVDs showing videos of the children in lewd poses and activities.

She was at the NBI office when the children were first brought in, and had to explain to the kids why they were being suddenly removed from home. Since then, Magpale has been monitoring their progress in the private-run center.

Magpale said she referred the children here instead of splitting them up in foster homes because she wanted to keep the brothers and sisters together, as recommended by a child psychologist handling their case.

“There’s a big difference in how the children act now and when they first came here. Before, they looked so confused. That has completely changed. Their capacity to dream and aspire for something is back. One wants to become a social worker, another wants to be a welder abroad. One girls want to be a nurse, another child wants to be a doctor,” Magpale said.

The change process could not be rushed.

Magpale recalled how the children first resented her as the one who separated them from their parents. With visits and her grandmotherly warmth, plus good words put in by the center’s staff, Magpale said she is now welcomed as a “friend.”

“Truly, the most difficult aspect to deal with is the after-care of rescued victims because it involves not only the physical aspect, but also their emotional state. These seven children seem to have been rehabilitated. But as for other victims of cyberporn, we don’t know. We’re not sure how many years it will take before they are rehabilitated,” she added.

She said listening to Martha play the violin and seeing the children do well in school, brings her joy.

MONTHLY SUPPORT

The Cebu provincial government contributes P2,000 a month per child to the center for board and lodging, an arrangement Magpale said is a commitment of the PWC. She said she doesn’t know how long this will run. For now, the rescued minors will be allowed to leave after they finish college studies.

Magpale said she’s alarmed that the problem of cyberporn in Cordova and other parts of Cebu still exists and that some individuals don’t fear going to jail or getting arrested for exploiting children.

“They know very well that cases were already filed against persons who abused children but they don’t seem afraid. I would just like to appeal to the parents. Remember, money earned through this illegal trade is just passing. What’s important is the future of your children,” she said.

“I really don’t accept poverty as a reason for engaging in cyberpornography. Don’t think of easy money in exchange for compromising our values. As the agent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said ‘quite a significant number of children’ are now being victimized in Cebu,” she added.

BILLION-DOLLAR INDUSTRY

Cybersex is a billion-dollar global industry and proliferates with easy access on the Internet.

Based on a report from the International Justice Mission (IJM), majority of the customers of child pornography are located in the US, Europe, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

Customers pay by credit card for a live video feed of young girls and boys or use a money transfer service like Western Union to send money directly to the operators.

In a presentation to the Cebu Provincial Board in June 2013, Senior Supt. Patrocinio Comendador Jr., provincial director, sad the Philippines ranks 4th among nine nations in Aisa with the most number of children trafficked for prostitution based on a report of the Consortium Against Trafficking of Children and Women in Commercial Sexual Exploitation (Catch-Wise).

Cebu is a destination of international and domestic trafficking of children aged 11-17, and is considered one of the top areas for child prostitution and sex tourism, the report said.

“While the issue remains a grave concern and despite shocking revelations on the existence of home-based cybersex operations in Cebu, it is not alarming,” said the police official.

He said publicity over the Cordova cybersex cases give this impression of an “alarming” state. He said the community is more active now in giving information about suspicious activities in their area and that cybersex activities also exist in other parts of Cebu. /Ador Vincent S. Mayol

Reporter

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