Alma’s story, and why it matters

Mary Rose Somarriba Culture Editor, Verily Magazine
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Alma walks the streets of Olongapo City in the Philippines, near a U.S. military base. She goes into bars and looks for young Filipinas who are hired to work as waitresses but are often forced into prostitution by their employers to serve the visiting American customers. Alma can spot prostituted girls all too easily, because she’s been one.

On a recent scout at a videoke bar, as Alma describes it, “I watch a Westerner buy another drink from a young Filipina whose language he does not speak. If the man wants to buy her for sex, he will pay the bar owner a fee called a ‘bar fine.’ Looking at this young girl, I wonder how she ended up here. If she’ll take her customer to a back room in the bar or to her home and risk waking up any children she might have. If she’s ever been beaten or raped by her customers. Or if she ever had to contact a hilot [midwife] who terminates unwanted pregnancies by violently pounding a woman’s stomach until she miscarries.”

Alma learned the ins and outs of the sex industry in the 1980s, when she was forced into prostitution by the manager of the restaurant where she worked in Olongapo City. One day, when she refused a U.S. serviceman’s bar fine, the manager threatened to fire her and withhold her transfer documents — “papers releasing me from his employment and allowing me to work elsewhere.” So commenced four years of abuse for Alma, trapped in the ugly world of the sex industry.

Alma’s terrifying story chronicles the extremes of mistreatment to which women are subjected in brothels hidden in plain view across the world. With the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting in advance of International Women’s Day on Friday, human rights activists need look no further.

Alma’s is just one of many first-hand narratives to be published as part of a campaign launched this week by the international women’s human rights organization Equality Now. The website, called “Survivor Stories,” shares accounts of “survivors of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation from around the world, along with actions readers can take to support the anti-trafficking and gender equality movement.”

According to Equality Now, “In the 1980s, the U.S. Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines was the largest U.S. military base outside of the U.S. with an estimated 500 million USD generated by the brothels surrounding it. Local traffickers and brothel owners engaged in the business of buying and selling women and girls to meet the demands of the servicemen stationed there.”

Former U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador John Miller, point person on this at the State Department, echoed concern for the issue in 2004: “Human trafficking, especially for women and girls forced into prostitution, has followed demand where a multitude of U.S. and foreign aid workers, humanitarian workers, civilian contractors, and yes, U.S. uniformed personnel, operate.”

The problem of women being forced into the sex industry is a complex one — and not one easily solved. As Alma’s story shows, the chains of traffickers are often invisible, employing psychological threats and blackmail rather than the clearer managerial structures of drug cartels.

That’s why an integral part to solving the problem of sex trafficking lies in telling stories like Alma’s. Not only do they put a human face on the crimes of forced prostitution — calling out the falsehood that women in the sex industry want to be there — they also are essential in helping women who are currently exploited to get out. Equality Now calls this “survivor leadership” — a key part of effectively shaping and enforcing anti-trafficking laws around the world.

“Because women are often viewed as powerless sex objects,” Alma told Equality Now, “they are constantly driven into the sex industry. At times, I too believed that I only existed for men’s pleasure.” Once, Alma asked an American serviceman why he liked Filipinas, to which he replied, “Because the women are cheap. … And besides, you can do what you like. Here the women are always smiling. They pretend that they like it.”

First-hand accounts from women like Alma are powerful because they bring to the fore injustices that most people will never witness, let alone hear about.

The places where women are waging these battles may seem to be worlds away, but as forthcoming stories in this series will reveal, they can be right next door.

Mary Rose Somarriba, a Phillips Foundation journalism fellow, is culture editor of Verily Magazine.