By Katrin Kuntz
Cybersex is a big business in a city on the Filipino island of Cebu. To escape poverty, parents force their children to strip in front of webcams. City officials are fighting back in an attempt to prevent sexual exploitation from destroying a generation.
Behind the closed door of her office, Angeles Gairanod is sitting in front of her laptop, replaying the video that changed everything in her small city. The clip shows three girls lying naked on a bed in their hut. The girls are 11, 9 and three. What ensues is sexual abuse. Three minutes into it, their mother appears in the picture and also engages in acts of sexual abuse with her children. The video, shot in Gairanod’s city, not far from her office, is three years old.
It’s February 2014, she says after showing the video. “This sort of thing happens here every day.”
Gairanod, 53, is a petite woman with a bob hairstyle and pearl earrings, the deputy mayor of Cordova, a sleepy city on the eastern coast of the Filipino island of Cebu. The densely populated municipality of 53,000 also includes large numbers of children. Banana and mango trees grow along the roads. During the day, the men drive their rickshaws along gravel paths, and at night they go fishing in rowboats. The women do the laundry and cook rice over sooty fire pits. Scruffy dogs, some that hardly seem alive, lie beneath the trees. More than 40 percent of the population of Cordova lives below the poverty line. There are few cars and most of the homes here are wooden huts.
Gairanod says her city wasn’t a bad place before it gained worldwide notoriety as a production site for cybersex, and adults began selling their children on camera. Everything changed three years ago, when the children’s aunt, no longer able to stomach what was happening, brought a memory stick containing the film to her office.
In the Philippines, incitement for cybersex can fall under human trafficking statutes. The penalties are high. Under the law, offenders can be sent to prison for between 15 years and life.
Gairanod has been on a mission since the first arrests were made in Cordova. Every morning at 10, she arrives in her office at the town hall, a large, beige building with a health clinic, offices for the town’s three social workers and a 78-year-old mayor who delegates all the work to Gairanod. For her part, Gairanod is just trying to figure out ways to prevent the city’s children from being harmed in the future.
A Pervasive Problem
She knows that cybersex has become a hidden source of income for the poorest of the poor in the Philippines in recent years, a business worth billions — and one in which anyone with an Internet connection and a Web camera can get involved. In areas where there is no tourism, like her small city, it’s the only form of prostitution.
Employees of Terre des Hommes, a humanitarian organization focusing on children’s rights, were recently in Cordova. As part of a study on “webcam child sex tourism” on the island of Cebu, they also interviewed residents of the city. Gairanod was horrified to hear that tens of thousands of children in the Philippines between the ages of 7 and 17 work in the business, and that about 750,000 customers are online worldwide at any given time. But then she felt almost relieved when she realized that the problem wasn’t confined to Cordova.
The problem is a product of the unusual confluence of poverty and an excellent digital infrastructure that is especially pronounced in Southeast Asia. In 2013, Asia had 1.3 billion Internet users, the largest number of any region worldwide. Access to the Internet continues to grow in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, which have become hot spots for cybersex.
“Ibabao has the most stable Internet connection in the city,” says Deputy Mayor Gairanod, referring the neighborhood where the sex video she showed was filmed. She turns her Hyundai onto a gravel path, the only access point to the neighborhood and its 8,200 residents, at around noon. After seeing the 2011 video, she ordered that all Internet connections be registered, and soon the number of connections dropped from about 1,000 to only about 100. But the production of cybersex videos continued on mobile devices, smartphones and iPads, which connect to the Internet using WiFi.
Gairanod sees it as a declaration of war.
She steers her car past children playing in the sand and mangy dogs scavenging in a pile of garbage. The air is humid from the rain that fell the night before, and the smell of grilled fish and earth blows in through the car window. Gairanod is driving too fast. She doesn’t like to be seen in the streets of Ibabao, where the people watch as she drives by. In fact, Gairanod would rather not get out of the car.
During the tour, she occasionally points to a hut and shouts bits and pieces of a story over the music playing in her car. As she drives, she tells stories of various cases of sexual abuse in the neighborhood, some so graphic they are unfit for publication. There is the neighbor who turned a family in, she says, the man who rents out his laptop and there, she says, pointing to a house, there was something with a cat. Or was it a dog?
Gairanod laughs. She once studied law, and her father was a judge, so she knows how to systematically take action against injustice. But the situation here is different.
The small city for which Gairanod feels responsible hasn’t just become an enormous daily challenge for her. Cordova is a culture in which people pretend that open secrets don’t exist, especially one as disgraceful as this.
Dubious ‘Family’ Businesses
It’s difficult to understand how parents can reach a point where they would abuse their own children, especially in the Philippines, where the role of family is so important. In many cases, though, adults don’t see anything particularly objectionable about posing in front of the camera. They argue that no real abuse takes place, that there is no rape and that the chats and live images of naked children are still better than conventional prostitution.
There are even cases in which several families share a laptop and build a business at home, or in which youths prostitute themselves in separate booths at Internet cafés. In the “peso peso cafés,” where there are no attendants, they can go online for a few coins, so that cybersex becomes available to anyone.
Of course, Cordova isn’t the only place in the Philippines where children are abused in front of web cams. It is, however, a place where the world knows about it, in the wake of a few local raids and one major, international one.
In 2012, British police officials discovered child pornography from Cordova on the computer of a man known by the authorities to be a consumer of child porn. In the ensuing operation, dubbed Endeavour, involving investigators from 12 countries, 29 people were arrested worldwide. Eleven of them had presumably developed a network in Cordova and earned more than €45,000 ($62,000) with the online abuse of children. The agents secured about 4 million images of abuse, and 15 children aged 6 to 15 were brought to safety. “It’s a terrible blemish,” says Gairanod.
The question is what she can do to correct the problem.
After the tour of Ibabao, she takes us past the supermarket and the police station, where there is one person in jail for attempting to steal the gates to the cemetery at night. She invites us to her house for a meal of grilled fish, and as we arrive she drives past the 98 fighting cocks her husband keeps in the yard. During the meal, she talks about her dream of saving the city, and about the kind of child Mary Rose* once was.
‘Show-Shows’ and ‘Chit-Chats’
Today Mary Rose is sitting in the living of a small yellow house in Ibabao, where she lives with her parents and five of her nine siblings. She is 20, a friendly but shy young woman. There are teddy bears on the sofa next to her, and there are pictures of saints on the wall. Lothar, Garry, Kieth and Watch Men used to gaze into her dark, windowless room, when Mary Rose was still taking her clothes off for them.
“I did a show for them,” says Mary Rose. Here they call it “show-show” or “chit-chat.” In Visayan, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines, repeating words is a way to minimize their impact. She referred to her customers as “Mister.” Her career began with an invitation from a neighbor who owned a laptop and promised her a boyfriend from America. The man’s name was Garry, and he sent her money through Western Union in return for Mary Rose taking off her clothes.
A show cost 2,000 pesos, or €32 ($44), and it lasted until the customer climaxed.
For two years, Mary Rose went to her neighbor’s house every night. She and other female friends would undress, fondle themselves and dance in front of the camera. Mary Rose was deeply ashamed each time she did it. But, she told herself, Garry is on the other side of the world. It meant that he could remain a virtual person. In fact, she thought, maybe he isn’t even a real person.
But Garry liked Mary Rose, and soon he paid her to buy her own laptop.
Mary Rose launched her own business at home. Her parents didn’t like what she was doing, nor did they like the fact that she had begun skipping school because she was tired. But her father earned the equivalent of only a few euros a week selling stone. With the money that Garry had sent, the family was finally able to tile the kitchen floor.
Mary Rose found new customers on Yahoo Messenger, she says, customers like Lothar, Kieth and Watch Men. She began inviting her female friends to participate. Sometimes there were up to 10 girls at a time, performing seven shows at night and the next morning.
Lothar also wanted to see children.
Rich, white men are still afforded king-like status in this part of the Philippines, so the girls obliged Lothar. One of the girls brought along her baby. The child was already naked, says Mary Rose. She says they only played with the boy and didn’t abuse him. She says the infant may not even have noticed someone was watching on the screen.
But one day there was an argument over Garry, says Mary Rose. He played Mary Rose and the neighborhood girls off against each other. The pressure was too much for Mary Rose, and when she started having crying fits, her mother reported the neighbors to the police.
Filipino Legal System Fails to Serve as Deterrent
Mary Rose was placed in protective custody and the neighbors were sent to prison.
But little changed, says Gairanod. Filipino courts operate at a slow pace, so that trials lack a deterrent effect. A final verdict has yet to be issued against those arrested in Cordova.
Gairanod is trying to find ways to instill fear in the citizens of her city, but she fails to realize that their actions are the result of poverty. Nevertheless, she refuses to wait 10 or 15 years for change to come to Cordova. Gairanod, who has never had kids with her husband, says: “I want to save all the children.”
Last year the mayor of Cordova issued a new ordinance to combat the abuse. Since January, questionnaires must be filled out to specify the relationship between a person sending money through Western Union or Cebuana L’huillier, a chain of pawnshops, and the recipient of the funds. At the end of each month, the five local money transfer offices must submit a report to the mayor’s office, which lists all customers by name, together with the amount of money each customer received. The mayor hopes that the system will enable his office to flag unusual transfers. It’s a good idea.
Unfortunately, says Gairanod, residents aren’t stupid. Those who are paid for cybersex simply go to a branch of Western Union or Cebuana L’huillier in the next town for their payments. In a safe house a few kilometers north Cordova, run by Forge, an organization that partners with Terre des Hommes, 16 underage girls live behind a heavy iron door. Many have prostituted themselves on the Internet.
One of them is Yo-Ann*, who is celebrating her 13th birthday on this particular today. Her mother is coming to visit, and the two of them plan to go to church together.
Yo-Ann is a quiet girl with jet-black hair, which she is constantly brushing, and a petite body that seems to have stopped growing. One evening before dinner, she and a group of other girls kneel on the floor of a communal room and say the rosary. They do it every day.
The ritual is intended to help the girls feel secure.
On Camera Abuse Comparable to Physical Abuse
According to a study by Terre des Hommes, the effects of on-camera abuse are comparable with those of real, physical abuse. The group’s female psychologists say that the girls suffer from depression, have trouble sleeping and have lost the ability to distinguish between intimacy and distance. Anyone who spends a few hours with the girls, playing soccer or merely observing them, realizes that they are children who are as shy and unrefined as alley cats.
Some Terre des Hommes employees paid a visit to Forge last year. They listened to the girls’ stories and used them as the basis for a character named “Sweetie,” a virtual 10-year-old girl who then began appearing in chat rooms to draw attention to the new form of child prostitution.
After 10 weeks, “Sweetie” had received 20,000 chat requests from 71 countries.
Yo-Ann also opened her Facebook chat for the Terre des Hommes staff members. It probably isn’t a very good idea, but the psychologist sitting next to her asks her to do it again now. Yo-Ann has 266 friends, many of whom are old white men. She wants the world to see how easy it is for her, a girl who isn’t even familiar with her sexuality yet, to destroy someone with nothing but words.
Without saying a word, Yo-Ann points to a chat with a Brazilian man named Ney, dated August 10, 2013.
Ney: “love i want so much kisses all your body”
Ney: “and starting in your lips”
Ney: “i want touch you love. imagine this now”
Ney: “i kisses your lips now so long. love i want you only for me now.”
Ney: “say that u want so much.”
Then Yo-Ann would turn on the camera. It was always the same procedure, but she almost never received any money. For a time, Yo-Ann confused the Brazilian’s words with love. She couldn’t process the things he was telling her. It had to be love, she thought. Now Yo-Ann is a child who has stopped speaking.
Looking for Love – and a Better Life
Many encounters on the Web begin with girls hoping that a rich man will rescue them from poverty and give them a happy life, if they can only be good enough. According to Terre des Hommes, a few men actually travel to the Philippines after a series of chats. But when you meet one of them, you quickly realize that love has very little to do with it.
An elderly Frenchman is sitting in the lobby of a seedy hotel in Cebu City, 20 kilometers from Cordova. A sign on the door reads that bringing underage people into the hotel is prohibited. The 63-year-old veterinarian from Normandy has thinning hair and a strong handshake. He spends several months a year in this hotel in the red-light district. “I’m looking for love,” he says.
He has brought a thin 31-year-old woman named Gwendoline with him to the meeting. They say that they have only met once before, on Skype. Gwendoline sits on a plastic chair looking like a store mannequin, while the man explains his view of the world.
He explains that he finds Filipino women over 18 on a website called Filipino Cupid. He writes their names into his notebook, where they are organized by the size of their breasts, waist size and buttocks. “I like it if the woman can cook,” he says. If she can, he uses a magic marker to place a pink dot next to the woman’s name in his notebook. He chats with them and meets them on Skype. Then he visits them at home. The Frenchman behaves like a person who plays the lottery and always wins. He fancies himself as a king of sorts.
In his universe, there are no questions about his role, about what he can offer the women or about what makes him appealing. When asked what he and the women talk about, he responds: “Why?” The veterinarian’s game never involves his own contribution. It only involves his spoils, the girls who fill an endless void for a moment.
A new day is beginning in Cordova. Gairanod, the deputy mayor, is driving her Hyundai through the streets of Ibabao once again, until she arrives at the only school in the neighborhood. She gets out of the car once she has driven through the metal gate and into the courtyard.
Educating Children about their Rights
In a classroom with mobiles of lions hanging from the ceiling, third-graders dressed in their school uniforms are watching two students from the University of Cebu, who are showing them a poster of a family sitting at a table together.
The students are trying to teach the children what their rights are within the family. It’s Gairanod’s latest idea.
“How should children feel?” the teachers ask. “Happy,” the children shout. “What shouldn’t a child do?” the teachers ask. “Touch,” the pupils shout back.
Gairanod is sitting on a children’s chair in the last row. A boy sitting on the bench in front of her has come to school with a laptop bag. Gairanod sees is right away, but she tries to concentrate on the game. Then she leaves the room.
She is unable to see a laptop bag as a sign of progress, or just as a bag. She has seen too many images, too many children, and too little love.