By Fr. Shay Cullen
The rise of women into to high public office has given a new dimension to the global political scene. In the United States for the first time in history, a woman, Hilary Clinton, has been nominated to run for the Office of the President.
The decisions and direction women in powerful positions bring to their national governments can determine the fate of millions of people. Theresa May in the United Kingdom has recently become prime minister. Angela Merkel, the prime minister of Germany, is the most powerful woman in the European Union. The women leaders in Bangladesh, Brazil and other countries have the historical opportunity to combat the exploitation of the most vulnerable women and children.
But they are not without opposition, mostly male, who degrade and denounce. Despite the rise to position of influence for some, millions of women still struggle in other countries for their identity, freedom and dignity. They are routinely degraded and subjected to exploitation and domestic violence by their spouses or partners. Many endure the physical and verbal abuse for the sake of the children, and because they are dependent. Poverty and illiteracy are for women and children the bars of a prison cage.
Young girls, exploited children, are driven from the home and are exploited, abused and forced by pimps, human traffickers, poverty, debts or drugs to be "working girls." They are the currency of the traffickers. They are sexually exploited and trapped in a cycle of poverty, homelessness and drug dependency. Many are barely literate. Countless young girls "rescued" from sex bars and the streets where they were pressured to be sex workers had experienced sexual abuse in their home from a parent, relative or a neighbor. They were not believed or helped and ran away from home and were soon taken into sexually exploitative situations.
There are thousands of vulnerable children all over the world. In Europe, thousands of migrant, unaccompanied children- boys and girls- are missing. Some are as young as 12 years old and are sexually abused by their traffickers or others, a recent report reveals. They need protection, therapy and education.
Young women of the street who are sex workers are vulnerable and abused and although many may say they do it voluntarily, they have background circumstances that preclude free choice. They need to be helped and respected and not to be stigmatized or made into objects of ridicule or derision. In many countries, they are treated as criminals. The law in Sweden and France does not criminalize them but gives them the social assistance and an alternative lifestyle. It is the customers who exploit their vulnerability and dependency who are dealt with as criminals.
The modern trend is to show compassion and understanding to these young victims and to give them the social help they need to regain trust and dignity. Too often the street "working girls" are ignored and their plight treated lightly and without understanding. They have to be seen as vulnerable and abused, not ignored as if this is their normal role in society.
Pope Francis had this to say about the street people victimized by the people traffickers. "The human trafficking … is a crime against humanity … It holds tens of millions in inhumane and humiliating bondage … This modern slavery continues to be an atrocious scourge that is present throughout the world on a broad scale, even as tourism. This crime of "lése humanity" masquerades behind seemingly acceptable customs, but in reality claims its victims through prostitution, human trafficking, forced labor, slave labor, mutilation, the sale of organs, the consumption of drugs and child labor. It hides behind closed doors, in particular places, in the streets, automobiles, factories, the countryside, in fishing boats and many other places."
In the Philippines, what can be done is to curb and control child pornography on the internet as mandated by Philippine law but universally ignored by the Internet Server Providers (ISPs). Local officials can refuse city permits to the sex bars. They can enact local laws or ordinances to criminalize the customers and exploiters, not the women and stop jailing the children. All these will help fight the modern slavery and build a community that has profound respect for street women and children.
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.