We are walking down a road in the business section of Caboa in Manila, the Philippines. The offices are closed. It is night, but the darkness cannot cover up the grime on the streets. And people are everywhere.
Old men and men made old before their time are curled up on dirty rags in doorways. Jeepneys and pedicabs hustle people here and there. Street vendors squat by trays of cigarettes and candies. Bare-bottomed babies cling to their mothers. Canteens offer boiled eggs and grilled meat. The air is heavy with the smell of diesel fumes and garbage. Teenaged girls clustered in stairwells laugh and chat. Skinny young men eye the white strangers.
Five young women lead us through this maze, stopping here and there to introduce us to friends. Teenagers, mostly, though some are older. The women greet each other with boisterous hugs. It's community. Shy smiles and raised eyebrows voice their unspoken questions: What do we want? Why are we here? They pause to meet us, then return to their work. This is the red-light district in Manila. Business is booming.
Earlier, we heard the stories of our five guides. Most had come from the provinces looking for work. There was none. Some were hired as housekeepers, only to be abused by those who hired them. All ended up on the streets.
Our gang of 13 Canadians stands out in this vibrant night community. Our escorts are part of a valiant group from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) that is working to help women get out of the business. We are here to learn firsthand about their work. To understand the forces that drive thousands of Filipino women into prostitution each year, we must wrestle with the forces affecting Filipino society as a whole: its history as one of the most colonialized countries in the world, the enormity of the nation's international debt (40 percent of GNP goes to pay it, yet it grows by $1 million a day), the overt and covert pressures brought to bear by U.S. government and transnational corporate interests.
It doesn't take us long to realize that we have much to learn. But that is why we have come on this exposure trip, to know more about the people, the land, and how our United Church is supporting our partners here.
On the Island of Negros, we visit Talongon and Tangculogan, two of 13 villages slated for demolition to make way for a massive export centre. Transnationals want a port to export fruit and vegetables. Families are being evicted, with no compensation, from lands they have held for over 60 years. They tell us they want to fight in the courts. They tell us that if their land is taken they will have nowhere else to go. Nowhere, except perhaps the city.
Back in Dumaguete, we sit with Bishop Erme Camba and his wife Hennie, who struggle daily to help their people. A livelihood program initially funded by a loan from The United Church of Canada has helped dozens of men buy their own motor-cabs. Many more have had help building their own homes, starting home-based businesses or paying school tuition. In the face of the desperate situations faced by millions of their people, these may seem like drops in a bucket. Those drops, however, help inspire hope.
When asked what is the single most important thing we might to do help, Hennie replies with passion and without hesitation. "Tell people about us. Tell others about things here in the Philippines," she says. "And come back. Please, come back."
Rev. Louise Graves, minister at Knox United in Peterborough, Ont., was part of a recent Bay of Quinte Conference exposure tour of the Philippines.
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