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Josephine Erece, a missionary and pastor with the Rivers of the Living Water church, had had enough of seeing teenagers as young as 13 working in the videoke clubs in Isulan, Sultan Kudarat, so she brought them home.
It was not an easy decision to make, but Erece says her heart broke whenever she saw them.
“So I prayed about it, and it was like God said: This is what you’re going to do.”
This, despite harassment from military officers she says owns the bars. She says she was surprised when soldiers suddenly occupied the house next to hers, as if keeping an eye on her. Although there were threats of harassment, her mission to keep young girls from prostitution continues.
Getting them to come home with her was the easy part: many of the girls lived in the clubs or in dorms that were “worse than pig pens” since they lost their homes and parents to the conflict in Mindanao. “These are not like the prostitutes there in Manila who probably live better,” she says.
Finding them other ways to support themselves was an entirely different challenge, though. According to the latest government data, around 35 percent of people in the province live in poverty, which drives girls into prostitution. “I talked to them, and they said they do it because they needed the money,” she says.
Without options, Erece knew the girls would go back to prostitution soon enough. “I saw that they wanted to change, but had no way to do it,” she tells Yahoo! Southeast Asia.
So she set up the I Care-Mission for Asia foundation and linked up with a U.S.-based charity. She has led the girls through therapy for their trauma and plans to have them learn to style hair or other skills that will help them find work.
In the meantime, she has made sure they have PhilHealth coverage, food, and shelter. Some of the girls tested positive for sexually-transmitted infections, and she has made sure they get treatment for that too.
“It would really help if they could get vocational training from TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority),” Erece says, although some of the girls she has rescued are already doing better even without skills training.
One has found a job tending an Internet café, two work at a bakery, and another helps a local tailor. They may not be glamorous jobs but they keep the girls away from sexually-transmitted infections as well as from abuse.
“I try to find jobs for them. I won’t let them move out if they don’t have jobs yet,” Erece says, knowing they might go back to the videoke clubs. Erece takes care of 10 girls, but the girls living in her house now are a second batch. “Once the girls have jobs and can support themselves, I look for others to save,” she says.
Even those that refuse to come with her get help and counseling too. Erece often invites them out to lunch to talk about why they do what they do, and to tell them that there are other ways to make money. “Many of them have lost hope, and we need to give them that hope,” she says.