From being alone and scared to standing on her own two feet; Marj* learned not only to rely on God, but that God could use her story to help other victims of online sexual exploitation.
Marj came from a broken home. After her parents separated, Marj and her siblings were sent to live with their grandparents. Her younger siblings went to her father’s mother while Marj went to her maternal grandparents. With Marj’s grandfather frequently gone, and never having felt loved by her parents, Marj and her grandmother grew very close. Even after her parents reunited, Marj stayed with her grandmother; it was a significant loss when she died.
“I was 9 or 10 years old when my lola [grandmother] died.
She was the only one who took care of me,” Marj said.
After that, Marj frequently found herself alone and scared. She was forced to depend on the kindness of her neighbors. Marj, like so many other children, was vulnerable to traffickers looking to make easy money by sexually exploiting children online.
At first Marj’s abusers were nice to her. They took care of her; helped her with homework, invited Marj over to swim and included her in family celebrations. Marj felt like part of a family for the first time since her grandma passed away. It was during one of those celebrations when they first asked her to take a picture, Marj recalled.
“I was 13 years old when my abuse started,” Marj said. “I had lost my way; I was not paying attention.”
It started slowly. At first, Klassy* asked Marj to stand in front of a camera. But it kept going and one day Klassy told Marj to take her clothes off.
The first time it happened Marj felt ashamed and scared. But she also had nowhere else to turn. Just a child, she didn’t know what to do. “I was confused because I was just a child. I was shaking. Then, I felt different. I felt ashamed,” Marj said. “But I also had nowhere else to go…nothing to eat; if I did not do those things.”
Marj’s abusers took nude photos and videos of her and other vulnerable children in the neighborhood; images that would be sent to others over the internet.
It’s important for people to know that online sexual exploitation of children often goes far beyond nude photos and videos, noted former IJM Philippines’ National Director of Investigations and Law Enforcement Development. The most frequent cases IJM sees involve the live-streaming abuse of children who are forced to perform sex acts on themselves or others—including the parents or relatives of the victims; or other victims. Some sellers go so far as to “allow trusted customers to come to the Philippines and abuse, [in person], those they’ve previously viewed online,” he said.
Further, survivors are often subject to continued exploitation years after they are rescued. Once sexually exploitative images and videos are transmitted online, they frequently continue to circulate.
Online sexual exploitation of children is extremely devastating for the victims. Not only are the victims primarily young children; but the abuse is most often perpetrated by those closest to them—parents, neighbors or close family friends.
In Marj’s case, the perpetrators were the closest thing she had left to a family.
Marj’s abuse would continue for two long years. During that time, the images her abusers took would be shared with child predators from all over the world. Consumers on the demand-side of this crime commonly reside in affluent Western nations including the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Germany, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Sadly, Marj’s experience isn’t unique. Many survivors talk about being confused and scared; ashamed about the things they were forced to do. Klassy, her partner JT* and the three other perpetrators coerced and intimidated Marj into taking sexually explicit photos and videos.
Marj’s is a story that reads like so many other children in her situation—broken homes, poverty and feeling like they have nowhere else to turn.
Marj was one of 12 victims rescued that day—11 minors and one adult, ranging in age from 21 to just 6 years old. Among the survivors was a younger sibling and a cousin of some of the perpetrators. Like Marj, most of the victims were neighborhood children that lived in close proximity to their abusers.
Seeing suspects held accountable for the abuse they perpetuated on these vulnerable children—they once had authority over—does provide some relief for the victims. However, it takes time for a survivor’s sense of trust to come back to the point where victims are able to disclose any details about their abuse.
It would be months before any of the victims in Marj’s case were able to open up about their abuse. “I remember [in Marj’s case] there had not been open disclosures at the beginning—which is understandable,” IJM Attorney Ralph Catedral said.
It was at a Christmas party where Catedral’s many visits with the survivors, to build that trust, would see fruit. “[The clients] were dancing; they were just being kids,” Catedral noted. “I wanted them to enjoy the party” so I didn’t ask them about the case. But I did say, “at some point, I’m going to come back and we’re going to sit-down; would you be willing to tell me your story? Like, everything; I want to hear everything.” Marj and the others agreed.
It has been three years since Marj’s rescue. All five of the perpetrators arrested at the time of her rescue have pled guilty. Sentencing took place in late 2017 and included charges relating to the violation of Philippine Anti-Trafficking in Persons laws, child abuse and sex trafficking of children. Four of the suspects received 20-year sentences. The main suspect, JT, was sentenced to life in prison.
The work God has done in Marj’s life is nothing short of miraculous, noted Joy Abasa, Marj’s IJM social worker.
Marj wants to use her story to encourage others to continue the fight to end the online sexual exploitation of children, both in the Philippines and abroad. She is working hard to finish her education and hopes to one day become a social worker. “I see myself in [the yet-to-be rescued victims and survivors of this crime], and want to help them," she said.
Since her rescue, Marj has flourished and now uses her experience to help others. She leads Bible studies and is trusted to help make financial decisions within her group aftercare home. The other girls in the shelter look to her for inspiration and guidance.
When asked what she wanted others to know about this problem, she urged us all to continue to pray for those who still need to be rescued. “Do not grow weary helping those like me; children who need protection,” Marj said.