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This is a story I wrote depicting the reality of many young children in developing countries.
I hope this is a powerful story and makes a difference.
The bustling streets of the Philippines - the sound of the jeepneys honking, the voices of the people chattering, the smell of the thick air and the dirt on the sidewalk, and the noise of the pouring rain. These are things that I am accustomed to. Things that I have grown up exposed to, things that I cannot live without. But most people would say otherwise. They’d argue that these concepts are meaningless - the everyday hustle and bustle of a city, the friendly faces of their neighbors, the comforting yet obnoxious sounds of the jeepneys, and the trash and dirt on the sidewalks.
I disagree with those people. I’d argue that these are the things that make up one’s life, or at least my life. You see, I live in a slum, in the backdrop of one of the Philippine alleyways. I don’t have time to complain about things I will never have, so instead, I cherish in the things that I do have.
Let me tell you my story.
“Goodbye Mariel. Make sure you finish your work!” Mom called from the front door. With that, she disappeared, carrying a small purse containing the little money she was able to collect. My mom worked as domestic helper. She worked in 3 different houses in the span of 15 hours.
For this reason, I was left at home alone almost every day. I don’t have a father - he disappeared when I was much younger. While Mom was gone, I had to scavenge in the trash cans, searching for useful items. Every now and then I found cans of leftover food, or little precious jewelry that I could possibly sell.
So, just like every other day, that day I set out to the nearest trash site. On my way there, I noticed the things I noticed every day. Happy families walking along the sidewalk and lively children boarding the buses to go to school. My heart ached to be a part of them, yet here I was, setting out to scavenge at the trash site.
While I ran my nimble fingers though the garbage, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“It is not safe for a little girl like you,” wise man Joseph explained. Joseph was an old man who lived in the slums. He was considered the wisest man in the locality, and everybody went to him for advice.
“What do you mean Grandpa,” I asked, trying not to pass out from the smell of the trash.
“Mariel, I see you walking alone in these alleyways every day. Your mother cannot be here to help you, and neither can your father. Do you really think it is very safe for you to wander around by yourself?” he questioned.
I had never considered this safety aspect that Joseph was bringing up. For me, life was a repetitive routine. Every morning from 6 am to 10 pm, Mom was out working as a domestic helper, and I was out scavenging and selling things that I could. Safety did not matter. My mom and I had to do everything we could to survive.
“It might not be safe Grandpa Joseph,” I explained, “but I have to do what I have to do.”
Joseph sighed, and sat down next to me. He placed an assuring arm on my shoulder.
“I just want you to be aware my dear. A little girl like you, a vulnerable little child like you, you can be easily preyed upon. This place is not safe,” Joseph continued, “Regardless, I do not want you staying out here past 7 in the evening. You have to be home by then. Is that understood?”
I dumped the collected trash into my bag and stood up.
“Yes Grandpa. Don’t worry about me,” I replied, and started heading home.
“Now why would he say that?” Mom asked, as she tucked me into my cot.
“I don’t know Mama. Why would this place not be safe anymore,” I asked.
Mom smoothened out my blanket, and climbed up onto my bed. She rested her head on her palm, and sighed deeply. It was dark and gloomy outside, and there were signs of a brewing storm.
“Mariel, I think you are old enough for me to tell you,” Mom said, “The reason why it is not safe is because there are dangerous people out there. I cannot be there to protect you from everything my dear. Grandpa Joseph is right. You must a tleast be home by 7pm, or else it gets dark and dangerous."
I shivered due to Mom’s soft and eerie voice. My heart started beating faster.
“You mean these men kidnap us?” I asked.
“Uh…yes,” Mom stammered, “but it is worse than that. Just...just go to sleep.”
She turned to her other side, and I could hear her crying softly. Her entire body was shaking for a bit, before she finally collapsed into a deep sleep.
I obviously had no idea what she was talking about. I lay awake for many hours, staring up at the ceiling. It scared me to think that this fear would hinder even the slightest income we were able to make. The fear can’t control us, I thought, we must continue doing whatever we can to earn a living. With that lingering thought, I fell asleep.
The sounds of the jeepneys honking, the voices of my familiar neighbors, and the smell of the dirt in the sidewalks, woke me up early in the morning. Mom was at the doorway, about to leave for work.
“Time to get up Mariel!” she called impatiently.
“Mom I feel sick,” I groaned, “I’ll go out later towards the evening.”
Mom sighed and left the house. I wasn’t lying. I really wasn’t feeling well. I was probably just shaken my Grandpa Joseph and Mom’s words. Kidnapping was not very common here in the Philippines, at least from what I know. It’s not every day that one of my neighbors suddenly goes missing. I stood up from my bed. No, kidnapping is no big deal. Everybody lives life as it is around here. Why should I let this fear get to me? I felt mad at my Mom and at Grandpa Joseph because I felt that they were trying to rattle me for no reason. My sickness started creeping back, so I lay back down.
Towards the evening, I ventured out to the trash site to resume my scavenging. It was pitch dark, with slight flickers of the street lights. There were barely any sounds of jeepneys honking, and people chattering. I know that not many people came out from the slums in the evenings, but I needed to get my work done. I knelt down near the trash, and started rummaging through it. A few hours passed. It was probably already around 7 pm, but I did not have a watch to know for sure. As I started heading back home, I decided to stop at a small drink shop to quench my thirst. I pushed open the glass door, and was greeted by a white man who stood behind the counter.
The following sequence of events are all a blur. I was in a truck, constantly being pushed against the wall due to the uneven roads. I was dragged out of a car, with hands that were very rough against my skin. I was thrown into a dark room, which was so claustrophobic I almost suffocated. There were people everywhere, next to me, behind me, in front of me, and on top of me. They were men. I cried and cried. Nobody heard me. Not Mom, nor Grandpa Joseph.
That is basically all I remember. Unfortunately, I cannot retell the story exactly how it went down, because it was all a blur. I was in utter agony and pain, that I completely blacked out. I soon began to realize that this issue that my Mom and Grandpa Joseph were hinting at, is the reality in many developing countries around the world. Let me remove all taboos against it, and just say it for you. The issue is Sexual Assault, or Sex Trafficking.
We cannot conceal it when we know that it is present. My mom and Grandpa Joseph concealed it because they did not want me to ever know about, or ever experience something like that. But as a society today, we cannot shy away from it. It is nothing to be embarrassed or humiliated about. We will stand strong, we will come together and help us fight against this harsh reality. We are strong and powerful men and women. Nothing will ever bring us down.