How one town in the Philippines fights back against child prostitution

IT began eight or nine years ago. Foreigners started coming to town - older white men from the United States, Australia, and Europe. They stayed at a local hotel overlooking the river or in rented houses. And they were always hanging around with little local boys. It wasn't long before some of the boys were sporting new clothes and showing off wristwatches and bicycles. They had spending money, too - 100-peso bills ($5); twice what their fathers earned for taking tourists up the river in boats to see nearby falls. Soon, some of the boys' families also had new things - appliances, televisions - items well beyond their meager budgets.

Along the way, the ``generous'' foreign men who spent more money in a few weeks than most locals made in a year got what they were paying for - sex with local boys. Word spread, through pedophile groups and gay sex publications, that Pagsanjan was a welcoming place - willing to offer up its native sons to a foreigner who was willing to spread around a little money. The pedophiles kept coming. The boys, as many as 300 of them, were theirs for the buying.

Most people in this small town of roughly 20,000 looked the other way. The local youth organization concentrated on drug abuse. But then a Dutch-Indonesian woman named Hannie Rogers moved to town with her husband and their eight boys and one girl. She couldn't believe what she was seeing.

Coming in as an outsider, she says, ``it really hit me, all these foreign men between 50 and 70 years old with all these little boys around them. I saw how these children here were exploited by people from first-world countries.

``It made me angry,'' she recalls, ``because I knew these men could not get away with anything like this back where they came from.''

Mrs. Rogers decided to fight back. She began talking with people in town, writing letters, pushing officials to get involved. By 1984, she had joined the town youth council - the Council for the Protection of the Children of Pagsanjan - and helped shift its focus from drug abuse to ``pompoms,'' the local word for boy prostitutes.

For two years, the council channeled most of its efforts into an information campaign. A seminar was held for 170 school teachers - a daylong discussion of the dangers of child sex, and of ways that teachers could confront the problem in the classroom. At the same time, council volunteers attended parent-teacher meetings, civic group talks, and religious gatherings - always to address the issue of child prostitution.

Perhaps the most sensitive part of the council's work lay in trying to change the climate of acceptance that had settled over the town. That task was made especially tricky by the fact that pedophiles had spent money so freely - even building modest houses for a few of the poorer families whose boys they used - that some parents actually welcomed the foreigners.

Poverty was part of the problem, but it was also a question of ``moral values, moral standards,'' says Rogers. ``These foreigners come, they give all these goodies,'' she says. ``Now, if you are a poor mother and you cannot feed your children, and this foreigner gives you all these things ... you must be very strong. You really have to have strong moral values to keep seeing it as something bad. Especially if there are others who are doing it.''

Slowly, the efforts of local citizens like Rogers have begun to pay off. Although working with parents who support prostitution has been touchy, she says, there has been a change among the children. Once, being a pompom was something to brag about; gradually, it has become a disgrace.

Fourteen-year-old Dennis used to sell himself to foreigners - not so much because he needed money, but because it was something his friends were doing for patwa (kicks). Sometimes the men would give him $1 or $1.50 for sex, sometimes, as much as $25. The average, he says, was $2.50.

``It wasn't really fun,'' he says, sitting in a deserted schoolyard. ``I didn't enjoy anything. ... I felt ashamed.'' Early this year - after nearly three years of being a pompom - Dennis decided he had had enough. He quit selling himself.

``I was just so tired of it,'' he explains. ``I want to forget the whole thing.''

Dennis quit, in part, because he got involved in some of the youth council's activities. He has joined its drum, bugle, and lyre corps - designed in part to help children earn money, so that the pedophile's gifts will be less inviting.

This year the council is expanding its income-generating activities. It is helping local youths operate a small food-vending kiosk, and it plans to give poorer families livestock to raise and sell as a way to earn cash.

Philippine government officials like Mita Pardo de Tavera, secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, praise Pagsanjan as a model of ``community mobilization.'' And the government has helped the community's efforts to crack down by deporting five pedophiles from the town.

The problem, however, still exists. Despite inroads made by the youth council, some pedophiles still come to Pagsanjan to exploit the town's poverty and its boys. And, according to Dr. de Tavera, foreigners who used to go to Pagsanjan have begun to settle in other Philippine towns where local resistance is not so great.

Rogers is not daunted. She and the dozens of adults who have been working with the boys and families of Pagsanjan are still working. They know the road they're on may be a long one, but they have a sense of purpose that guides them on the way - a commitment to community that is summed up in the council's slogan: ``Our future, the children, we cherish them.''

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