Home Woes of Manila's Teen Prostitutes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Alicia, Linda, and Ernesto did not want their real names in this newspaper, but they aren't shy about sitting in a Manila cafe and explaining how they came to sell sex. Prostitution is how the three Filipino teenagers make money.

Their stories illustrate how prostitution exerts an often-irresistible pull on kids who leave their homes or who are estranged from their families:

* Alicia has spent the longest time in prostitution - about a year - and it shows. She is the second-youngest of seven children, the daughter of a laundrywoman and a construction worker. She says she ran away from her home in the countryside in early 1995, at age 14, after a fight with her parents. She won't say much about her family, except that the fear of being beaten keeps her from going home.

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She made a friend in Manila, also a girl in her teens, who introduced her to prostitution as a way to make money. The two girls spend most of their time on the streets or hanging around shopping malls. Once a week or so Alicia has sex for money. She says it occurs to her that things might be better if she lived with her family, but then shrugs. It's clear she won't go home but she won't explain why.

* Linda's story is similar. The third of seven children, she too fought with her parents. She stole $12 from her father's wallet and took the bus to Manila to stay with a cousin.

A healthy-looking 16-year-old, Linda says a friend brought her to a Manila shopping mall where many street kids spend time. There, last August, she was introduced to an Arab man who paid $30 to have sex with her in a hotel. She says she needed the money. From May until the end of July she had 12 customers. She meets men on the street, which is also where she usually sleeps.

Her boyfriend works in a market, where Linda has applied for a job as a salesgirl. She thinks about home and has sent letters, but she says her family doesn't write back.

* Ernesto still sees his mother regularly, but only when his stepfather is out of the house. A 16-year-old who wears the worldwide summer uniform of the urban teenager - baggy T-shirt and baggy shorts - Ernesto started selling sex for money in July.

He hangs out with four other boys, and he says all five of them occasionally perform sexual "services" for men who pick them up in a Manila mall. Ernesto sometimes gives money to his mother, without explaining that it comes from prostitution.

It's hard to tell what motivates Ernesto. Although he often sleeps on the street to avoid his mother's husband, who he says pushes him out of the house, Ernesto doesn't seem to need money for survival. His first sexual experiences with older men didn't involve payment. One took place after a gay couple met him at a Manila disco and invited him home with them.

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