A youth advocacy campaign in the Philippines is helping thousands of children to stand up to sexual abuse at the hands of adults. Ellie Cameron shares Debbie’s story.
It’s hard for us to imagine a place where child abuse goes by unchallenged, where children don’t know their rights and don’t expect to be valued.
Yet for many children in the Philippines, this is the norm. Viva’s partner network, Philippine Children’s Ministries Network (PCMN), is committed to tackling this problem: to changing a culture of neglect and abuse to one of valuing, nurturing and protecting children.
At the age of 14, Debbie had two choices. The most likely option was for her to join a gang in the murky backstreets of Tondo, a district of the capital city, Manila – a place where so many children sadly end up trapped in this underworld of drug dealers and prostitution.
Living on the sewerage pipes, choices for the future for these children are limited and bleak, and they don’t believe that they deserve anything better.
Debbie was given the choice to join Youth for Safety, PCMN’s youth advocacy campaign designed to educate children on how to recognise, report and therefore prevent child sexual abuse. Training for youth advocates includes courses on children’s rights, sexual abuse prevention and online safety, and supports them to stand up for themselves and for others.
Debbie had to unlearn the idea that adults had the right to treat her however they wanted, or that she was too young to be able to contribute anything of value to her community. Instead, she was encouraged to develop her musical abilities and discovered a gift for teaching and, more importantly, a sense of purpose.
She says, “PCMN and my church showed me that it’s not right for children to think that they cannot contribute anything good to their community because they are still young. As a Youth Advocate, I can say that I made a big impact in the lives of young people like me.”
Youth advocates pledge to pass the information they’ve learned on to their peers, enabling them to educate and protect many more children from harm. So far, PCMN has trained 191 youth advocates, reaching over 9,000 more children with their message of protection and empowerment.
These children will not grow up believing the lie that child abuse is inevitable or acceptable. Instead they will know that they have rights, they have choices and they are valued. Like Debbie, they can be leaders in their community, not victims.
Debbie is now 19 and studying for a degree in Public Administration at the University of Manila. She continues to be involved with PCMN, helping to develop materials for the Disaster Risk Reduction project. The project aims to protect children during natural disasters, as the ensuing chaos makes this a time when they can become especially vulnerable.
Again, she is preventing other children from suffering the same experiences which she faced as a child. Through these opportunities, Debbie is turning those experiences into the driving force which compels her to educate, to encourage and to advocate for her own rights and those of her peers – skills which will carry her through life.
She says, “I envision that all the young people in my community will know about Youth for Safety and Disaster Risk Reduction and every young person will become a leader. In this way, fewer children will become victims.”
Children who know their rights will not assert them unless they are told that they are deserving or until they believe that they are valued. Debbie is proof of the success of the Youth for Safety programme, and of the lasting impact that it is having on the lives of children in the Philippines, by giving them not just education, but value, a voice and a future.
“There will be peace, not only in our country but also in the hearts of the children,” she says. “The fears, anxieties and worries in their hearts will also be gone. I know these feelings because I experienced them when I was a child.”
This is Debbie’s dream: that children in her community will grow up free from fear and with hope for the future, as every child deserves. Let’s join her in making that happen.
Ellie Cameron is Viva’s Operations Officer
All images: PCMN
This article first appeared in Life magazine issue 4.