Fragile lives #28StoriesofGiving
Micah Levin Isla (The Philippine Star) - July 23, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - She stood in one corner, wooden pencil gripped tightly, isolating herself from other girls who were noisily keeping their visitors amused. Unfazed by the ruckus in the common room, she hunched her back and began moving her wrist in a circular motion on a pad of paper. After a few strokes that produced imperfect squares and triangles, she started talking to herself in a loud voice that cut through the nearby commotion. It sounded like a peculiar religious chant, a string of words she repeatedly mumbled:

“Listen to me and don’t forget, okay? Don’t hurt your family.”

Engrossed by the unusual behavior of the child, who by then had already turned her attention to her keen spectator, I nearly didn’t realize that she was addressing me: “Listen to me and don’t forget, okay? Don’t hurt your family.”

If you didn’t know Cindy (not her real name), you would think that she’s just like any other nine-year-old girl who loves to draw castles and princesses in glittery ball gowns while humming her favorite tunes.

But if you knew her – and the fact that she was molested and raped by her grandfather before being abandoned – you would definitely not think of fairy tales but nightmares.

Cindy and 13 other rescued street girls currently live at Tahanan Sta. Luisa in Quezon City under the watch of a selfless 31-year-old social worker named Anna Aban and two house parents.

Tahanan Sta. Luisa (‘Tahanan’ means ‘home’ in English and ‘Sta. Luisa,’ the patron saint of social workers) is an NGO that provides residential care in an actual home setting to maltreated, prostituted and abandoned girls aged nine to 18, that have been saved from the streets of Manila since 1999.

Tahanan’s inception, initiated by ChildHope Philippines founder Teresita Silva, was brought about by a great need for a rehabilitation center exclusively for girls who experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Aside from reforming the traumatized girls by way of love and utmost care, the center also pays for their psychological treatment and other special needs.

At present, the girls are sheltered in a house donated by a European philanthropist that sits in a plush neighborhood; but the only ‘plush’ thing about Tahanan is its exterior, akin to the girls’ condition – smiling on the outside, emotionally damaged on the inside.

With thinning resources and spiraling expenses (as more abused girls take refuge), Aban points out that the house, as a last resort, is being put up for sale. The girls might lose the only place where they feel secure; they could backslide to old bad habits picked up from the streets, or worse, get molested by predators again.

It is a heartbreaking thought for Aban.

“Once Tahanan closes down, these girls will be transferred to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, which is not equipped to cater to their special needs and can’t afford to focus solely on them. I fear that they might go back to their previous lives,” she said.

As the interview progresses, more tragic stories unfold.

There’s Miriam (not her real name) who was sexually battered by her brother; Rica (not her real name) whose father’s drug addiction drove her mother to suicide; Kristina (not her real name), who suffers from schizophrenia; and there’s also little Jena (not her real name) who was rescued from a bar in Paco.

Aban reveals that these girls were aggressive and tough at first; they had serious trust issues and until now are like time bombs waiting to explode when a certain memory or emotion is triggered.

“It’s hard to teach these girls how to read and write, but much harder to convince them that they are loved and deserving of love,” Aban said.

Though the cases are delicate, Tahanan believes that the relentless pursuit to rehabilitate these girls so that someday they can be reintegrated back into society – to live  normal and decent lives as adults – is bearing fruit.

A testament to this is 18-year-old Erika (not her real name), who was prostituted at the age of 12. When she was rescued, she tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease. After nine years of being under Tahanan’s care, she’s cured and healthy. She also recently passed DepEd’s Alternative Learning System Accreditation & Equivalency Test and is now enrolled in a public high school where she’s coping and picking up the pieces of a life that almost went to waste.

Aban soon gathers the girls in a semi-circle; Cindy remains in the corner with her wooden pencil and pad paper.

The girls take turns introducing themselves to their visitors as if they are candidates in a beauty pageant. Suddenly, the almost-empty American-style bungalow bursts with laughter of delicate little misses.

Aban steals the spotlight and asks the kids what they want from their guests.

“Toys! Food! Toys! School supplies!” they rattle off their requests merrily. For a brief moment, their pain and resentment are thrown out the window.

Meanwhile, in a tiny corner of the house, a nine-year-old survivor grappling with an unkind past continues to utter a string of words that should have been taken to heart by those who had greatly wronged her: “Makinig ka, ‘wag mong kalimutan ha? Huwag mong sasaktan ang pamilya mo.”  (Listen to me and don’t forget, okay? Don’t hurt your family.)


(Editor’s Note: The Philippine STAR’s #28StoriesOfGiving is a campaign that turns the spotlight on 28 inspiring stories of people and organizations who devote their lives to helping themselves or others. Everyone is encouraged to post or tweet a message of support with the hashtag, #28StoriesOfGiving. For every post, P5.00 will be added to The STAR’s existing ‘give back’ anniversary fund. For comments and suggestions to #28storiesofgiving, email follow @philippinestar on Twitter or visit The Philippine STAR’s page on Facebook.)


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