Thu, Jan 12, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Speaking the truth on prostitution

EXPLOITATION A veteran of the bar scene in Subic Bay who was raped, beaten and forced into drug addiction is counseling those now living the same hell

AFP , HONG KONG

When ships carrying thousands of US servicemen sailed into the former US naval base in the Philippines' Subic Bay for routine port calls during the 1980s, it was not just the shore crews who were ready for their arrival.

Greeting them was blasting rock music from hundreds of bars in nearby Olongapo City, and inside were thousands of call-girls waiting for their next uniformed "trick."

Among them was Minda Pascual.

"The bar owners would announce that a big ship was coming in and they always said that we should look our best for the customers," Pascual recalls.

It was a reception the seamen eagerly awaited after months at sea. But behind the parties and the colorful neon lights, and hidden by the girls' smiles, make-up and scandalously short skirts, lurked intense misery.

Most of the 16,000 women estimated to have worked the bars around the largest overseas naval base were forced into the sex industry.

Far from the lip-glossed world of Suzy Wong and the other "happy hookers" of fictionalized Asia, the experience of Pascual and her colleagues was anything but fun. During eight years as a call girl in Olongapo and the capital Manila, Pascual says she was raped, beaten, forced into drug addiction and driven to the brink of suicide by abusive clients, pimps and bar owners.

"I would have to take drugs because I could not accept what they would do to me unless I was high," she said of her days as a sex worker, when she masked her pain through marijuana and methamphetamine hydrochloride, a stimulant popularly known as "shabu" or "ice."

"If I didn't have drugs I couldn't work. I couldn't dance or loosen up enough to show my body," she said. "Every time I felt depressed, I felt suicidal. But every time I used the drugs and alcohol, I felt happier."

Pascual has since pulled herself away from the vicious cycle of poverty that beats a well-trodden path to prostitution. Now she counsels younger women who face similar prospects in an industry that, despite the US pull-out from Subic Bay in 1992, continues to fester, catering to a new generation of civilian sex tourists.

Her mission brought her to Hong Kong last month for the WTO summit to highlight the problem of human trafficking and violence against women in the sex trade.

She knows too well the despair that sucks the helpless women into this life. Twenty years on, Pascual still sheds tears when she tells her story.

Heady dreams

Born in the southern part of the main Philippines island of Luzon, Pascual was 16 when she began working the bars, fresh out of high school and with heady dreams of becoming a restaurateur.

She asked her aunt for help in getting her a job. The aunt sold her to a man who pimped her to a massive nightclub of 3,000 girls in Olongapo in return for a cut of her first four months of "wages."

Pascual's "training" was brutal. She was locked in a room for a month, starved and force-fed drugs and alcohol to ensure she was addicted and could be more easily controlled. She was often beaten unconscious for refusing to have sex with customers.

During her years working the bars, Pascual had five abortions and bore three children by different strangers. She made almost no money as what little she earned was spent on food, babysitting, rent and pay-offs to corrupt police to prevent her being arrested.

Leaving the job was not an option.

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