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FEATURE: Philippine jiujitsu star battles sex abuse scourge


Jiujitsu world champion Meggie Ochoa, rear, instructs a student during a session at a gym in Manila on Feb. 5. Ochoa is teaching self-defense to victims of sexual abuse.

Photo: AFP

Abandoned and sexually abused as a young girl, Angelica, like thousands of minors in the Philippines — a global black spot for child abuse — struggled to cope with the horrors of her past, but a new campaign run by a sporting champion is giving her and other survivors fresh hope.

Philippine martial arts star Meggie Ochoa is teaching self-defense to victims of sexual abuse in a bid to give them tools to better recover from such trauma, but also to better protect themselves.

Children’s charities have branded the Philippines a key hub for both the live-streaming of child sex abuse and for sex tourism, estimating that 60,000 to 100,000 children are involved in prostitution rings.

“Some of the kids that I’ve gotten to know ... they saw themselves as worthless because of what they experienced. For me that’s so heartbreaking,” the jiujitsu world champion said of her decision to launch advocacy campaign Fight to Protect.

In just two years, she has taught hundreds of sex abuse survivors. She offers two courses — one for those who wish to learn the sport and another focused purely on self-defense.

“Jiujitsu taught me to be disciplined, confident and to face my fears,” said Angelica, now aged 15. “I can face the problems I encountered before and I am now comfortable interacting with people.”

Poverty in a nation where tens of millions get by on less than US$2 per day, as well as increased Internet access and fluency in English, make the Philippines vulnerable to both online and real-world sexual predators.

Advocacy and legal aid group International Justice Mission (IJM) says Philippine children are at risk of being forced into live-streamed sex abuse, where pedophiles pay to direct so-called “shows” online.

“Easy access to the Web and money transfer services make the country a global hotspot for this problem,” said IJM, adding that it is often parents or family members that organize or even commit the abuse.

Children’s charity Terre des Hommes drew attention to the problem using a computer-generated girl nicknamed “Sweetie” that hung out in chat rooms and was approached by about 20,000 people — mostly men — in a matter of weeks.

“It’s just horrible, not just sexual exploitation, but also sexual abuse which is happening in the homes of many children. I was just so bothered,” Ochoa said. “There’s so much that can be done. The sport actually gave me a voice.”

Competing in a relatively new sport for her basketball-mad nation, Ochoa made history as the first Filipina to win a gold medal at the Jiujitsu International Federation World Championships in Sweden last year.

She is also a three-time world champion in another federation and a bronze medalist at the Asian Games.

A figure of national sporting pride, Ochoa realized she could use her success to help others after reading about Karla Jacinto, a young Mexican girl who estimated she was raped 43,200 times.

She was horrified to find there were likely many victims in the Philippines, too.

“Somehow part of me felt guilt,” Ochoa said. “I’m doing jiujitsu. I am pursuing my dream and yet this is happening.”

Critics have long seen possible pitfalls of teaching self-defense to those who have been abused, including the risk of retraumatizing victims by exposing them to close bodily contact, but similar initiatives around the world have won plaudits, including one by US Olympic judo athlete Kayla Harrison, herself a victim of abuse by her coach.

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