As Carmela pulled a blanket over her head and drifted off to sleep during a three-hour bus ride to the airport, she prayed that when she woke up, her life would be changed.
At the time she was 14 years old and through the chance discovery of an email on her mother’s laptop, she knew that she was not going to meet her birth father for the first time as she had been told, but was instead being sold to a foreign paedophile.
The deception was discovered by her younger sister the night before and it made her realise the man her mother had been speaking to on the phone for years, who she thought was her father, was in fact part of a paedophile ring.
“At first we were hurt and scared but there was part of me that was not shocked,” Carmela told news.com.au.
“I actually started to connect some dots.”
Carmela, 26, is from the Philippines and said she remembered an incident from when she was five years old, when her mother had travelled to Manila to meet a foreigner at a hotel.
“I remembered the hotel and living areas, and the younger sibling of my mother went to a room where the foreigner was and spent an hour there,” Carmela said.
“This was going on with my mother’s own siblings and now it was our turn.
“There was part of us that was not shocked, we had always known our mother to be violent and abusive.”
Carmela said that she, along with her two younger sisters and younger brother, had grown up in fear of her mother’s moods.
“Whenever she gets mad, she would use what things were around her, for example, when she saw a high heeled shoe, she used it to hurt me,” she said.
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Carmela would go to school with bruises under her uniform from the attacks. If Carmela knew her mother was angry, she would hide anything that could be used to hurt her including knives and furniture.
“There was a time I think when I was five years old, she pointed a knife on one of my thighs, she wanted to hurt my thighs but she was trying so hard to contain her anger,” Carmela said.
“My childhood was quite complicated, my mother was abusive to me and my siblings. We grew up spending our childhood living in different places, we had no permanent address and it was quite hard for me, I grew up shy and introverted and it was hard making friends at school.”
Months before Carmela’s planned trip to Manila, officials had also confronted her mother at their home with accusations she was forcing girls to work as prostitutes.
It came after their neighbours had begun visiting their home frequently for conversations that Carmela had not been allowed to listen to.
“One by one, girls from our neighbourhood – some, my friends – were offered jobs in Manila,” Carmela said.
At the time Carmela’s mother was taking care of her brothers and sisters alone after separating from their stepfather. Carmela noticed her mother suddenly had a lot of money for someone without a permanent job, although her mother explained this by telling Carmela her father was sending money for her education.
Despite her suspicions, Carmela didn’t want to believe the claims were true.
“My mother denied all these allegations so I tried forgetting about this,” she said.
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TRUTH IS DISCOVERED
Soon after, her mother told Carmela her biological father wanted to meet with her in Manila along with her siblings, who had different fathers.
“I was very excited,” Carmela said.
“But the night before my sister accidentally read a conversation about selling us to this foreigner.
“My mother was now going to sell us, her own children, because she couldn’t recruit others.”
Carmela had believed her mother’s story that she was meeting her father because a foreigner had called the house every night for many years.
“So I really thought he was my biological father,” Carmela said. “I realised later on that what they were talking about was recruiting minors for prostitution, not about me as his daughter.”
After the siblings finally understood what was going to happen to them, Carmela said none of them spoke about it.
“There was silence between us but I spoke to one of my aunts and this aunt reported it to our school, and our school was one of the beneficiaries of Plan International, and I think they coordinated with government agencies on how to rescue us.”
Uncertain about what was going to happen, on December 13, 2008, Carmela and her sisters boarded the bus that would take them to the airport for a flight to Manila.
“I bought a blanket with me and covered myself and prayed and hoped that I when I woke up, everything would change,” Carmela said.
Her prayers were answered when she was woken by a policeman asking her where her mother was.
Carmela said what happened next was like a scene out of Maalala mo Kaya, a Filipino TV show that features dramatic real life stories.
“The siblings were on the left and our mother was on the right and we were screaming for our mother, and our mother was crying,” she said.
“We were trying to get to each other but they were separating us.”
At first Carmela denied the allegations against their mother because she was worried about what would happen to her and her siblings.
“If our mother was in prison, who would take care of us?
“Our relatives were not on good terms with our mother and our grandparents were also known as abusive so I really did not trust our relatives to have our custody.”
FAMILY’S ABUSE CONTINUES
Once a social worker explained they would attend a girls home, Carmela began to cooperate and her mother is now serving a prison sentence for child trafficking.
However, the path since then has not been easy and it took years for Carmela to be reunited with all her siblings, who she eventually got custody of.
Carmela was determined to finish her education after dropping out of high school in her second year. She enrolled in an alternative learning course and passed an acceleration exam to allow her to go straight to college. She chose to study a degree in social work, graduating at the age of 19.
Two years later she was granted custody of her sisters, one who also lived at the girls home and the other who had initially been living with their grandparents on a farm.
“I was very worried and anxious about them,” Carmela said.
While living with their grandparents, Carmela’s youngest sister said one of their relatives had tried sexually harassing her as she was sleeping and taking a bath. At the time she was only around 11 years old.
“The turning point was when this person tried to force my sister to go alone with him in the mountains and stay there for a night to look after our crops,” Carmela said.
“He was trying to bring my sister to the mountains and so my sister decided to escape.”
Some neighbours gave Carmela’s sister some money for transport and she travelled alone when she was 12 years old to find Carmela. It was eventually agreed that she would live with her biological father until Carmela finished her studies and got a job.
“So for many years that was our set-up, we were separated from each other. Me and one sister were living in Leyte, another sister was in Manila and our brother was in our hometown, so it was really depressing.”
Carmela was studying social work at the time and the incident made her realise her family was not functional.
“It was during this time when I actually realised something was wrong with our family and I decided consciously to break the cycle,” she said.
“I didn’t want my siblings to grow up in that environment and that’s when I decided to take the role of parent.”
Reuniting with her brother was a lot more difficult as he was also sent to live with their grandparents on the farm.
“When I finished my studies and got a job I was able to get my sisters back and the three of us went together back to our hometown to get our brother,” she said.
The grandparents did not want to give him up and insisted Carmela send them money instead for his living expenses.
“Every week I would send money to my hometown but I was told by our neighbours that it was not spent on my sibling but was being used to pay debts,” she said.
Carmela devised a plan to gain custody of her brother by giving her grandparents 10,000 pesos to allow him to visit the city for a Christmas vacation in 2014.
“I realised they were ‘mukhang pera’ — easily swayed by money,” she said.
“I basically kidnapped my youngest brother. After that we cut all communication with our relatives.”
‘MOTHER WAS ALSO ABUSED’
More than 10 years after the bus trip to Manila, their lives are very different.
One of Carmela’s sisters is now married but the other two siblings are under her care.
“I’m mother and father to them, I’m working and studying still so it’s really hard but together I think we are really resilient as a family,” she said.
Carmela now works as the secretariat of her region’s Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, a government council tasked to lead the implementation of the country’s anti-trafficking laws.
She is also an active advocate of Plan International’s #NotForSale campaign which fights against the commercial exploitation of children.
The charity for girls’ equality, which helped rescue Carmela and her sisters is focusing on anti-trafficking as part of its Christmas appeal. To donate go to www.plan.org.au.
Carmela said she wanted to tell her story, “the good and the bad”, so others could be inspired.
“I want the government to see and be inspired by the endless possibilities to change the lives of victims if everyone can do their part and collaborate in assisting survivors,” she said.
“I am a living example of a success story of these organisations.”
Recently Carmela found out that her mother had also been a victim of sexual abuse and she believes it may have been one of the factors that influenced her personality.
“She had no one to turn to, or any support system or anything to educate her to cope with the unpleasant things she experienced from her relatives when she was a child,” she said.
Carmela said she wanted to normalise the conversation for victims.
“So we can tell our stories without judgment and stigma but instead empathy and understanding,” she said.
“If I speak up, there can be a sense of community support and a feeling that we have the power to influence policies and to make the world a better and safer place for our children.”
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