On a mission to help Filipino children

Fumio Tanaka

Pia Corvera, 22, rode in a jeepney, a means of transportation popular in the Philippines, down the slope from the hillside facility where she stays with others, to a silent beach in Subic Bay.

She said she felt happy when they were all together.

A slogan written on the side of the jeepney proclaims, "Helping people helping themselves." Pia says she likes the slogan very much.

On Oct. 27, she departed for Japan to visit friends who made the kind of efforts that allowed them to donate the jeepney to the facility.

Pia grew up in a slum in Manila. Soon after she was born, her parents abandoned her and she ended up staying with relatives. From age 5, the relatives put her to work watching over a parking lot, among other jobs.

When Pia's relatives got drunk, they often beat her. But they were pleased when she handed over 80 pesos (about 320 yen at the time), which she earned after working a full day.

At the time, Pia believed her parents would return and take her home some day.

When she was 8, a woman from the slum told her about "a way to make big money" with "a secret job."

Pia was very excited as the woman took her to a luxury hotel which dazzled her young eyes. She was shown to a room, where a man was waiting. Though she wanted to run away, her body did not move.

Pia's first job earned her 120 pesos for two hours. Though she felt her body had been tainted, she continued to work in this way, fearing she would be beaten at home if she returned without money.

On one occasion, a middle-aged Japanese tourist was waiting for her in a five-star hotel.

In January 1996, two men, a German and a Dutchman, were arrested on Boracay Island in the central Philippines. Police found Pia, who was 11 at the time, in the beach house where the two men were staying.

She had been held at the beach house for several days and the men had photographed and videotaped her. Throughout police questioning, Pia cried continually, saying she wanted to start her life over, even if it was in a prison.

Father Shay Cullen, an activist trying to stamp out child prostitution, visited Pia.

It was Cullen who founded the facility on the hill facing Subic Bay, which accommodates about 30 young people with backgrounds similar to Pia's.

Even after entering the facility, Pia was suffering from a deep mental trauma. She blamed herself for not refusing to engage in prostitution, and even considered suicide. During therapy sessions, she punched walls and windows, causing her knuckles to bleed.

Pia's turning point came in December 1996 when Cullen accompanied her to Germany to testify in court against the German man, who received a prison sentence. In the wake of the ruling, Pia began to realize that she was not to blame.

Cullen told Pia that speaking out about her experiences would help other children in similar situations.

In November 1999, when she was 15, Pia visited Japan.

In the Philippines, more than 2 million children must work due to poverty. Industrialized nations consume goods produced in the country without concern, and the abuse of children by overseas tourists is uncontrolled. Without richer countries fundamentally changing their thinking, child labor and child prostitution cannot be abolished.

It was to address this issue that Free the Children Japan, a nongovernmental organization for child welfare, invited Pia to Japan.

For about a week, Pia spent time with Japanese high school students of her own age. One of them, Yumeka Ota, now 23, but then a first-year student at Meiji Gakuin High School in Tokyo, said she was still unable to forget Pia's tears.

"I was shocked to learn that Japanese were among the offenders," Ota said.

Meiji Gakuin High School's students, including Ota, began a fund-raising campaign urging the abolition of child labor. Nine months later, they had raised about 1 million yen to buy a jeepney, which they donated to the facility where Pia lived.

Through her various activities, Pia has gradually recovered her confidence. She had long wanted to work with needy and underprivileged children, and while helping manage the Subic Bay facility, she started studying at a nursing school.

She graduated in spring last year.

Pia recently revisited Japan at the invitation of the NGO. During her two-week stay, she delivered speeches in schools and other establishments. When she met her old friends again, including Ota, they offered words of encouragement such as, "You can be a good nurse."

Pia has an aunt who used to visit her when she was very young. The aunt managed to find Pia's facility, and appeared one day three years ago.

Just before leaving for Australia where she currently works, the aunt told Pia she wanted them to live together someday. Pia unconsciously called the aunt "mother." A staff member at the facility voiced concern that Pia does not wear feminine clothing, saying, "She may still be fearful of men."

While speaking about her terrible experiences, Pia is sometimes overwhelmed by her unpleasant memories. But now, she finds strength in the promise of the woman whom she called mother.

Last weekend, Pia visited a welfare home for children in Osaka. When asked what her dream was, she replied, shyly bending her head, that it was to spend Christmas holidays with her "mother."

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