A Refuge From Abuse

Recently, writer and photographer Laura Lawson Visconti traveled to the Philippines with OneChild. What she saw there compelled her to sponsor a child and write about sexual exploitation of children to encourage others to help.
Story and Photos by Laura Lawson Visconti @lauralawsonvisconti

Jet lag reigned; I had been back home for exactly 24 hours. I sat at the counter of the coffeeshop my husband and I own and chatted with an acquaintance about my recent trip to the Philippines. I found myself launching into the full tale, unable to stop. What I had just experienced was heavy. And uncomfortable.

While in the Philippines I had witnessed a Filipino child with a white man 30 years older than her in Cebu City’s red light district — and learned about many more heartbreaking realities there.

When writer and photographer Laura Lawson Visconti traveled to the Philippines to see OneChild’s work, she saw kids in poverty and was compelled to sponsor a child there. The Children pictured here with Laura are not from Happy Horizons.

Rescuing Children

In the Philippines, organizations like International Justice Mission and the Philippine government rescue girls from abuse and place them in homes. OneChild supports one of these homes called Happy Horizons Ranch.

According to Rica Atamosa, a social worker who lives and works at Happy Horizons Ranch, an estimated 60,000 kids were sexually exploited in Cebu City in 2017 alone (the latest data available), but only 27 cases have been prosecuted so far. Cases can drag on for up to 10 years, and children must testify against their abusers.

Perhaps even more alarming: the rise of OSEC (Online Sexual Exploitation of Children). OSEC is disgustingly easy to execute, and it is difficult for law enforcement to catch perpetrators. OSEC is a prevalent issue throughout Southeast Asia, but Cebu is an epicenter, fueled by the sex tourism the area is well known for.

In this exploitative system, kids are manipulated and sexually abused. The abuse is recorded on a computer or cell phone video. Most of the abuse happens in children’s own homes. Abusers, who are often children’s own parents or family members, tell children they must participate to pay for food and school fees for themselves and their siblings. In some neighborhoods the abuse is so widespread that kids line up outside a perpetrator’s home to wait for a foreign pedophile to come online and request them during live sessions. Most pedophiles are American, British, Russian, or German. The perpetrator, often a parent, will physically harm or even rape the child on camera. This digital content is also often sold and distributed all over the dark web. Even girls as young as 2 are forced into the sick abuse. Sadly, I learned that many of the perpetrators in these cases were abused as children themselves. And thus, the grotesque cycle continues.

Hope in Hard Places

While in the Philippines, I was incredibly moved by the girls who are healing, the teachers, social workers, and nurses I spoke to, and the hope-filled stories I heard. My first impression of Happy Horizons one Sunday morning was through the lens of praising God at a worship service led by OSEC survivors. One thing was clear: The love of Jesus is changing these girls’ lives. And a big part of that is the encouragement girls have received from their Child Champions over the years.

The girls at Happy Horizons are bright, talented, and curious — normal kids learning how to have dreams for the first time. And getting the tools they need to succeed.

At Happy Horizons Ranch survivors of sex trafficking learn vocational skills like sewing. These skills will serve them well when they move out of their home and are on their own.
Dedicated nurses at the ranch’s health clinic make sure kids are healthy.

Along with traditional classes provided at the ranch for all educational levels, girls receive medical and dental care, housing, food, clothing, legal help to testify against their perpetrators, vocational skills training, peer counseling, and Bible studies. All this love and care is permanently transforming their hearts and lives.

We met a former sex slave who was rescued and lived at the ranch until she was 18. She went to college and is now taking the bar exam to become a lawyer; she wants to be an advocate for justice in cases like her own. Throughout devastation, hope prevails.

Rica Atamosa, a social worker who lives and works at Happy Horizons Ranch, has worked here for more than seven years and has helped many girls find healing and hope.

Taking Action

It’s been a while since I’ve been home. And I’m changed. This trip has become the catalyst that’s inspired me to take action and tell stories that matter. I often hear friends lament that they’d like to give back but don’t know how. The truth is we aren’t always needed to show up in person to lend a helping hand. Often advocates like Rica are already on the ground doing the tough work. Helping is as simple as being willing to pray for Rica and others like her — and donating much-needed finances to support the mission.

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