While viewing the documentary, “Singers in the Band,” I suddenly began to cry. The film was shown during an event co-sponsored by the Network for Peace through Dialogue in conjunction with the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women meetings last month.
I cried because I had just witnessed a drama that brought back to me painful memories of a past visit to the Philippines. In 1987, I was there with colleagues to determine the effects on the country of American military bases and visited Olongapo City which overlooked the beautiful Subic Bay. Here the American Navy docked several times a year for repair of its battleships and time for the “rest and relaxation” of the sailors.
Olongapo was the home of the US Navy fleet and thousands of Navy men lived in this huge base. From all areas of the Philippines women, very young and very poor, came to Olongapo to work in bars which were all actually brothels. Many of these young women came with the hope they would meet and marry a U.S. sailor. Father Shay Cullen of the PREDA Center, our host, had briefed us and told us how the military officers on the ships would hype the sexual possibilities that could be had in Olongapo to the younger sailors.
During our visit our group would go “downtown” at night to see what was happening. Tiny young women, scantily clothed, were standing at the doors outside the bars or inside. Looking in, we saw them dancing in dim light around poles or sitting at the bar next to what seemed like gigantic American sailors. The women looked so tiny in comparison. The sailors themselves, although big, did not seem fully grown, aged 18-19. I remember thinking, “What would their mothers at home in America think to see them now!”
What was visible to us at night was not all that the sailors could buy in Olongapo. During the day we would see many children roaming around the city. They roved in groups begging from the sailors and other visitors. Most of these children were orphans of the U.S. sailors who came and went over the years. Father Shay had shared with us that several years before he had uncovered an organized child prostitution ring that was trafficking woman and these children and supplying them for sexual exploitation to the U.S. sailors. Everything was legal. The town mayor gave operating permits and licenses to the sex clubs and bars. Some U.S. naval officers had even made investments and profited financially. Seldom was anyone arrested or prosecuted. It was a hideous and sinful situation as an estimated 16,000 children were trafficking and prostituted in the sex bars.
Many of us in the peace movement believed that if the US bases closed down, the women and children in the Philippines would be safer. Indeed in 1992 the U.S. did close both the Navy base in Olongapo and the air base in Pampanga. It was seen as a victory for justice and decency.
(Another story is how again after only three years the Filipino authorities allowed the reopening of the sex bars and clubs by international Mafia and the gambling syndicates, inviting overseas sex tourists and traveling sex tourists to come to the Philippines from many countries.)
All this was in my heart and memory as I viewed the film “Singers in the Band.” I watched excited young Filipina women, lured by promoters with the promise of work in Korea as singers in social clubs, practicing their singing, buying new clothes and incurring other debt. With government support these promoters then arranged all their papers in order to enable foreign travel.
When they got to Korea, there were no social clubs, no music, only brothels which are designated only for U.S. military personnel. Alone and vulnerable, the only way to pay their debt was to be prostituted. As in Olongapo the U.S. military arranged, supported and protected those brothels created for only their people. Again there were so many people collaborating to violate and to abuse young Filipina women. This was so painful to see.
I follow Jesus because I am a Christian. The Scriptures tell us what Jesus said about those who oppress, violate and cause injustice in the world. He was not silent. Many times He said they would be judged for their evil. I believe that this judgment begins when the evil is confronted and acted against so that the poor will have others to stand up for them and oppose the structures of injustice. That is why I act to stop human trafficking.
The documentary was filmed by David Goodman over many years and will soon be released. You can find out more about it at https://www.facebook.com/SingersInTheBand.
You can find out more about Father Shay Cullen’s work at http://www.preda.org/en/about-preda-foundation/preda-history/
–Kathleen Kanet, RSHM