Child sexual violence is not the easiest issue to shine a light on. It’s not as simple as white-sand beaches and turquoise waters under threat of human wastes, or the necessity of spaying stray cats.
The victims that Meggie Ochoa wants to save often live in the squalor of the slums: In police raids, their home is often a scatter of PC monitors, keyboards and webcams—hardly an Instagram-worthy backdrop.
Ochoa has had to toil to turn the occasional TV report into a lasting and learning public conversation. She has worked so hard to push her advocacy that the numbers come to her like an enduring traumatic memory. “Child sexual violence is actually extremely prevalent here in the Philippines,” she told the Inquirer. “One in five children experience sexual violence from the age of 13 to 18 years old, and that’s according to the national baseline study on violence against children by [the council on the welfare of children] and Unicef.”
But Ochoa knows hard work like the back of her hand. Apart from the physical challenges—she has had to fight bigger athletes many times—she has faced financial difficulties in a sport that ranks low in mainstream awareness surveys.
She had to crowdfund her way to international tournaments in order get to where she is now—bronze medalist in the Asian Games, former Asian champion, three-time world champion.
“There was this one question that got stuck in my head, a question of purpose: What’s this for?”
Invariably, however, success cornered her into a moment of introspection. “There was this one question that got stuck in my head, a question of purpose: What’s this for?
“From when I started until 2015, I did crowdfunding and people gave funds to help me get to the Worlds. And then somehow, I actually won. And the question in my head was: ‘Why am I winning? Why are people giving me their money?’”
One night, she chanced upon a news report on a Mexican girl who was raped 43,200 times from the age of 12 to 16.
The report “really hit me hard,” Ochoa recalled. When she learned that the girl was trapped in the vicious world of child prostitution, “I was so bothered, I couldn’t sleep for several nights.”
She did some research and discovered the harrowing truth: “that in the Philippines, the situation is actually really bad as well.”
Ochoa had found her purpose. Last month, she put her knowledge and passion into a campaign called “Fight to Protect.”
“We need to work together because the issue is so bad and it is so complex. And what we really need to do is ‘Fight to Protect’ Filipino children,” she said.
It is a literal fight for Ochoa. Everywhere she competes, she speaks liberally about her advocacy. After jujitsu demonstrations, she makes a presentation on the prevalence of the problem, so widespread that in 2017, Unicef tagged the Philippines as the world epicenter of online child pornography and sexual trade.
Said Ochoa: “The conditions here make it so easy—extreme poverty, combined with high internet usage plus international cash transfers. And then there is our proficiency with the English language, which makes it easier for child predators to negotiate with local facilitators.”
There have been a number of police raids on sex dens here. The latest was in the town of Cordova in Cebu, which in 2014 was tagged as “Ground Zero of online child porn.” Seven children were rescued. The ringleader was said to have filmed the children in sexual acts and the videos sold to foreign buyers.
The stories flushed out by these raids are chilling.
The Associated Press reported a raid on the home of a suspected pedophile in Pampanga last year and then interviewed a victim who had escaped the suspect’s den. She was lured into stripping naked before web cameras when she was 12.
Unicef, meanwhile, reported the experience of a rescued child, who was made to perform sexual acts three times a day starting when she was still 8 years old.
In raids in Cebu, one of the victims rescued was a 6-month old infant, who was subjected to sexual abuse in front of cameras.
“Imagine,” Ochoa said. “A baby. I mean, how could you even think that way of a baby?”
In the Unicef’s report last year, it noted that children forced into the cyberflesh trade received P150 for each “show,” where they are made to perform acts under the direction of predators on the other end of the webcam. The cost to their lives? Immense.
“A lot of times, sexual abuse leads to depression or sometimes, if it’s not addressed, the child even becomes the perpetrator in the future when they grow up,” Ochoa said. “So it becomes this whole vicious cycle, that will lead to other social problems.”
The Unicef report also said victims “are more likely to have mental health problems, not attend or drop out of school, to attempt suicide, and to engage in high-risk behaviors.”
Despite the raids, the evil has shown no sign of abating. It quickly disappears from public discourse the moment the next report pops up in social media news feeds or on TV news segments.
This is where Ochoa’s Fight to Protect hopes to make a difference.
“It’s an awareness campaign to get people talking about the issue,” she said. She wants to make children aware of their rights. She wants the community to be watchful of a sex den thriving in its midst. She wants everyone to know how to listen to victims.
“Because now that’s another barrier,” she explained. “A child can speak out but the people around that child wouldn’t listen, and so the proper response is not done.”
Ochoa also wants to people to be more aware of what is happening in their community. In the raid reported by AP in Pampanga, neighbors who milled around the alleged pedophile’s home while police went about their business were confronted with guilt: How could they have not known about the children going in and out the door? Could they have prevented the tragedy had they known about it?
“I really believe that anyone can do something—no matter how big or small—to help.”
Ochoa believes all it takes is awareness and information.
She wants barangays to conform to a presidential decree urging the formation of a local council for the protection of children. Most of all, she wants to provoke discussions among people who have the power to change things.
“Lawmakers must ensure that the future generations are protected, so we want to sustain that kind of awareness, that kind of protection [for children],” she said.
And so Ochoa fights. And as she fights, she speaks out. She also trains jujitsu practitioners, and she has pushed her advocacy a notch up by taking victims of child sexual violence under her wing.
She met a family that introduced her to Safe Haven, a home for abandoned, neglected and abused kids. “We proposed a jujitsu program with the Safe Haven kids, and that’s where it all began.”
Today, some of those kids are winning local tournaments. They look up to “Coach Meggie,” whom they deem not only their inspiration but their crutch, too.
“Sometimes, I only fight when she is around,” one child said of Ochoa. “And when I think about Fight to Protect, I keep in mind what we’re fighting for.”
The coach imparts life lessons along with fight lessons, which occasionally intertwine. “When you’re pinned on the mat or in a very bad position, there’s always a way to get out of it,” she said. “It’s a lot like life.”
To win what has become her life advocacy, Meggie Ochoa has to fight even harder. “The only way we can address this issue is when everybody actually works together and collaborates,” she said. “I really believe that anyone can do something—no matter how big or small—to help.” Graphics by Elizalde Pusung and Jake Seco/Philippine Daily Inquirer