Beneath the Streetlights of Tionko

6.30.2017


As the sun sets and the shadows of the buildings and establishments in the city grow larger, so is the arrival of girls and young women dressed in skimpy shorts and tight tank tops standing on the side of the streets of Davao City particularly Tionko Avenue, the street at the side of Central Bank of the Philippines. They seemed to be waiting for something or for someone. It had been a common knowledge shared quietly by the Dabawenyos that come nightfall girls and women in prostitution lurk the dark streets of Tionko.


But as early as September 15, 1996, an administrative order was signed to constitute a committee that will draft a Code for women’s development in the city of Davao.

On October 14, the following year, then Mayor Rodrigo Roa-Duterte approved Ordinance number 5004, also known as the Women Development Code of Davao City.

Chapter II, Article 18 of the Code says “Prostitution shall be recognized as a violation of human rights and exploitation of women who have no real choices for survival.”

But still when the night falls, these girls roam the streets in silence, sometimes outside the clubs calling on foreigners and prospect customers who chance to pass by.

***

Clad in a yellow shirt with a Talikala print on her chest, I approached Ate Lorna (not her real name) who was sitting on a wooden bench in the Talikala Center’s living room. For a few seconds I thought she was a regular volunteer in the center whom I can interview about the trafficked women and children that had been previously rescued by the center. But when Ate Lorna started talking, that was when I learned she was a former prostituted woman herself.

Talikala is a non-profit organization based in Davao City that rescues and helps trafficked and prostituted women to improve their quality of life.

Just like most of women in prostitution, Ate Lorna became involved in it because of poverty. She was as young as 19 years old when she started. A little too old for some girls who actually started during their minor years, as shown in the documentary film Magda Not For Sale produced by Talikala, Inc. and AWO International. Ate Lorna said she had been doing it for more than 8 years before she decided to stop. She was initially tricked into working as a waitress but ended up being an entertainer who gets to go on an “outing” with a customer, a term which means to be taken to a motel or a house by the customer. 

She accepted the job for the dire need of money and food to be brought to her child at the end of the day. Ate Lorna was just two weeks from giving birth when she had her first “outing”. She was not even on her 20s then and her first “outing” customer, she recalled, was around 40 to 50 years old. Confused as to why her customer was bringing her to a motel, she asked and was answered with a snicker and was told to stop playing innocent.

Ate Lorna told her first customer that she just gave birth, showed her recuperating wound, but then the old guy just made her do sexy dances and touched her in places she wouldn’t even imagine a regular waitress will be touched on.



“Ako ato na time, awkward gyud kaayo ang paminaw para sa akua. Kaluod ani uy, wala gud ko kaila sa iyaha. Pero nitulon-tulon nalang gyud ko sa akong laway kay akong huna-huna basin patyon ko. So pagkahuman ato, gitagaan ko niyag tip. Ana siya kuhaa tong kwarta sa inyong bar. Kung wala ko niya gisultian, wala ko kabalo. Ang gisulti niya na gibilin niya is P2,000. Nakabalo ko sa akong kauban na P500 lang ang bar fee, so dapat P1,500 ang maadto sa akua. Ang gihatag sa bar P1,000 ra so P1,000 gyud ilaha pero akoang gipahimuslan.

(During that time, I really felt awkward. It was really disgusting, I don’t even know him. But I just swallowed my saliva in submission because I feared he would kill me. After that, he gave me a tip. He told me to get it from the bar. If he didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know. He said he left P2,000. I learned from my co-workers in the bar that the bar fee is only P500 so supposedly, I should get P1,500. But they only gave P1,000 so they also got P1,000 but I was the one sexually used),”

By now, I noticed Ate Lorna was telling everything in details but there was not a single tear shed nor was there a quiver in her voice.

She was confident and firm when she was telling her story. I listened gripping onto my pen, barely writing anything, just listening.

From then on, Ate Lorna started in prostitution primarily for her child, even reasoning out to herself that she was no longer a virgin anyway so she had nothing much to lose anymore. During the 1990’s, money from “outing” was really quick. Logging was one of the booming industries and loggers from the upland would go downtown by night to hire a prostitute.

“Nagbalhin-balhin nakog club sukad ato. Paghawa nakog Bajada, na adto ko sa KTV sauna sa Kaway, sa Uyanguren, then I became a dancer for a week. Nag-akyat barko ko ana…Daghan pag pangabuso na akong natilawan uy. Nabugbog ko. Gikulata ko, hapit ko mamatay. Gilublob ko sa bathtub, tapos ginapabuhat og mga sexual acts na dili nimu gusto. Buhaton nalang nimu kay patyon man ka.

(I transferred to different clubs after that. When I left Bajada, I went to a KTV in Kaway, to Uyanguren, then I became a dancer for a week, boarded ships for service…I experienced a lot of abuses. I was beaten up, I almost died. I was plunged in the bathtub, then I was forced to do sexual acts you wouldn’t want. But you do it anyway because otherwise, you will be killed),” she said.

“Mga 2003 or 2004 nako ni-lie low kay nagtrabaho naman ko, nag-volunteer naman ko sa Talikala pero naa gihapon ko mga on-calls ginagmay ato pero dili na gyud pareha sauna. Katong time pud ato, naa pud nagkalain-lain na sexually transmitted infections na akong nasinati ato. Nagkaroon kog gonorrhea, nagkaroon kog trichomoniasis. Pero kato siya, ma-heal lang siya. Pero didto na gyud mi nasamot kahadlok atong ningkalat na ang HIV/AIDS. Naa pud mi kauban sauna, nga wala naman siya karon, patay na, not to mention her name nalang, nakuan, nagkaroon syag HIV. So pareha namu siya na prostituted woman. So nahadlok gyud mi. Kato sauna wala mi nagapa test. That time, na encourage gyud mi na magpa-testing mag kuan og safe sex na mag condom gyud.

(It was in 2003 or 2004 when I lie-lowed because I started working, volunteering here at Talikala but I still had occasional on-calls but not as much as before that. During that time too, I experienced different sexually transmitted infections. I had gonorrhea, I had trichomoniasis. But these can just be healed. But that was when we started to be afraid when HIV/AIDS became more prevalent. We also had a friend, she’s dead now, not to mention her name, she had HIV. She was also a prostituted woman just like us. So we became very afraid. If before that, we didn’t take tests, we started getting tested and observed safe sex by using condom),” ate Lorna shared.  

During her time, around the 90’s, she recalled that “pink treatment cards” were issued to workers who entertain customers as their nature of work, not necessarily involving any sexual acts.

These pink treatment cards, according to Dr. Josephine Villafuerte of the City Health Office are issued to all workers who will have contact with another person physically, such as massage therapists. These cards are renewed annually and the holders are to undergo basic laboratory tests including stool and urine tests. However, for those workers with possible involvement of sexual acts, extra laboratory tests are needed like Hepatitis B and Veneral Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL), a test conducted to a patient to see whether he/she has syphilis.

Ate Lorna recalled that law enforcers during her time were very strict to the point of raiding their entertainment establishment if they found out that the workers do not update their pink treatment cards’ validation or if they do not have their regular check-up.

Once an entertainer was found positive of a sexually transmitted infection, she is not allowed to engage into an “outing” for a week. She would have to cure herself first and take the prescribed medicine which means a week’s worth of income taken from her.

***

Ate Lorna had been lucky to not develop HIV/AIDS before she stopped in the industry.
But in a data of the Department of Health (DOH), 294 individuals were recorded, from January to November of 2016, which are HIV positive and have been accepting payments for sex. These are people ages 16 to 50 years of age. Surprisingly, 273 of these are males and only 21 are females.

The same data also revealed that 151 individuals recorded to be HIV positive are engaged in both accepting payments and paying for sex. One hundred thirty-seven of these are male and only 14 are female.

In November of 2016, 96 percent of HIV/AIDS cases involved in transactional sex, or those paying or received payment for sex, are males whose ages ranged from 18 to 50 years old.

***


The city government of Davao City made it clear in their Women Development Code that prostitution, in any way, is illegal.

However, the issuance of pink treatment cards for entertainers including Ate Lorna before she stopped being in prostitution, has helped people in this kind of industry to watch out for their health regularly and to make sure that the infections that they acquire from different customers do not develop into worse cases of HIV/AIDS.

People have the misconceptions of only women in prostitution as the mostly recorded cases with HIV/AIDS since they are more visible and known to be existent. But recent surveys revealed that cases for males, including homosexual males, are also alarmingly increasing in number.

I made sure I thanked Ate Lorna profusely before I headed to the door after our interview. There was no hint of shame or embarrassment in her eyes. No hint of regret. It felt like whatever she told was a story of some distant past that she perhaps kept on repeating again and again to the other victims rescued by the center that it doesn’t sting her anymore. A poet once said when you keep on repeating something, it loses its meaning. For Ate Lorna, the meaning and the lessons are intact, but the pain and shame in confessing it to a complete stranger might have already evaporated.

“Hinaut unta nakatabang akong istorya nimu. (Hopefully, my story has helped you),” these were her last words to me which I answered with kaayo (very much). Ate Lorna is not just a former prostitute who caught an infectious disease. She wasn’t just a victim of wrong societal labeling. She is also a mother of a call center agent, a high school, and a grade school student. The last two children she bore with a former customer who used to love her but chose to leave her just the same. 

--

Creative non-fiction, Jennie Arado
Charcoal on paper, Not my Cup of Tea / Warm Cup Cold Hearts CY
Charcoal on paper, Unwanted Places CY
Charcoal on paper, Looking for Solace CY
© The Panagtagbo. Base codes by Fearne. Tweaks by AMC