“We won’t survive if we don’t have each other,” Gemma said.
When Gemma first started working in the red light district of Angeles City, Philippines, at 19, she was given a knife and pepper spray by her sisters. The eldest, Jojo, told her to always text the name and room number of the motel where a man would take her.
Angeles City, dubbed the “Supermarket of Sex,” thrives with foreigners, and Filipina women making money in its bars. Its streets are filled with neon lights, high heels, lingerie and loud music. The sisters never planned to come here. They were honors students in high school, and their mother described them as “godly children.”
At 23, Jojo tried to leave Angeles to finally tend to her field in Leyte. She had just given birth and was going to take care of the baby there. Within a day of moving back, Typhoon Haiyan came. The roof of their house got blown off, the store their mother ran was looted. Jojo and her family had to evacuate to a center. After a month, Jojo left her baby to go back to Angeles.
Jojo and Gemma are among the Filipina women who have found themselves in the Philippines’ sex trade after displacement from typhoons. Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013 and displaced about 4 million people. It was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded. A month after Typhoon Haiyan, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women were subjected to sexual violence. Darlene Pajarito, the head of the State Department’s Philippines anti-trafficking unit, describes the wake of Typhoon Haiyan as a “feast for human traffickers.”
In 2016, I was approached by journalist Aurora Almendral, who covered Typhoon Haiyan and its aftermath, to photograph these women. We spent time in shelters, where we met a girl who was pimped out of an evacuation center after Haiyan. We spoke with a woman who was trafficked into a cyber sex den when she was pregnant at 16. We reported in Angeles, where we found ourselves being sent out of bars because we didn’t have a white man with us. And we hit wall after wall, trying to gain access in a place where everyone mistrusted each other.
But the difficult parts would come soon after. To truly see these women and gain their trust I found that I needed to understand my own vulnerabilities, digging into my own experience with sexual assault. This process was a painful one but at the time of reporting, it felt necessary.
For many, leaving the sex trade is not an option. Jojo, like many of the matriarchs in Filipino families, believes she has a responsibility to support her family. She describes nights on the streets of Angeles City as affording small steps in rebuilding a home — going home with a foreigner can get her enough money for hollow blocks or a bit of plywood to repair her family’s roof.
But she says, “We have no plans to go back there. Here there’s at least some way to make a living. And here, there’s tequila.”
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