Bente-bente Girl

By: Gil M. Suazo

She has curly brown hair that reaches her tiny waist, deep round eyes highlightened by blue eyeshadow, a flat nose contoured to be more appealing, and hollow cheeks caked with rogue. Dressed in a pink sleeveless blouse paired with denim pants and three-inch heeled pumps, she grabs her blue bag that contains her money. And she is ready to go.

She is going to the cemetery, she said.

To visit someone?

No, she replied. To work.

She is “Lenlen”, 16 years old, and one of the so-called “Bente-bente Girls” – a group of prostitutes, mostly minors, at the Pila Cemetery in Laguna.

Lenlen is the eldest among five siblings. She is in first year high school, and was forced into sex trade because of poverty. Her father, Ramil, left them when she was only 14 years old. His abandonment drove her mother, “Aling Shela” to work doubly hard — as a vegetable vendor at morning and a pimp at night. The earnings are barely enough to put food on the table and send three of her children to school – Lenlen in high school and her two siblings in elementary.

Lenlen sees the difficulties faced by their family. Sometimes they only eat one time each day when money is not enough. Whenever her siblings have illnesses, they are not able to buy medicines. She and her other two siblings go to school without any money to buy food. And considering that she is 16 years old, Lenlen must now be in 4th year high school, but due to financial constraints, she stopped for three years.

The need to have money, combined with lack of decent job opportunities pushed Lenlen to enter the world of prostitution.

Lenlen is just one of the estimated 75,000-100,000 children in the Philippines forced into prostitution due to poverty and unemployment, according to the Children Protection Unit. Section 3 of Republic Act No. 9208 defines prostitution as any act, transaction, scheme or design involving the use of a person by another, for sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct in exchange for money, profit or any other consideration. Lenlen and these other children,unfortunately, have no choice but to engage in this business because of poverty. They have no capacity to access their basic needs.

The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the Center for Women Resources (CWR) reported that most of the prostitutes living in rural areas have no permanent source of income, and only finish primary to secondary education. No matter their age, they are forced to get into prostitution to have money with which to buy food. A very thin line separates poverty from prostitution, and it is very easy to cross when the stomach is empty.

Lenlen confessed that what she is doing is not easy. “Hindi masayang ibenta mo po yung sarili mo para lang magkapera, pero ito na yung nakasanayan. Wala naman po akong ibang pagpipilian at saka dito po madaling kumita ng pera, kahit bente okay lang basta may pangkain. Mas okay sigurong ibenta yung sarili kesa walang makain yung mga kapatid ko,” she said. (It doesn’t make me feel good selling my body for some money, but I have become used to it. I have no other choice since through this I earn easy money, even if it’s just twenty pesos which can buy us some food. I think it is better to sell my body for money rather than having no food for my siblings.”)

In the Philippines, 6.9% of the total population, or roughly seven million Filipinos, are unemployed according to the National Statistics Office (NSO). With this lack of employment opportunities and having insufficient income, people tend to resort to unconventional ways of generating money, and one of those unconventional ways is prostitution.

The youth of every generation is considered as the “hope of our nation.” And among the youth who is supposed to bring hope and be the hope of this country is Lenlen, a simple girl, who is unfortunately exposed to the sex trade industry. If this prostitution of minors won’t be stopped, what will happen?

Without much social change, our country will just produce more Lenlen.

But Lenlen dares to dream. She still nurtures a hope for a decent future. And her dreams have not yet turned to dust. “Hindi naman po panghabambuhay na ganito ako. Kaya po ako nag-aaral ay gusto kong umangat sa buhay. Gusto kong maging teacher, marangal yung trabaho. At saka yung mga [magiging] anak ko, hindi matutulad sa akin.” (I won’t be like this for the rest of my life. I go to school because I want to have a better life. I want to be a teacher, it’s a decent job being a teacher. Also, I don’t want my future children to be like me.”)

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