"There are People Who are Looking For You": Elsa's Story


If you want to describe a survivor of sex trafficking in one word, use Elsa’s: Strong. 

Just to imagine the nightmare Elsa* lived will require strength. Night after night, men paid Elsa’s boss to take her away to their hotel rooms. They could do anything they wanted to her there.

“I was treated as a slave who was required to follow orders whether I liked it or not,” Elsa says.

Now in her early twenties, she speaks with a confidence that shows remarkable resilience. “I had a happy childhood because of my adventures with my brothers and friends,” Elsa shares.

Everything changed for Elsa when she was 12 years old. Her father died suddenly. Elsa was told the sickness was a curse. Her mother left. Elsa and her brothers moved in with aging grandparents who couldn’t afford both food and school.

So Elsa, the big sister, shouldered the responsibility and decided to make a way for herself and her little brother.

Amazingly, she managed to keep them both in school. She worked as a housekeeper, a janitor, a receptionist, a shop assistant—anything she could find. After high school graduation, she saw an opportunity to work as a nanny in Europe. This would allow her to support her family in ways she’d only dreamed of, but she needed a lump sum to offset the initial visa costs.

This is when the traffickers made their move.

You see, someone had been looking for Elsa. Not her, specifically, but any girl like her.

Commercial sexual exploitation is a profitable industry—upwards of $99 billion a year—and like any successful business, there’s a reliable model.

You see, someone had been looking for Elsa. Not her, specifically, but any girl like her.

In cities and slums around the world, pimps and traffickers recruit girls who are alone and afraid —teens who are desperate, shouldering a massive financial burden all on their own slender shoulders. The more frayed the support system the better. This is what vulnerable means.

A bar owner offered Elsa a job that promised good pay to jump start a new future. Maybe this was the chance she had been waiting for—the way she could ensure her little brother would finish school.
So Elsa took the job. She was given a “uniform,” then made to dance for the customers. The girls took turns, half-hour shifts at a time. Elsa explains:

“I wanted to sleep and rest... Mamasan [the manager] would come to me and tell me to approach, entertain, and even hug customers to give me drinks and take me out. Usually customers would take me out to accompany them to another bar, watch other girls dance, and get drunk. Others take me straight to their hotel and make me do things.”

The pain at night gave way to shame in the morning.

Traffickers often don’t need padlocks and bars to enslave young women like Elsa. They are clever businessmen who use loans and sham interest to trap girls in a cycle of debt. They are sly con-artists who propagate lies and prey on cultural stigma that makes girls feel guilty and ashamed for sexual behavior,that is in fact sexual abuse. They are hardcore criminals who will turn to physical violence if that’s what it takes.

In Elsa’s case, the bar managers used a complex system of fines and false debt to keep her and the other girls trapped there. She had to pay for everything—the skimpy uniform, the meals provided by the bar, even water. When a customer paid to take Elsa out of the bar and exploit her, Elsa got about $17, and the bar got $28.

What Elsa didn’t know at the time was that the bar was under investigation for employing minors and coercing young women into commercial sexual exploitation. 

Nearly three years ago, police staged an operation to arrest the suspects and free the victims. IJM staff were onsite to support the authorities and ensure Elsa and the 15 others rescued that night got immediate and expert crisis care.

This is not where the story ends. Elsa resisted help. For so long she had lived on her own, managed the pain and shame on her own. She even ran away from the aftercare shelter at one point.

But the IJM team that rescued her from the bar wasn’t going away because freedom seemed hard. Elsa’s social worker refused to give up, tracking down phone numbers of family members and even traveling to Elsa’s hometown to look for her.

Finally, Elsa responded to a text message. She said she wanted to try again. Soon after Elsa moved back into the aftercare home, she said she wanted to join the trial. 

“I thought of testifying to fight for my rights and speak of the truth. It was not my fault that I got there in the first place.” 

Deciding to testify was a huge decision. It meant facing the traffickers once again. And in the Philippines, where courts are back-logged, it meant working up that courage multiple times only to show up and have the hearing postponed.

When Elsa finally took the witness stand, she was brave, direct and strong. The trial against the bar owner and two managers is ongoing.

Later we asked what she would want to tell the traffickers who hurt her: “My message for the bar owner and manager is: do not abuse women’s weaknesses, their desperation to find a job because of extreme need. Do not step on women’s dignity because it hurts. We are all the same; we are human, not objects nor animals that can be manipulated.”

"Do not step on women’s dignity because it hurts. We are all the same; we are human, not objects nor animals that can be manipulated.”

You should see Elsa today. 

She is now in her second year of college studying business administration. Her dream is to open an ice cream shop—a business that would give her independence and a way to care for her family.

Elsa is moving forward. Don’t miss the message she shared in her own words...

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*A pseudonym was used to protect Elsa's identity.