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Students from a Catholic school in Manila, Philippines, make the heart sign with their hands Feb. 14 during the "One Billion Rising" campaign. The global campaign, marked annually on Valentine's Day in more than 200 countries, demands an end to all forms of violence against women worldwide. (CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA)

In the 1970s, I was a young catechist in the city of Bacolod in the Philippines. During this time, when the country was under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, my family and I were kept in captivity for four years. Under President Marcos’s rule, the military cracked down on church workers who devoted their time to protesting and organizing for social justice issues.

During my years in captivity, I lived with women and girls who had been sexually abused, trafficked and exploited. I learned that slavery was not dead. It was present in the faces of all the abused girls and women I met who had been used for cybersex, trafficked and forced into abusive domestic work and prostitution.

I wondered: How can I say that I love God, when I fall short in doing good for others, especially for the least and the lost? How can I prove my belief if I cannot even offer myself as an instrument of God’s love and justice?

In response I founded the Visayan Forum Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping marginalized communities in the Philippines. Through V.F.F., I established the Center of Hope. The building, which is located in Antipolo, is a safe haven for abused girls and women. At the center, victims are empowered with a holistic set of psychosocial restorative programs. They have access to age-appropriate alternative educational opportunities, including home study programs, vocational training and life-skills seminars. Since its creation, the Center of Hope has also provided victims with the legal assistance to fight known sex traffickers.

During my years in captivity, I lived with women and girls who had been sexually abused, trafficked and exploited.

Through many years of working with abused girls at the Center of Hope, I have learned that transforming them into survivors is a difficult job. I had to dig deeper into my faith and force it to grow to effectively help heal their broken souls. It is only with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who reveals the true gift of life through forgiveness, repentance and grace, that I inspire the girls to believe too.

I also realized that while we empower these young girls to seek justice against their perpetrators, we also teach them about inner healing and reconciliation. True healing results from coming to terms with mistakes in the past and overcoming anger, betrayal and self-blame. Facing these everyday challenges, I also felt weary and fragile. As a mother, I easily absorb the anger, frustration and confusion felt by the children.

How can I prove my belief if I cannot even offer myself as an instrument of God’s love and justice?

Sometimes I am angry that these girls have been forsaken. But I cope by knowing that I can help them to find their life purpose. We are told in Scripture that “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). I believe the opposite is true as well: Our deeds must be done in the spirit of faith. And so, every day, I keep the faith so the girls might discover God in me and reflect his love through my life. I tell them that we are all God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do the good works that God prepared for us.

There are many success stories to celebrate at the Center of Hope. As they pursue their legal cases, many of the girls return to school. Others graduate from the home schooling and alternative learning systems provided at the center. Armed with new life skills, young women are able to find work at large companies. And today, survivors have returned home to their families with a new brand of hope and optimism for the future.

And for these lessons and struggles, I am grateful for having strengthened my faith in God—a faith enriched with action and action sustained by faith.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
6 years ago

How could this happen? I thought the Philippines was a Catholic Country.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
6 years ago

Human beings are made in the image and likeness of the divine. Slave-owners need to be thoroughly evangelized.

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