Filipino sisters seek to rescue women from sex trade

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New Orleans, La.,  (CNA).- Imagine a nun going undercover, walking the streets at night rescuing women and children caught in the world of human trafficking.

That’s what the Immaculate Mary Queen of Heaven Missionaries do every day in the Philippines, said Sister Irene Baquiran, a founding member who was in the Archdiocese of New Orleans last week drumming up support for her order.

“We try to become friends to them so they open up to us,” she said of the prostitutes.

The order, founded in 1996 by Sister Corazon Salazar, evangelizes the downtrodden with eight professed nuns, 11 with temporary vows and three novices. Their charism – “We are the extension of the heart and hands of the good shepherd looking for the lost sheep” – is lived not only by rescuing women and children victims of prostitution off the streets but also by breaking the cycle of poverty,
the root cause of prostitution.

Sister Irene said the Philippines ranks fourth of the top 10 countries with prostituted children, so the need to rescue victims is great. The prostitutes range in age from 15-20, but some are as young as 8 years old. They are forced into five to 10 sexual encounters nightly (at a wage of 100 pesos or $2 for each encounter). Most are drugged by their pimps to endure the horror and so are also hooked on narcotics.

“We found out that evil in society is so cunning,” she said.

Sanctuary created

The sisters converted their residence in Cebu into the Home of Love, also called the MQHM Rehabilitation and Livelihood Training Center. Currently, 20 victims of human trafficking who desire to change their lives are living with them.

“There are so many young girls who are calling us for help,” she said, “but there is nowhere for them to go. At the center, we give them unlimited love and unlimited help.”

The Home of Love provides shelter, food, education, health care, counseling and job skills to former prostitutes while they learn the love of God through spiritual formation. Their children also are welcomed. At this temporary center, the nuns stocked up on baking supplies to teach former prostitutes a skill to be self-sufficient.

“And we are trying to start up funds for candle making,” she said.

To counter poverty at its roots, the sisters also go into the same remote mountain villages where pimps recruit females, promising good paying city jobs. Instead of prostitution, the sisters offer food, education, medical assistance and job skills. They have been doing this since 2007 in a pilot program, Feeding of the Good Shepherd Foundation.

“We are trying to educate them to stop the cycle of prostitution from proliferating,” she said. “After three years, we found that there was zero prostitution in the area.”

Sister Irene said it took a few years for the order to get off the ground. They worked with now-retired cardinal from the Archdiocese of Cebu, Philippines, Ricardo J. Cardinal Vidal, to establish bylaws and achieve local approval. Members take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, total surrender and endless sacrifice and were eventually given permission to wear habits to be recognized in the community as religious.

Sister Irene said a pink habit was selected because it is the “color of the joy, the love and compassion of God the Shepherd that we share with victims of prostitution. We are trying to share the love of Christ.”

Doing the work of God

When walking the streets, Sister Irene said they travel in pairs, not dressed in habits. One will go into a bar and offer love and a listening ear to the young women who may need someone to turn to, while the other acts as a lookout. If the nuns have befriended an underage girl who wants to escape, Sister Irene said prior arrangements are made with an orphanage where the child can receive a new home and education. Sponsors are sought to pay a bar fine of 800 pesos to remove a working prostitute from a bar.

While it sounds like risky business, Sister Irene said, “so far there has been no harm against us. We fight prostitution in a nonviolent way. We do it silently without them (the pimps) knowing.”

Sister Irene said the nuns support themselves and the Home of Love mainly through their bakery business and the sales of an original music CD “Forever Yours.” Rosaries, rosary bracelets and scapulars made by boarders also are sold as the nuns promote their mission worldwide. It takes an
average of 25,000-30,000 pesos a week to keep the shelter going.

Looking for sponsors

The order works tirelessly finding sponsors to send Filipino children to public school. Sister Irene said currently, they are helping educate more 800 students in elementary school and 275 in high school. It
costs $25 a month to educate each child.

Immaculate Mary Queen of Heaven Missionaries have big plans to expand their mission by building a large complex that can house up to 500 people. The center would allow women and children up to five years to rehabilitate their lives.

By 2012, the nuns hope to introduce vocational courses and high school courses – automotive mechanic courses for boys, and possibly sewing and culinary courses for young women – in conjunction with area schools and universities.

Sister Irene said she and others from her order are traveling in the U.S. because they plan to go global with membership. Currently, their ranks are all Filipino nuns.

“It is very hard to take care of the victims of prostitution,” Sister Irene said. “It entails sacrifice. It reminds us that this is a our mission to God.”

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Printed with permission from the Clarion Herald, newspaper for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, La

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