After years of being abused, exploited and enslaved, the girls in gloves do not hesitate to strike when their turn arrives.
Cheered on by their friends, the Filipina children launch into a frenzied flurry of kicks and jabs against their trainers.
These young survivors of modern slavery are learning martial arts as part of their recovery in a shelter for child trafficking victims in Manila.
“I like learning to fight because I want to protect myself and the other girls,” said 15-year-old Ash, raising her gentle voice to be heard over the constant thud of fists and feet.
“I’m tired but happy … Muay Thai will be useful when I become a police detective one day,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a martial arts lesson at the shelter run by the Visayan Forum Foundation, an anti-trafficking charity.
Cybersex child trafficking – where victims are forced to perform sex acts, abused or raped over webcam for global clients – is a growing problem in a country regarded by activists and anti-slavery organizations as a regional hub for modern slavery.
Children as young as one or two are sexually exploited by traffickers and also their own relatives in the Philippines, which has been identified as the epicenter of the livestream sex abuse trade by the United Nations’ children’s agency (UNICEF).
For the girls at the shelter – many of whom have been abused, beaten and betrayed by their families – the chance to be active, creative, and even aggressive is a welcome opportunity.
From self-defense sessions in Kenya to Kung Fu lessons taught by nuns in India, a growing number of projects globally teach women and girls martial arts to boost their confidence, help them defend themselves and aid them to recover from abuse.
“Such activities are a very important medium for women and girls who have suffered abuse,” said Dolores Rubia, director of aftercare for the International Justice Mission in Manila.
“They allow them to express their feelings, they are therapeutic, and offer the chance to learn skills for the future,” added Rubia of the global charity, which works with local partners to support child victims of cybersex trafficking.
The Visayan shelter in Manila is home to about 45 girls, ranging in age from 3 to 23. Some have lived here for years.
Most of the girls arriving at the center have been rescued in police raids, found by charities or escaped from cybersex dens, brothels or homes where they were forced to work as maids.
For those who have been exploited by their relatives or are involved in court cases against their abusers, going home may be not an option, says Visayan, which helps the girls find jobs and a place to live once they are old enough and ready to leave.
The shelter provides visiting teachers so the girls can catch up on their education and sit exams, as well as a wide range of activities such as arts and crafts, karaoke, dancing and martial arts, said Rachel Subia of the charity.
“These activities are a good way to help the girls forget their past experiences … it is healing for them,” Subia said.
As each awaits their turn to take on the instructors, the girls fiddle with their gloves and joke, laugh and whoop loudly, watching as the others put their newfound skills to the test.
Those stepping forward are a picture of concentration – eyes narrowed, shoulders raised and fists clenched – as they fight.
“At first, the girls were so awkward,” said Muay Thai instructor Olivia Cruz, who has helped to run the bi-monthly martial arts sessions since they started earlier this year.
“But they are really strong,” she added, chuckling as one girl knocked her male trainer to the ground. “And they love it.”