I learned about Denisse Pichardo, winner of the 2011 Humanitarian Award by World of Children (WorldOfChildren.org) from The World Of Children Awards event last year, and had the opportunity to interview her (through translation!) about her work in more detail. She’s fascinating!!! Denise is a true crusader in helping children affected by the unspeakable and horrific act of human trafficking. Learn more about it, her, and how to help below!
Joanna Pantages: You have now saved and protected at least 17,000 children from sexual slavery; the sale of children by extremely poor families; and commercial sexual exploitation. What was your first experience in rescuing a child from sex trafficking or exploitation?
Denisse Pichardo: When I first began this work, I had several experiences that left strong impressions on me. One of the first was when a group of 4 children living on the streets were all victimized by the same man, a 65 year-old North American. Our organization started the process to prosecute the man for his crimes and he eventually spent six months in prison. He was then released. We were never given an explanation of why he was released. The experience was difficult for us because it showed us the power of money in a corrupt Justice System.
We tried to turn this into a positive for our movement. The case was an example of the complete failure of our Child Protection System. By denouncing the way this case ended, we drew attention to this issue and began to train prosecutors to prosecute with the aim of getting better outcomes for child victims.
After this case, three of the boys returned to their families in other towns. But the fourth boy, whom the North American man had been closest to, did not have as happy an outcome. He is now in prison for committing several crimes, including armed robbery.
In another early case, we worked jointly with prosecutors, the United States Immigration police, and the Board of the National Protection for the Rights of Children to conduct an operation that rescued two girls from a brothel. The outcome was better this time – the brothel owners were sentenced to prison for fifteen years.
Q. What was the saddest or most shocking case you have ever experienced?
Denisse: The death of a sixteen year old girl who was a victim of sexual commercial exploitation. The girl was beaten and then drowned in the ocean. Her family did not even do anything to find the person responsible for her death.
I first met this girl when she was only seven years old. Her mother had burned her hands as punishment for eating her stepfather’s food. I got her mother arrested for this abuse but she was released only hours later.
After that, the family moved to another town. Just a couple of years later, the girl dropped out of school. She was raped and then became a victim of commercial sexual exploitation and was killed when she was just sixteen.
The terrible abuse and mistreatment she suffered in her young life is something I have never forgotten. We can never forget cases like this because we loved this girl and others like her and wanted a better life for them. But sometimes the weaknesses of their families, the dysfunction of our justice system, and our lack of public policies to adequately protect children make us powerless to help them.
I take some comfort though in the difference we are able to make in the lives of so many young people who were victims of abuse. Many of them thought the only way to escape the streets was to convince a foreigner to take them away to a new country. Instead they were exploited and thrown away. Then they came to Caminante and we loved and healed them. Today they are businessmen, teachers, lawyers, and other professionals and some are even parents. They are good parents. These successes make the pain of our jobs more bearable. We continue our work because the successes are worth the pain.
Q. Have you ever felt in danger or that your life was at risk trying to intervene and save children from this industry?
Denisse: Well, when you confront problems like drugs, violence of youth gangs, the commercial sex trade, you are always at risk. On various occasions I’ve been threatened with knives by parents who thought we were denouncing them for the abuse of their children. Nothing happened but it was frightening at the time. But we can’t cower because of the work we do. We have to accept the risk that something can happen.
I have learned to face problems by making others understand that children must be protected, loved and that they have rights. We must work with the family, community, school, local and national authorities.
In addition, we must coordinate and unite actions with other organizations doing similar work to fight for and achieve, policies that provide social services for children and families. In 2012, in the Dominican Republic, we had to struggle to get 4% of GDP mandated for education. We worked hard and got the candidates for congressional and presidential positions to sign an agreement to improve the quality of education. Since then, public education has improved.
Classrooms have been constructed and teachers are getting better salaries. This struggle is the same. We must get everyone to agree to protect our children and then change will happen.
Q. What do you think can possibly be a true preventative solution for human trafficking in hubs such as Boca Chica?
Denisse: The problem of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking, is not only in Boca Chica, it is in all of the country. It happens in the tourist zones, in the borders with Haiti and in the marginalized neighborhoods, where the most poor live and don’t have recreation, quality education, water and electricity and where there are few opportunities for employment for family and youth.
The problem of commercial sexual exploitation is that it is incredibly easy for vulnerable children to become victim to it.
In the Dominican Republic we have laws and child protection standards. In addition, the government has signed agreements and protocols against all forms of abuse and sexual exploitation. However, we have to push to apply those laws!
The government has to make more social policies for families and children, create and provide a source of employment for them. Provide health and quality education. Create programs to train young people. Create ads for tourists and make strong laws that are easy to apply so that the traveler knows that the Dominican Republic protects childhood in every sense. The Minister of Tourism together with international agencies like UNICEF should advertise that the Dominican Republic respects and protects children and their rights.
Although we have some state agencies working for the protection of children, the government needs to improve the conditions of government agencies and justice, so that they can do better work on behalf of children. And the government needs to provide nonprofit organizations that work on the protection of children with funding that will allow us to do a good job.
Q. Why do you think Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic is a central hub for sex trafficking?
Denisse: It is not only Boca Chica that has this problem, all tourist locations are vulnerable to this problem. Boca Chica is located in the southeast of the country, only 30 kilometers from the country’s capital and thirty kilometers from the main airport. The town is located on the East route for first-class tourism for the country.
The town of Boca Chica until the 80s lived on the production of sugar cane and the lives of the residents revolved around fishing. In that decade when international agencies promoted neoliberal economic reforms, the Dominican Republic, previously an agricultural economy, became a tourism-based economy. The country and people were not adequately prepared for this shift.
In Boca Chica they did not prepare adequate facilities to accommodate the rising tourist trade. They depended on a few old hotels with limited capacities. People saw the upsell of tourism as a good thing – brining jobs and money. But there was little order to the new industry and no adequate protections for our vulnerable populations.
Many of the tourists that arrived were older people who came for “sex tourism.” They didn’t care if it was day or night, nor the age of the children who were available to fulfill their sexual appetites.
People continued to view tourism as their salvation so they didn’t want to do anything to upset the influx of travelers. Residents were generally permissive of bad behavior by tourists and the authorities were indifferent because they wanted to be sure tourism would continue to boost the economy. In many ways, we’re still recovering from this early permissiveness.
Q. How did you originally connect with World of Children?
Denisse: In 2011, Martin Coria of the World Church Service of the United States learned of the award and suggested we apply. Since Martin knew our work with the children of Boca Chica very well he thought we would be a good fit. We sent our nomination and won, along with four other organizations. I traveled to receive the Award, I met the Founders who were wonderful. After the Awards Ceremony, World of Children invited me to join their panel of reviewers for future nominations. I and the others who perform this service are very happy to be a part of this evaluation team.
Q. What would help you the most right now in your efforts? (such as money, more support, more awareness, more assistance from authorities?)
Denisse: Everything that you listed – money, awareness, more assistance from local and national authorities – are all needs of our organization. We continue our work with few resources because it is important. World of Children Award recognizes this and their Award will include much needed resources for our organization but there is always so much need in our communities! We always welcome additional resources as they allow us to reach even more vulnerable children.
Big thanks to Denisse (in every way), and you can read more about her and World Of Children at http://www.worldofchildren.org/events/2016-alumni-honors/.