In a culture that prioritizes the closeness of families, but also where at least 21.8 percent of people experience sexual abuse by some type of relative, many victims choose to remain silent.
“In Latin America in general, the family units are closer or more tight-knit. I don’t mean healthier—I just mean the commitment to one another as family, the value of family is higher, but the same amount of abuse happens,” said Titus Folden.
Titus and Stephanie Folden, WorldVenture missionaries, have worked with at-risk youth and victims of sexual exploitation in Guayaquil since 2007.
Titus explained that many victims don’t reveal their abuse because they do not want to disrupt the family unit by exposing the horrible truth. And not only are many victims remaining silent, but people within the church and the community often do not want to breach these boundaries either.
“The important thing is that we try to remember it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s all of us together.”
In some cases where parents have a problem with drug abuse, they will traffic their own child to fuel the addiction.
Part of the Foldens’ job has been to raise awareness, set up programs to help the church learn how to deal with issues of exploitation within their own community, and network with other local organizations in order to help provide adequate care for those who are exploited.
Since working in Guayaquil, perhaps one of the largest changes the couple has witnessed in their network of people is a higher interest in engaging the issue of exploitation.
“People are more open to hearing about what’s going…we’ve been encouraged by just [the church’s and community members’] willingness to come to the table,” Stephanie said.
One of the major dynamics that comes into play and makes the Foldens’ work more difficult is that prostitution is legal in Ecuador, something that isn’t unique to that particular country.
“It is more difficult because it’s accepted,” Stephanie said. “It’s culturally one of those things that’s just been around forever and they absolutely believe it’s something the women choose.”
In fact, the number of countries with legal prostitution is a whopping 77–with 11 more countries that have restricted legal prostitution and five countries with no laws on the matter–compared to the 109 countries where prostitution is illegal.
It’s common for men in Ecuador to visit strip clubs for entertainment or take their sons to a brothel for their first sexual encounter, she said.
“People try to put a spin on it that looks positive, and of course what we know in general is that women don’t just get into prostitution to make money. There’s generally something behind it, whether it’s abuse or a pimp,” she said.
The law makes it even more difficult for sex trafficked women to find justice. Since prostitution is legal only for women older than 18, a trafficked minor will be arrested. However, little is done to arrest those who have trafficked her.
Additionally, the government has cracked down on housing minors, making it difficult to rescue and help someone when they’ve been trafficked. Titus said the only recovery shelter in their city for victims of sexual exploitation was shut down last year. It used to take in about 20 girls per month.
When it comes to legal matters, having excellent partnerships becomes vital.
The Foldens partner with local churches, raising awareness and providing preventative and healing programs. They also run events with the local government to raise awareness. In addition, the Foldens also partner with Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope International), a sister organization of International Justice Mission.
Titus has referred a number of people to Hope and Peace to handle the court cases and other legal aspects of trafficking.
“A lot of what we do is making sure we know who’s in the country doing what so that we can best resource anyone that we’re working with or connect them with people who can help them better,” Titus said.
It’s not just there, but everywhere
Both Titus and Stephanie make a point that sexual abuse and trafficking isn’t just a problem in Ecuador, but it’s everywhere.
The International Labor Organization estimates that about 12.3 million adults and children are trafficked in forced labor and commercial sexual servitude worldwide, according to the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report. As many as 2 million of that over-all number are child sex slaves.
“I think the important thing is that we try to remember it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s all of us together,” Stephanie said.
“Abuse is worldwide; it’s an issue that is non-discriminatory,” Titus said. “The only thing that’s different that I can see between our country and the country we work in is our specific cultural issues that determine how people respond to abuse happening.”
In 2014, WorldVenture launched its own justice ministry focused on fighting sex trafficking, with Adrienne Livingston directing this initiative. In addition to the Foldens, WorldVenture has many missionaries working in South America, including Daryl Collins, who does fashion design in Bolivia.