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"It took me years to truly believe that my identity is not set in what happened to me," says Ruby, who at 16 was duped into online sexual exploitation of children. It was only when Ruby accepted Jesus as her Saviour that her life took a dramatic turn. Stock photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.

Ruby (not her real name) was 16 years old when she received a Facebook message that would change her life: “Hello, are you looking for a job?”

The youngest of 11 children, the Filipino teenager had been orphaned at 14 after watching her parents, with whom she had been close, die from illnesses within months of each other.

With grown-up siblings who had lives of their own, Ruby had spent the next two years all alone. So, the Facebook message gave her a flicker of hope that she had an opportunity for a new beginning.

Friendly and kind, the woman on the other end offered her a job at a computer shop and a room to stay. She even transferred Ruby money to pay for her journey to Pampanga, a province in the Philippines, where she would work.

Telling no one, Ruby packed her bags and went.

Tricked

But it did not take long for Ruby to discover that something was awfully wrong.

When Ruby arrived at the address given to her by the woman, she found that the house was dark. As she entered, she heard the front door shut behind her, followed by the click of a heavy padlock. Looking around, she was shocked to see young girls coming out of a room half naked.

It dawned upon her: She had been tricked.

This was no computer shop. It was an online sex den.

“Today, abusers located anywhere in the world can exploit children without ever leaving their homes.”

She had been deceived into joining one of the world’s fastest growing crimes: The online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), a modern form of human trafficking.

According to International Justice Mission (IJM), a non-profit organisation aimed at fighting modern slavery, exploitation and abuse of women and children, OSEC encompasses a range of crimes, including creating, possessing or distributing child sexual exploitation material such as photos and videos.

“It also includes the sexual abuse of children by traffickers who livestream the exploitation to satisfy the online demand of child sex offenders paying to direct the abuse in real time. Today, abusers located anywhere in the world can exploit children without ever leaving their homes,” said IJM.

There are no reliable estimates on how many children are trapped in the industry, but the United Nations estimates that at least 750,000 sexual predators are online at any given time.

The median age of victims is just 11 years old, with some as young as two months old. 

The fight of her life

Over the next two months Ruby was locked inside the house with about a dozen other girls and strictly prohibited from opening windows or stepping outside.

She was forced to perform demeaning sexual acts eight hours a day in front of computers and cameras, for the pleasure of men watching and directing her virtually from all around the world.

The couple running the den told her that she could leave after paying off the transport money that she had been given. But with each ridiculously priced meal and basic necessity added relentlessly to her tab, Ruby soon realised that it was impossible to pay what she owed.

She was forced to perform demeaning sexual acts eight hours a day in front of computers and cameras.

After a failed attempt to escape, Ruby found herself weeping as she lay slumped on the toilet floor. In sheer desperation, she cried out: “God, if you are real, get me out of here.”

In a miraculous turn of events, help did indeed come swiftly.

The next morning, Ruby woke up on the bathroom floor to the sound of a gunshot. Police barged into the house and raided it, rescuing the girls and arresting all the perpetrators.

In a newly released six-episode podcast called The Fight of My Life: Finding Ruby, Ruby’s story is told in vivid detail along with sobering facts about OSEC and the clients on the other end of the screen. IJM and Australian creative agency Cadence Media, which produced the podcast, hope to shine a light on the online sexual exploitation of children and end this crime.

The Fight of my Life: Finding Ruby, by Cadence Media, details how 16-year-old Ruby (played by an actress) was tricked into making her way from her rural home to a sex-trafficking den in the Philippines, and her journey toward healing and forgiveness. Photo courtesy of Cadence Media and IJM.

Following the release of the podcast, which is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, Salt&Light sat down with Ruby, now in her 20s and a survivor consultant with IJM, as she shared about her journey towards healing and radical forgiveness.

Ruby: Finding peace, losing shame

I felt so dirty and shameful for what I had been forced to do over the past two months. Yet I felt like I couldn’t blame other people because I had been the one who had fallen into that trap.

It was at an aftercare shelter called Lighthouse (name changed) that my healing journey began. I was accepted without judgment and told that redemption was possible. It was hard to accept myself after what I had experienced, but my leaders in Lighthouse walked me through the restoration process.

It took me years to truly believe that I am set apart and restored, to believe that my identity is not set in what happened to me. When I accepted Jesus as my Saviour, the old Ruby was gone. This is the new me, ready to start a new life.

A reenacted photo of Ruby’s perpetrator, who ran the den, being arrested. Photo courtesy of Cadence Media and IJM.

In the months after I was rescued, through the love and encouragement of my social worker and others at Lighthouse and IJM, I discovered the beauty of life with a personal relationship with God.

It took me years to truly believe that I am set apart and restored, to believe that my identity is not set in what happened to me.

It’s just like having a friend you can run to every time. I never had a relationship like that, not until I found Christ.

During the difficult wait to testify at the trial of my perpetrators (the whole process took four long years), my social worker shared with me Psalm 23:1-3.

It reads:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. 
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

While she was praying for me – I can still feel the warmth of her hands holding mine – I found my eyes welling up with tears. That was my first real encounter with the Lord.

That night, I slept without nightmares for the first time in a long time. Instead, I had a dream where I was walking among tall, green grass. In my heart was a full feeling of peace, safety and contentment – just like what was described in Psalm 23.

It was a sign, a promise of God’s abundant future for me.

She chose radical forgiveness

In the months following my arrest, I harboured a growing and intense hatred for my perpetrators – for the things they did to me and for how dirty and shameful they made me feel.

But as I surrendered these feelings of anger and bitterness to God, I began to feel true happiness. I began to feel like I could forgive.

Most importantly, I told them that I had been forgiven by my Creator and I wanted to extend the same forgiveness to them.

Sometime during the court trial process, the woman confessed that what she had done to me was wrong. I could see that both of them were remorseful.

Seeing their tears and remorse, I agreed to a plea bargain. My perpetrators would plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a sentence that would be significantly reduced from life imprisonment to 15 years.

Right as they were being led away to their jail cells, I had a sudden urge to speak to them again. I wanted to tell them that I had forgiven them. I knew it would give me the closure and healing that I needed.

The couple was stunned but they readily agreed. I looked both of them in the eyes and released a word of forgiveness to them. I told them how my life was changed in the aftercare shelter and how I was able to go back to school.

Most importantly, I told them that I had been forgiven by my Creator and I wanted to extend the same forgiveness to them.

In tears, the woman thanked me and asked if I would pray for her. I did. I remember being full of emotion and shaking the whole time I was speaking to them. My legs were still shaking after I stepped out of the courtroom.

Of course, I wasn’t freed from bitterness and anger right away. It’s still a process. But releasing forgiveness was like a stepping stone for me to not dwell in bitterness any longer.

By forgiving them I was able to heal and to free myself from bitterness and anger. I became truly free.

Standing up to injustice

Having the faith I have today did not happen in weeks or months. It took years.

At first, I was resentful, full of questions and even confused. I wondered: “If God is really real, why did He allow this to happen to me? Why did He not stop those people right away?”

But I realised that, while sometimes it may seem like God is not working in your life, it is never that way.

If I’m not going to step up and use my voice, there could be a lot of Rubys that are going to be trapped in that dark stage of life.

After I was rescued, I honestly didn’t even remember that I had cried out to God the day before in the bathroom. But when everything started to fall into place, I realised that it was God who had rescued me. It was all His work.

He is always there and there are always great things in store for those who wait patiently for Him. For me, this came in the form of seeing my perpetrators being brought to justice. That was my reward.

When I started to live my life again, I saw that my experience also allowed me to encourage others and discover my life purpose.

When both of my parents passed away when I was a teenager, I had thought: “Who am I still living for?” I didn’t have a purpose in life. I didn’t see any reason to live on.

But now it’s very different. I clearly see my purpose. I clearly see where I can use my strengths and my voice. I’m not living only for myself, but to tell of the miracle that happened to me when I was in that bathroom, to advocate for other OSEC victims and survivors. 

Every time I tell my story, I feel more and more empowered. It’s part of my healing journey as I am reminded of how far I’ve come.

By forgiving them I was able to heal and to free myself from bitterness and anger.

Despite the stigma and shame attached to OSEC, I have the courage to share my story because I know that there is something that people need to know. If I’m not going to step up and use my voice, there could be a lot of Rubys that are going to be trapped in that dark stage of life, hopeless and abused, without knowing who to call out to or whether help will ever come.

I would like to ask whoever is reading this for their support in listening to the Finding Ruby podcast and in joining the fight against OSEC.

The goal of sharing my story in this podcast is not just to spread awareness against this ongoing battle with OSEC, but to also share my story of hope.

If you are someone who has access to justice systems, or if you know someone who has access to them, would you help by creating a safer online environment for children?

Like how I cried on the bathroom floor before I was rescued, for me this podcast is also a call for help, a call for action.


The Fight of My Life: Finding Ruby is on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.


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About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.

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