At the end of a dirt road, the big, bright walls come into view. The Cameleon buildings are painted with colourful murals, and the sounds of the surrounding countryside are overtaken by the laughter of children playing in front of the center.
It appears unrestricted and relaxed, but it’s clear that safety is paramount: the entrance is guarded to ensure the security of some 50 young lodgers. The young girls staying here, aged 5 to 18 years old, are victims of sexual violence, most of which is perpetrated by a member of their own family. In this safe haven and place of community, they seek acceptance and recovery.
CAMELEON welcomes the girls through referrals from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, a government agency. The center provides health, legal and educational assistance, as well as psychological and psychiatric care.
The girls also have the chance to upgrade their skills and education, and can engage in sports and even circus activities – all under close supervision of the housemothers and social workers. The girls stay in the centre for an average period of three years for their rehabilitation, until they are ready for reintegration into their community or a return to their family – if it’s deemed safe.
Until then, the girls live with their new family – being sisters to each other with the opportunity to build bonds with housemothers, drivers and gardeners. Angela*, 16, has been in the centre for over a year; Floribeth*, 17, for three years. We followed them for a day to see what a typical day at the centre would be like.
The alarm rings. Floribeth would have liked to sleep for a few more hours, "but I like going to school. We are lucky to be able to go there." She says. Very quickly, the 50 girls begin their chores: laundry, cooking and cleaning.
Everyone knows exactly what to do.
Everyone eats breakfast together. This is more than just a meal, it's their first moment of the day together. The older girls help the younger ones settle in.
Time to leave for school, where the girls will spend most of their day. Angela says: "My favourite subjects are Filipino and Mathematics. I want to study so that I can become a teacher myself and share my knowledge to help others achieve their goals!"
CAMELEON and the school work together to ensure the girls’ safety, and teachers are sensitized to the different cases so they can provide them with the best possible support.
The school day is over and the girls return to the centre. Some evenings, sports activities are organised, including rugby and volleyball. Sports have a vital role in the healing therapy of the girls: "I like rugby, it allows me relax and express my emotions," says Floribeth.
Shaira, a social worker, adds: "Sports allow the girls to bring out all the anger they have inside and find a sort of balance. They feel more in a position of strength."
After a moment of reflection—or prayer, if religious—, the girls prepare dinner and continue with their chores, such as cooking, housekeeping and doing the laundry.
"I like the fact that we have assigned tasks. We are always doing something, and we don't have time to get bored," Angela says.
For Mary Ann, a social worker, household chores help build the girls’ sense of self-responsibility: "They learn to do everything they need in life, so they can fend for themselves when their stay is over."
Food is prepared by the girls who are cook under the supervision of the housemothers.
They pay special attention to providing well-balanced and diverse options on the daily menu.
The girls get down to their homework. Those most at ease in school tutor the others, who may need help with their lessons.
The key word is collaboration.
Lights out! Bedtime. Tomorrow is the weekend.
Another busy day is in sight, with swimming at the center’s pool in the morning, then a "self-awareness" session where they express their emotions through role play.
In the afternoon, they’ll practice for the circus — one of CAMELEON's flagship and most celebrated activities.
"The circus is a key element in the recovery program for the children," Heide, the Executive Director of the center, explains. "It allows them to get closer to their bodies, express themselves through art, and regain self-confidence." For Floribeth, circus is one of her favourite activities: "What I like most is when people watch us and they’re impressed. They say 'wow!' and they applaud us. In that moment, I am really proud of myself."
CAMELEON is the first NGO to incorporate a Circus Program as a therapeutic tool for healing and recovery. The girls perform in various places, for different audiences and as part of CAMELEON’s advocacy events. During performance, the girls’ faces are painted to protect their identity. Each performance is met with thunderous applause.
And it’s no wonder! They are trained by the best. Every year, foreign circus artists from the national school of circus arts come to the centre to train and teach the girls different circus disciplines. This year, two artists of the "Cirque du Soleil" spent a few weeks with them to enhance their circus skills.
Every year, the girls are assessed to determine their readiness to be reintegrated back to their families and community. If they are deemed ready and capable, they are transferred to the After Care Program. In this phase, the girls can return to their family – only if it is safe for them to do so.
Since most of the abuse cases are incestuous in nature, CAMELEON is working incessantly with the girls’ family to raise awareness and prepare them for the reintegration under the best conditions possible.
"We've faced quite different cases. Sometimes families are very understanding and helpful. They even raise awareness within their own community," Heide says. "Other times, it's more complicated. We cannot send the girls back to their families." In such cases, the girls can be placed in boarding houses, in a CAMELEON dormitory or in the care of a foster family.
There are currently 65 girls in the After Care Program. They will continue to be monitored and mentored and they will receive psychological and financial support until they’re finished with school.
For most of them, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, this support gives them the opportunity to complete their studies and find their calling in life. Some of them are now teachers, social workers, and sales representatives.
Since its opening in 1998, CAMELEON has helped 57 girls find a stable employment – a number that accounts for nearly all of the former residents.
CAMELEON’s mission goes beyond just the recovery of victims of sexual abuse. Its goal is to prevent sexual abuse to children and to take a stand. What's more, it has created two youth organizations: Voice of CAMELEON Children stands against sexual abuse and for Children’s rights, and CAMELEON Youth Health Advocates raises awareness of sex education and early teen pregnancy in particular.
"What better way than having teens talk to other teens?" asks Japhet Grace Moleta, Advocacy Program Officer.
To strengthen its advocacy, CAMELEON organizes an annual conference called Breaking the Silence, to gather government and non-government agencies as well as policemen, teachers, lawyers, prosecutors and social workers to talk about - and stand against - sexual abuse.
This initiative is also an opportunity to be part of the campaign to increase the age of statutory rape in the Philippine Senate.
At the international level, one CAMELEON beneficiary was invited to be the youth representatives in the UN Youth Assembly where she spoke about the NGO’s work and initiatives in the Philippines.
Laurence Ligier was only 18 years old when she travelled for the first time to the Philippines to take part in a humanitarian mission. It was during her time in Iloilo that she realized that there was no structure to support victims of sexual violence. She went back to France and started raising funds to build CAMELEON center in Passi City in 1997.
It took seven years to build CAMELEON – and expand it. Since 2004, Laurence Ligier has opened offices in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Andorra and Luxembourg to raise funds and awareness. Today, she travels two to three times a year to the Philippines, spending over two months with the girls in Passi.
Now, she hopes to open still more centres to help more girls around the globe.
“I chose the name ‘CAMELEON’ because it represents our mission," she says. "Like a chameleon changes color to adapt to its environment, we help children transform themselves…away from their disadvantaged past and toward a better future.”