According to Laurence Ligier, foundress of French-Filipino NGO Cameleon that cares for mistreated and exploited Filipino girls and women, official data says that there are 30 to 35,000 cases of child sexual and physical abuse in the Philippines reported each year. But these are only the cases that have been brought to the proper authorities and have been addressed; uncountable incidents go unreported, leaving many children unprotected and vulnerable. Laurence also says that you could multiply official numbers by 10 and it still wouldn’t paint the whole picture.
Everyone knows that something must be done about the issue. Many promises are made to be at the frontline of the cause, but this confidence is quickly tested when these promise-makers find themselves listening to the words of a father being tried for rape who, in the presence of a judge, a jury, attorneys and his daughter, says, “she is my child. I spend for her. I made her. Whatever I do, I have the right to do [what I want].” It’s a sentiment Laurence has heard one too many times, and a mindset that she is on a mission to eradicate for good.
A stomach of steel is required for those who dare immerse themselves in this reality, yet Laurence and her team composed of a little over than 50 Filipino staff have taken it upon themselves to champion this advocacy through Cameleon, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
(Cameleon beneficiary Shaline Gamala, founder Laurence Ligier, Zonta Club of Makati Ayala president Rita Dy and SM senior vice president Millie Dizon)
To help raise awareness for Laurence’s cause and to appreciate what Cameleon has done for its beneficiaries, Laurence invites us all to attend Cameleon’s 20th anniversary celebration next week on May 29 at 4 p.m. in SM MOA’s Music Hall. The show was made possible in partnership with SM Cares, the Zonta Club of Makati Ayala and the French National Circus School (ENACR).
The show is called Metamorphosis to highlight the transformation of Cameleon’s girls from victims, to survivors, to champions of life. The show which will not only feature six Cameleon performers, but also shows off a cast that includes France Got Talent 2016 second runner-up Alienette Coldfire, French actress Sabrina Ouazani, KC Concepcion as host and nine foreign performers from France and Canada.
“What I’m happiest about is that this event brings together a lot of friends. SM was on board with this for the last couple of years and are very happy to be working with a French NGO that is based in Iloilo — the site of one of our very first malls… The other thing is that this brings another side to malling, which is giving back and making a difference,” shares SM senior vice president Millie Dizon.
Laurence was not much older than the girls she now helps when she first came to Manila in the ’90s. Describing herself as a previously “young, white, privileged lady,” she says she came to Manila with the desire to help. “I wanted to discover a country not just as a tourist but by helping… I was touched by what I saw in the streets in Manila, by all families, by grandmothers to babies in the street,” she explains.
(An ENACR performer executing one of the show’s amazing acts)
With the help of France-based NGO Comité Enfance Philippines, she began her mission by helping rural communities in Aklan, and for a time volunteered in Tondo’s Smokey Mountain as well as Iloilo where she discovered the harsh realities of disadvantaged young girls and women. There she learned that because of desperate circumstances, they were practically made into slaves to serve needs of every sort, overworked and oftentimes prostituted for money, marking them for life with little hope of rehabilitation and a future.
When Laurence’s missions were done, her world had been changed forever. She had been transformed and at just 25-years-old, decided that she could not go home to France and continue living a sheltered life, certainly not after this experience.
“That’s how I began and 25 years after, I am still here because unfortunately, the needs are big. Once I committed myself to help, especially when you give hope to children who have been abused, you cannot just stop, just like that,” Laurence shares.
This commitment resulted in her establishment of Cameleon — a girls and women’s rehabilitation center in Passi, Iloilo, which materialized thanks to financial assistance from private entities, corporations, and a bit of help from foreign aid and local funding as well. Laurence chose Visayas as her headquarters as she discovered that many, if not majority, of the sexual and physical abuse cases she encounters originate from this region.
“Cameleon has a holistic approach, in helping them in all aspects — medical, psycohlogical, legal, educational,” Laurence says of the center which has helped hundreds of girls throughout the years.
(Circus professionals and students from ENACR come to the Philippines as volunteers every year)
In 2004, when operations had stabilized and become sustainable, an almost random but eventually providential visit from the French Zanzibar Circus paved the way for Cameleon’s brightest lightbulb moment: the inclusion of a circus training program to serve as a rehabilitation as well as professional integration tool.
“When they called me up, I was in the middle of the forest, and I told them, ‘why do you want to come here where we’re in the middle of mahogany trees?’ We have no facilities, no gym, no equipment,'” Laurence recalls.
Despite Laurence’s doubts, the circus, whose team believed in her cause, came to town bringing with them their unicycles, trapeze, balancing wire and many amazing acts much to the delight of the girls who didn’t just watch the show unfold, but joined in, too, with the guidance of the circus masters.
“Together with them, I saw that the girls really enjoyed it because it’s a mixture of sport and art, and that’s how it began,” Laurence says. For 13 years now, circus training has become an integral part in Cameleon’s approach to healing.
The program formed community spirit and a support system in the center, allowed girls to healthily release their tension and anxiety, helped give back their self-confidence, made them physically and mentally stronger, rebuilt their trust in others, inculcated a sense of ownership and responsibility and for many of these girls, gave them a starting point for a career in the industry. (More than 15 girls have became professional trainers and performers).
(ENACR talents will perform different acts with cyr and aerial rings, aerial silk, cloud swing and Chinese pole as well as acrobatics, hand to hand, tight wire and hula hoop acts)
But best of all, Cameleon has made its girls brave.
Their time in the center gives them a voice and a desire to help girls not as fortunate them. Before their performances in schools around the country, for audiences from affluent backgrounds, or even in rural communities composed of many marginalized families, girls courageously go up on stage and tell their story and why they are there. They speak of the realities of sexual and physical abuse, and “they interact with everybody and the public about child rights, what is existing in the Philippines, the laws, what is normal and not normal, what we can do, where we can report about child abuse,” Laurence says.
Shaline Gamala, a beneficiary of Cameleon who was able to earn her post graduate degree in education and now works alongside Laurence, shares that the experience is “not just about being on stage, but more of developing one’s self through circus.”
The applause after a performance is secondary to the personal achievements each Cameleon girl praises herself for. The true reward is knowing that they can make something of themselves in a world that was once cruel to them and still manage to hold their heads high with pride and look ahead, rather than back.
“The purpose of Cameleon is not just to send all girls to a higher level of education, but at least they would have a balanced, personal life and change everything within them. More or less that’s the story of Cameleon, the transformation,” shares Laurence.
“A cameleon is a reptile that can change its color and adapt to its environment… that’s what our girls are,” she continues.
And while Laurence has been succeeding in her cause, she of course still needs all the help she can get. Cameleon receives P4 to 5 million every year to care for hundreds of beneficiaries, maintain facilities and keep up its circus program. There are also plans to build a second center in Negros.
Attendance is free for all, so nothing should stop you, your friends and family from going!
“If you know about Zonta Club, what we do is empower women and girls. We pick them up, nurture them, care for them until they can be their own succesful individuals. This is our mission and Cameleon is an association we are quite happy to work with,” adds Zonta Club of Makati Ayala president Rita Dy.
For more information about Cameleon and to learn more about how you can get involved, please visit their official website here.
(Created more than 25 years ago, the ENACR is the best French higher education institution based on a plural disciplinary circus practice)