Rebuilding Cambodia, one woman at a time

| September 6, 2005
Thyda looks like any other young girl — only she's lived through trauma most of us could never imagine. At the age of 12, Thyda's mother sold her into prostitution. She was told that her relatives were sick and needed medicine, and because she was very beautiful, she would be able to earn money for the family. Thyda was sold several times, and was moved around the country before she managed to escape. She was then brought to the Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre, where we met her.

“I never knew about my family — my father, my mother's name or my sister's name,” says Thyda. “All I ever heard was people telling me that this woman was really my mother. So I don't know. Who is my mother?” Thyda now wonders if the woman who sold her into prostitution really was her mother; she doesnâe(TM)t believe that a mother could sell her own daughter.

Out of all of the incredibly strong and resilient girls and women we've met, her story has touched me the most.

Many of my friends have been to Southeast Asia as backpackers. The palm trees and fresh fruits create a feeling of a tropical getaway. On this trip I will forgo the beach and the tan. I am here for a very different purpose. It's January of 2005 and I've come with Outer Voices, a California-based independent media group, to make a radio documentary program about sex trafficking in Cambodia. My lens for this entire trip is the topic we'll be exploring, and thus, every man I see is a potential client and every girl or woman a prospective victim of trafficking and prostitution. I have read so much about this topic, talked to professors and aid workers, watched documentaries — and now I am finally here, left wondering if everything that surrounds me is complicit in this world of trafficking and prostitution.

We make a funny scene — three white women carrying a mass of recording equipment. At times it is awkward to be here — everywhere we go we are received with stares, points and laughs — I can only begin to imagine what is being said about us. Babies burst into tears at the sight of us, and shy young teenage girls cover their mouths to giggle.

Poverty is a reality for many Cambodians. Few economic options are available — over 80 per cent of the country's population relies on an agricultural industry which rarely generates enough income for survival. To add to this, Cambodian girls and women are often expected to care for their parents, and with few viable economic alternatives, some find themselves working within the sex industry to earn a salary.

Girls and women work in the brothels of red light districts, karaoke bars and restaurants selling sex. Cambodia has emerged as a popular destination for tourists looking specifically for prostitutes, but foreigners aren't their main customers. Just under 10 per cent of the men that pay for sex in Cambodia are from abroad. Many of the girls and women who end up working as prostitutes come from rural areas and have been tricked or coerced into working in the industry — they are promised good jobs with decent pay, enough to send some money home to their families.

Concrete facts about the sex industry in Cambodia are hard to come by. Because the sex industry is largely underground and transient, it is difficult to accurately assess how many people are a part of it. Some say that as many as 50,000 or 60,000 girls and women work in the sex industry in Cambodia. Of these, at least 35 per cent are estimated to be under the age of 18. Over 50 per cent of the women involved in sex work are thought to have been trafficked, with the other half “voluntarily” choosing the industry. HIV/AIDS is a growing problem with as many as 40 per cent of sex workers infected.

Traffickers are clever, and often they are women who are known and trustedin their communities, using that trust to convince the girls or women toleave their homes and families. These girls are sold and are then forcedto receive male clients in brothels or the backs of bars. Conditions inthese places are often unsanitary and hostile — many of the women we spokewith talked about being emotionally and physically abused by the brothelowners and patrolled by gangsters.

“I had to work all day, taking clients. When I wasn't working I was locked up so I wouldn't run away. Sometimes they would hurt us and give electric shocks. They also gave us drugs before we received clients so that we would be happier when the men came,” says Mara, a former sex worker. By the end of our trip, having interviewed a handful of women who had escaped their traffickers, this story would become too familiar, becoming, it seemed, the standard for most sex workers.

Corruption is widespread in Cambodia, with many officials earning littlepay. In order to supplement their incomes many accept bribes. The sexindustry and trafficking in women and children have profited from this,with many official institutions turning a blind eye to the problem for thesake of additional revenue. The head of the Ministry of Women's Affairs,Mu Sochua, recently stepped down, citing corruption as a major obstacle inher ability to work successfully in resolving key issues.

“You have to be brave enough to protect the victim. People might feel threatened, but when we see what has been done to the women, then we feel angry and we donâe(TM)t care much about the security, we have to confront those perpetrators.” This is our introduction to Chanthol Oung, director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre. A small, soft-spoken woman, Chanthol created CWCC at a time when there were no specific resources for women facing violence. The group operates in three provinces and has shelters that provide a place to live, food, literacy education, training, counselling, community training, reintegration and legal services. CWCC works closely with the government to create appropriate laws and also cooperates with local police.

The Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre is one of a kind in Cambodia. Chanthol says, “Most of the more well known NGOs in Cambodia are run by expatriates. There are very few prominent organizations run by local people.” In this regard, CWCC is groundbreaking, and works within a framework designed for Cambodia's specific needs. You can see in the faces and gestures of the CWCC staff that they respect and genuinely care for those with whom they work.

One day, after several months of being back in North America, I findmyself reading half a years worth of back issues of The Cambodian Daily, an English newspaper that comes out of Phnom Penh and reports currentevents. Cambodia, from so far away, strikes me as lawless — totallychaotic.

It would be easy to be sucked into seeing this beautiful country as a place where only poverty and violence exist, a Cambodia of “issues” that the media covers and theorists write about. Only now I'm able to remember my own experience. That side of Cambodia is real, but so too is all of the joy and resilience that comes along with life — love, creation and the spirit to overcome. I will forever remember a Cambodia of women surviving and succeeding.

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