Life after exploitation: More precious than gold

By Kari Costanza
Jan 1, 2006
©2004 Jon Warren/World Vision
Reunited with her family after two years in a brothel, Srey Mom looks out on a new life.

Nearly everyone in Phnom Penh is dashing to beat the downpour guaranteed by the hue of tonight’s sky — an angry navy blue. Men in baseball caps zoom down the street on motorbikes, their thin cotton shirts billowing out. A grim-faced mother breaks into a run, tugging at her little boy. His free hand clutches a green balloon that seems to dance along behind them.

But some are quite still on this threatening night — women wearing conspicuous makeup, standing along the busy avenue or sitting in backlit doorways.

They have one thing in common: They’re waiting.

Srey Mom used to wait. “I sat in front of the brothel, watching people ride their motorbikes back and forth, watching what they were doing and wondering where they were going,” says the 17-year-old. “I always hoped to have that life.”

When she was 14, Srey Mom was tricked and sold into a brothel in Koh Kong on the Gulf of Thailand. Today she has a new life and new hope through World Vision Cambodia’s trauma recovery program.

Srey Mom grew up in a family that had been victimized, like so many others, by the Pol Pot regime. “Because of the Khmer Rouge,” says her mother, Saron, 53, “I lost everything.” In the early 1970s, the family owned a bakery in Phnom Penh. They lived in a house. Then, like millions in the capital city, they were forced to evacuate in April 1975, and enter a rural labor camp.

“My family was starving,” says Saron, who kept her family alive by stealing corn from the fields where she worked. “I would stick [the ears] into my watering can.” She stole rice that she would wet, wrap in a scarf, and then bury, lighting a fire on top of the dirt to cook the rice below.

Srey Mom was born after the genocide, the youngest of seven children. When she was 10, her father died of malaria. “There was no medicine after the Khmer Rouge,” says Saron. She remarried and left her only daughter with her grandmother in the country. “Her grandmother is old. I wanted Srey Mom to take care of her,” she says. 

Srey Mom deceived 

One day a neighbor came to visit Srey Mom and her grandmother. “He told me he knew where my mother was in Phnom Penh,” she says. But he didn’t take Srey Mom to see her mother. Instead, he abandoned her in the city.

With no way to get home, Srey Mom became a street child, selling fruit. One customer kept coming to buy from her. “I told her my story,” says Srey Mom. “She said she could help me find a job [in the] Koh Kong province.”

It sounded perfect to Srey Mom — a job peeling shrimp in the coastal city. The woman promised her a place to stay and clothes to wear. The two took a bus to Koh Kong. A couple met them, paid their fare, and took them “home.”

“I was surprised to see that there were so many girls in the house,” remembers Srey Mom. “The lady told me they stayed there while they worked with the seafood.” The woman who had brought her said she was going into town to buy Srey Mom some clothes. She never came back.

Srey Mom’s long nightmare began.

The couple told her to put on makeup and sit in front of the house. “I asked why I had to look nice to work with seafood,” she says. They told Srey Mom she belonged to them now. Srey Mom stood firm.

She would not be a prostitute. “When I refused, the brothel owner beat me with electrical wire until I was unconscious. When I woke up, he beat me again,” she says. She was forced to have sex with many men a day.

“The clients were Cambodian, Thai, and foreigners. I don’t know where the foreigners were from. I just know they were white people. And tall,” she says.

Srey Mom is not alone

“Cambodia is a country that has been devastated and destroyed by genocide,” says Mu Sochua, 50, Cambodia’s former minister of women’s and veteran’s affairs. “Poverty is increasing,” she says. “More than 40 percent of our people live below the poverty line, making less than 50 cents a day. In real numbers, about 3 million people — the majority of them children — go to bed hungry every night.”

Poverty poses a greater challenge to women than men. Women shoulder the heavy cultural burden of having to “pay back the breast milk” — the debt for bringing children into the world. And a woman’s value is conditional. “A man is like gold, a woman like cloth,” goes the Cambodian saying. “When gold falls into mud, it remains gold,” says Mu Sochua, “but when a piece of cloth is stained, it is stained forever.”

Through her work with the government and as a women’s advocate, Mu Sochua is campaigning for better treatment of women and girls. “Women are precious gems, and every member of society must protect these precious gems,” she says.

Children are precious gems as well, but as many as 2 million are currently enslaved in the worldwide multibillion-dollar commercial sex trade. Most are girls. Some are trafficked within their countries; some across borders. World Vision works with child victims helping rehabilitate them as well as keeping them from becoming victims in the first place.

In Cambodia, World Vision uses a multifaceted approach to assail the sex trade on every front. In airports and on flights from the United States to Asia, travelers watch a video created by World Vision warning that sex tourists will face 30 years in prison in the United States for having sex with a minor. The same video airs on CNN in hotel rooms throughout Cambodia. On Phnom Penh billboards and in tourist magazines paid for by World Vision and the U.S. Department of State, the message is the same: Sex tourists will be prosecuted.

World Vision supports Cambodia’s anti-trafficking efforts, teaming up with Christian Guth, 58, a law enforcement expert who works with Cambodian police to teach them to protect children and women from the dangers of prostitution. “Prior to 1999, police would not have considered rescuing a girl,” says Christian. “They didn’t consider the offenses important.” That’s starting to change.

Very few sex offenders had been arrested before Christian’s training program started in 1999. “By 2003, 392 sex offenders had been arrested and 676 victims rescued from prostitution,” he says. Now policemen can be fired for looking the other way.

Christian is enthusiastic about World Vision’s comprehensive approach. “If you don’t link closely with law enforcement and social work,” he says, “you miss the mission.”

The mission starts on the front lines. Around Cambodia, World Vision runs 51 children’s clubs, 5,300 members strong. “We learn that strangers come to villages and tell us they can find us work in the factory, but then they would sell us,” says club member Seila Chhoun, 15. “If it happens to me, I’ll go to my parents and tell them.”

World Vision also operates the Neavear Thmey Trauma Recovery Center for girls (see sidebar on page 35). Workers from this center came to Srey Mom’s aid after her daring escape.

Srey Mom escapes

In Koh Kong, Srey Mom began to experience pain beyond the psychological horrors of prostitution: genital pain and trouble with her ovaries and uterus. She was taken to the hospital for treatment. “I knew if I went back [to the brothel], I would not survive,” she says.

“I asked the doctor, ‘Where is the restroom?’ Then I ran outside to a crowded place and hid myself in a rubbish bin,” she says. “People put trash on me and threw hot water on me, saying I was a thief.”

Srey Mom persisted, quickly telling the bin owner her story. The woman’s heart softened. “She put a cover on the rubbish bin so I could hide,” says Srey Mom. And just in time. As Srey Mom expected, the brothel owner came hunting for her. The girl crouched in the dark, covered in filth. “I heard everything as the brothel owner talked to the lady. She checked every house — everything except for the bin I was in.”

Srey Mom had escaped the brothel, where she had lost her childhood and her dignity. Now her future was in question. A blood test confirmed she was HIV-positive.

A temporary reunion with her mother failed when Srey Mom’s physical condition proved more than Saron could handle. Srey Mom, HIV-positive and now sick with tuberculosis, was frightening customers away from Saron’s small business of selling soup to factory workers. Saron asked her daughter to leave. Srey Mom went to the only place that would accept her — the hospital.

It was in her hospital room that Srey Mom met her lifeline: Rany Khoy, 49, a social worker from Neavear Thmey, World Vision’s Trauma Recovery Center in Phnom Penh.

“I thought she would die the first time I saw her,” says Rany. “She was so skinny and sick and too tired even to speak.” Rany brought Srey Mom nutritious food and sat at her bedside. “I prayed that the Lord would take care of her,” she says. Rany bought her a tape player so she could listen to music. She began to take her outside for picnics and encouraged Srey Mom to set goals, writing them down in a letter.

“Srey Mom and her whole family had to have counseling,” says Sophana Um, a World Vision counselor. “Her mother was afraid to touch her.” World Vision counselors would hug Srey Mom and eat with her. They would sit close to her, showing Srey Mom’s mother not to fear.

When Srey Mom came home from the hospital, Saron wrapped her arms around her daughter. “It felt good to be in my mother’s arms again,” says Srey Mom.

Srey Mom’s letter was answered a few months later when staff from the recovery center made their weekly visit to bring Srey Mom her medicine. This time they also brought a surprise: a new bicycle and a sugar-cane crusher Srey Mom had asked for to start a juicemaking business.

“I feel like the people I used to watch from the porch of the brothel,” she says as neighbors crowd near, celebrating her good fortune. “This is the life that I had hoped for. I feel like I am born again.”

Taking her new bicycle for a first spin with a broad smile on her face, Srey Mom is a different person from the girl who lived through hell in a brothel. “When I fell in the mud, I never thought I could get out. Now I’m out. The world is big, and I have hope.”

The wait is over. The life Srey Mom wanted has begun.

Recovering from trauma

“When [girls] first come to the center they have no hope. They want to commit suicide,” says Sovandara Somchan,43, who manages World Vision’s Neavear Thmey Recovery Trauma Center in Phnom Penh.Neavear Thmey — in Cambodian,“new ship” — is a refuge for the girls and a place to find healing.

Fifty-seven girls live in the center, its new location kept secret from the brothel owners who try to steal them back. At the old location Sovandara faced down brothel owners who brought corrupt police armed with brass knuckles and guns, trying to force him to give up certain girls.

“Some girls have nightmares.They scream in their sleep,” says Sovandara. Nighttime is brutal. Girls tried to commit suicide by cutting their wrists on a glass door before it was replaced by unbreakable plastic. One girl tried to jump from the roof. She was rescued by a staff person.

“All the girls come with sexually transmitted diseases,” says Sovandara.The house parents take them to a clinic for treatment. One out of five is HIV-positive.“We pay for funerals,” he says sadly.

At the center, the girls receive medical care, counseling, shelter, good food, and training. They learn skills they will need when they leave — tailoring, cooking, and even raising livestock.

Social workers counsel the girls’ families to ensure their safety when they return home. If rape or sex trafficking is still a danger, the girl can choose to live with a foster family. In rape cases,when charges are pressed, social workers accompany the girls to court.

Staff watch for signs that girls are ready to go home.“They’ve stopped having nightmares,” says Sovandara.“They laugh more.They have more confidence.” Most of the girls are able to integrate back into society, but Sovandara says that one out of 10 girls runs away from home — perhaps back to the brothel, he says. Staff work hard to help girls realize their worth, but it doesn’t always take. Some girls never quite believe they are precious gems.

But for most, there is healing.“When these girls leave the center, they know they are valued,” says Sovandara.

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