It is difficult to come away from Cambodia without being struck by a sense of the overwhelming need and opportunity within this nation. While recently in Phnom Penh, I had the opportunity to meet with various NGOs and service providing agencies which address violence against women in its many forms, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and perhaps the most prevalent form of violence in Cambodia, human trafficking.
During visits to the Somaly Mam Foundation and Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP), both of which are guided by internationally recognized trafficking activist and Vital Voices Global Leadership Award honoree Somaly Mam, I witnessed the great work being done to provide support, shelter and vocational training to women and girls who have escaped the brothels that once held them captive. In a sewing workshop, an initiative of AFESIP, the women are earning wages and long-term economic stability, producing clothing and accessories to be exported to European markets.
Innovative employment programs, unique to Cambodia, surrounded me in Phnom Penh. In one area, artisan marketplaces and stores were managed by disadvantaged Cambodian citizens. In another area, restaurants are run by street children who earn money and are provided an education that they would otherwise not receive.
The most striking and deeply resonating experience of my visit to Cambodia occurred when I accompanied three HIV/AIDS case workers from the Somaly Mam Foundation to the red-light district of the capital city. Through weaving paths, where no car can travel, we made our way to a collection of tin-roofed shacks where groups of women were preparing for the night ahead. Due to a variety of circumstances, these women are forced to work in the brothels. As they curiously asked me questions about my life, my family and my age, I tried to learn about them and their stories. All of the women and young girls, whose ages I estimate ranged from mid-teens to mid-thirties, even though they wouldn’t tell me directly, had come to Phnom Penh from the rural countryside provinces of Cambodia, searching for the opportunity to provide for their families. As the caseworkers distributed condoms and advice on staying safe, they also let the women know that the doors of the shelter were open to them if and when they felt they could escape this life.
Watching the women dutifully preparing themselves with make-up in order to attract customers and observing the 8 year-old daughter of one of the women cling to her mother was easily the most tragic sight I (the mother of a 6 year-old girl and an 8 year-old boy) witnessed during this trip.
Thanks to the tremendous work of the organizations that I met with, including AFESIP, International Justice Mission, Hagar Cambodia, the Healthcare Center for Children and the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, trafficked and exploited women and girls are being helped everyday in Cambodia, yet many more remain trapped in cycles of violence and poverty. From concrete needs such as soap and toothpaste, to more complex needs for legislative and political reform, there is great work and possibility in the country. My visit to Cambodia proved to me that the Cambodian people, though faced with the challenges of human trafficking and the still recent memory of the Khmer Rouge regime, are resilient and in need of adequate support to address violence against women and sexual exploitation.