Walk around Phnom Penh’s prominent streets at night and you will easily see a thriving business that is not just illegal but inhumane – the sex trade in the hospitality industry. But Daughters of Cambodia, a Christian organisation founded by a British academic researcher, tries to give refuge to the women trapped in the industry, giving them chances to start a new life. Agnes Alpuerto tells the story of Daughters of Cambodia.
There’s a reason why Cambodia is tagged as the “Kingdom of Wonder”. From the storied structure of the Angkor Wat, the majestic view of the trans-boundary Mekong river, the grand Independence Monument to several other temples and scenic spots, the country surely is a tourism magnet.
But along with the surge of tourists from all over the world comes another thriving industry that does not even try to mask its crookedness: sex trafficking. And no, this isn’t something so shocking and disturbing anymore. If you walk along the river promenade and go into the narrow streets, you’d easily spot neon signages that represent the illegal business.
While it’s hard to find solid and specific statistics of the past and current status of sex and human trafficking in the Kingdom, the pieces of evidence pointing to its apparent progress are laid out openly and unashamedly.
In fact, the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department reveals that though the government has demonstrated increasing efforts by prosecuting and convicting more traffickers and strengthening awareness on child sexual exploitation in the hospitality industry, the country still did not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
But statistics and reports represent nothing, really. They are mere numbers and words used to rank the Kingdom against other nations. They don’t tell actual stories. They don’t speak of real suffering.
But the white wall of the Sugar & Spice Café at the second floor of the Daughters of Cambodia Visitor Centre surely does bear true and painful narratives.
“In my life as a sex-worker, I had little choice about who I had to have sex with because they were wealthy or threatened me. I was filled with pain in my heart. It was so hard to bear. Customers often made derogatory comments to me; they did not care if I was crying and if I asked them to stop they would not. There was nobody willing to help me and I cried alone every night with no one to care about me,” reads a part of the graffiti.
It’s a story of one sex worker. But it’s a story of her past.
“Since I came to work at Daughters of Cambodia, I am living a different life, like I am a different person. I feel so much better in my life. At Daughters, I find comfort and strength. I feel loved,” continues the writing on the white wall.
The Daughters of Cambodia, situated just a few hundred meters away from some of the red light districts of Phnom Penh’s riverside, has been a home of hope for many women – all of them are former sex workers.
The Christian organisation was built in 2007 by British academic researcher Ruth Elliott, with the primary goal to welcome Khmer sex workers who want to leave the dark industry they’re in and help them through the process of gaining their self-worth and earning through a decent job.
“We help girls who are in the sex industry to be able to leave their old jobs. They leave voluntarily. We don’t force them out. We instead invite them and tell them we can help. And they all want to leave the sex industry so we facilitate what they need,” shared Ruth, whose voice cracks as she talks about the women of her organisation.
Daughters of Cambodia doesn’t have a shelter for the rescued sex workers. The women are given the choice to either go back to their communities and live with their families or go to other facilities that offer a safer and more conducive environment for them. If they opt to integrate themselves again into their own communities, Daughters of Cambodia will provide them with jobs, medical treatments, counseling and other possible services they need.
“We give them jobs. That’s why we run different businesses. And we give them programmes to teach them how to live their lives free from exploitation. We have various educational programmes and life skill programmes, and counseling services because they all need counseling. They have been through a lot of trauma.”
The organisation runs the Sugar & Spice Café, a souvenir shop and a spa. All the income generated from these enterprises go to the organisation, to Daughters of Cambodia.
Most of the women work in the organisation’s production facility, located in another district in Phnom Penh. There, they are taught how to sew, make jewellery, screen-print, design, manage the warehouse, manage the production processes and other skills involved in running a production business. There’s also a free day care centre for children below 5 years old so the women can work with ease knowing that their children are taken care of.
At the souvenir shop on the ground floor of the Visitor Centre, different kinds of usually blue and white products are up for sale. There are hand bags, wallets, dolls, Christmas decorations, scarves, accessories, etc. – all in superb quality. Dozens of statement shirts are also displayed, all bearing words of hope and empowerment made by the rescued women themselves.
The café and spa, meanwhile, are on the first floor of the centre. With walls painted in blue and white, the area feels homey and calming, an emblem of what the centre is all about for the women of the organisation.
They serve coffee, frappes and fruit smoothies along with a variety of light meals. The spa, meanwhile, offers massage and nail colours.
Though the women working at the Daughters of Cambodia have dark pasts, the centre represents how much their lives have changed since voluntarily walking away from the red light districts, brothels, and KTVs they used to work for years.
Since it was built more than a decade ago, Daughters of Cambodia has already took in 750 women.
“They come for an interview. We don’t know them, but our existing girls do. So when they come for the interview, we basically check if they’re actually sex workers. And if they are, we usually accept them into our programme. They’re usually not in a very stable condition when they come here. Once they’ve stabilised, they begin to learn some skills and we can look for other jobs in Daughters they might be interested in. We have quite a large number of jobs available so we assess and we talk with them on what they want to do as well. We might move them to different jobs that they want,” said Ruth.
Since Daughters of Cambodia do not have a housing facility and only offers counselling and jobs, the organisation closely coordinates with the government and other NGOs in providing the women specific assistance.
“In Cambodia, the government is giving free medication for people with HIV. What we do is that we help the girls get the right kind of medication for them.”
The organisation accepts girl above 18 for full-time trainings and jobs, while those younger may be offered part-time employment or be referred to other organisations that cater to younger victims of the sex industry.
But while the past 11 years have been successful and fruitful for the organisation, Ruth acknowledges the hardships of hearing the stories of the women she rescues and how some of them go back to their old jobs despite the organisation’s help.
“I talk with the girls every day. I know each one of them and I love them. I’ve listened to their stories, to their traumas and they’re all very painful. So we give them as much help as we can. However, there really are cases when the girls are forced to go back to what they’re used to do. More often than not, it’s because of debt. But if they want to come back to us, they are always welcome. We won’t judge them.”
“The biggest motivation for them to stay in this new life is that they feel they have value. And it’s huge because in their old lives, they didn’t have value, they felt that they were not valued by others. In their new life, they probably earn less money, but here, they feel valued, loved and accepted. And they can learn about who they are without being stigmatised. They learn about their capabilities and the things they’re good at. They learn how to make good choices for their lives. They thrive, and they love it.”