(WOMENSENEWS)–Stopping to record sounds for a documentary on trafficking, we were greeted by stares from villagers unaccustomed to strange equipment. Traveling through the back streets of Phnom Penh we were met by giggles from school children on their way home, men pulling carts with building supplies and young women with children on their backs.
I guess we made a funny scene, three white women carrying a mass of recording equipment through areas of Cambodia both rural and urban.
Today I am in South Africa, adjusting to a new life and a new job with a social justice network. But my experience of making a radio documentary with a Sebastopol, Calif., media group, Outer Voices, about sex trafficking in Cambodia remains with me always.
I think often of the resilient girls and women I met almost a year ago January. I wonder where they are, and how they are doing. But I also wonder about the women I didn’t meet: those still at risk of being trafficked and those already imprisoned into lives of prostitution.
One of the women who most stays in my mind is Thyda, a pseudonym chosen to protect her identity. She looked like any other young girl, only she had lived through trauma most of us could never imagine.
Sold Into Prostitution at 11
At the age of 11, 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 eventually brought to the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in Phnom Penh, where we met her.
"I never knew about my family; my father, my mother’s name or my sister’s name," said Thyda, who is now 13. "All I ever heard was people telling me that this woman was really my mother. So I don’t know."
Thyda wonders if the woman who sold her into prostitution really was her mother; she doesn’t believe that a mother could sell her own daughter. She remains baffled and unable to trust anyone.
"Who is my mother?" she asked.
Being There Was Different
As an intern in charge of researching sex trafficking for this Outer Voices documentary, I had read so much about the topic. I talked to professors and aid workers, watched documentaries. But then I was finally there. And nothing before or since has ever been like it.
After meeting with young women such as Thyda I found my perceptions getting warped. I wondered if everything that surrounded me was complicit in this nether world of people who trap, purchase, molest, abuse and profit off women who are robbed of all identity and dignity, treated like pure commodity.
Every man I saw was a potential client. Every girl or woman I saw was a prospective victim of trafficking and prostitution. While such a view of Cambodia could be understood as distorted, in many ways it wasn’t. So many girls and women in Cambodia are susceptible to this danger, and so many men complicit. There are at least 60,000 sex workers in Cambodia according to estimates, but this number is probably conservative.
Along with producer Stephanie Guyer-Stevens and sound engineer Robin Wise, I made up the team in Cambodia.
Our documentary, which will air on public radio stations across North America and be available on the Outer Voices Web site in January, aims to examine the work that women are doing to create lasting and nonviolent social change in their own communities.
Weeks of Travel
To make the documentary we traveled for several weeks, visiting Phnom Penh, the largest city in Cambodia, as well as small villages and the tourist Mecca of Siem Reap. We visited areas where white people such as ourselves drew intense curiosity, while other areas were used to foreigners and were adept at practicing their English and trying to sell us snacks and crafts.
Almost everywhere, we were received with stares, points and laughs. I could only begin to imagine what was being said. Babies burst into tears at the sight of us and shy teen girls covered their mouths to giggle.
But this self-consciousness dissipated when we began our real work: meeting the girls and women who escaped trafficking and have begun rebuilding their lives.
Our first days in Cambodia were spent in the offices of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, where its director, Chanthol Oung, graciously allowed us into her organization. She said she recognized that change does not happen without awareness and that our documentary would potentially aid her efforts to end such terrible practices.
We visited the center’s shelters in three Cambodian provinces and met numerous girls and women who had escaped their traffickers.
Comparing my life as a student to the experiences of these women was nearly impossible. Yet I was struck by and remember most keenly their ability to keep on living life, laughing, loving and celebrating despite the pain, anger and confusion. It made me feel a certain sense of responsibility, to keep working for them, to not forget.
Karoline Kemp is an activist and feminist. She currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and is completing an internship with Fahamu, a social justice network, where she works on Pambazuka News.
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Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center: