Asia-Pacific

Sex-trafficking survivor: 'I like making other people beautiful'

'P' says working in a hair salon is her dream job. (Photo: Christie Cooper)

When teenage girl P* was offered a job making coffee in Cambodia’s capital city, she jumped at the chance to escape her poverty-stricken home life. But the job turned out to be forced prostitution and the pay about $2 an hour.

When P* speaks, her voice is barely a whisper.

She stares into her lap as she mouths each word and her feet shift from side to side under the table.

The 20-year-old Cambodian woman, who does not want to be identified, was just 17 when a man came to her village and offered her a job making coffee in the capital.

Caring for her ageing parents in a poor provincial area, she saw the job as a lifeline.

But when she arrived in Phnom Penh there was no coffee job. Instead she was forced into sex work in a brothel, servicing up to 10 men a day for about $2 an hour.

She was forced to pay for her own food, clothes and accommodation, and any money she had left over she would send home.

Three years after being rescued by police, she is now working as a hairdresser and is living with friends. With the help of an interpreter she says that working at the salon has given her the chance to do what she loves after a traumatic start to adulthood.

"I like makeup and hair," she says quietly. "And making people beautiful."

Trafficked

P is one of many Cambodians to fall victim to human trafficking, a crime also common in neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Human trafficking - often confused with people smuggling - is when a person is kept in an exploitative situation such as child labour, sexual work or domestic servitude under the threat of force of some other form of coercion. Traffickers often tell their victims that they owe a debt, or make threats against their family, to keep them working.

John Whan Yoon, Regional Program Manager of World Vision East Asia's End Trafficking in Persons (ETIP) Program, says there is a common misconception that trafficking affects only women and children but men too can be victims.

The 2014 United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons showed that in Southeast Asia and the Pacific 23 per cent of trafficking victims between 2010 and 2012 were men. In Europe and central Asia, men made up 69 per cent of trafficking victims.

Despite this, some early anti-trafficking laws included only women and children, and men were excluded from the definition of trafficking itself. 

Mr Yoon says another common misconception is that most trafficking cases involve sex work.

The UN report shows that in Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2012, sexual exploitation made up 26 per cent of trafficking cases, and cases of forced labour 64 per cent.

Crossing the border

Many poor people in Cambodia cross the border to Thailand in search of work, making them vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Mother-of-eight Mao Yeut (pictured below) tells me her 16-year-old daughter left for Thailand a month ago to make money for the family. Her 27-year-old daughter is also there.

Speaking through an interpreter, she says the family had few options.

"It’s not a good thing but because I'm poor I have to send my daughters to go and find work over there."

She says she's never been to Thailand herself but has heard stories about the dangers. One person who travelled there from the family's village apparently died after falling off a building at a construction site.

Rescue

On September 21 2012, two months after P began working as a prostitute, anti-trafficking police raided the brothel and rescued her. She was put into a rehabilitation centre for victims of trauma and stayed there for 18 months. 

While at the centre, she worried about her parents and considered running away. She is the youngest of four children and her family lives on a floating house in the Kampong Chhnang Province.

However, as time wore on she made friends with other trafficking survivors and began to rebuild her confidence.

Today she works full weeks, starting at 7am and finishing between 7 and 8pm for a wage of $US120 per month. She says she hopes to open her own salon one day. 

"This is my dream," she says. 

"I'm happy to make other people beautiful."

*Name has been changed

Sylvia Varnham O’Regan was in Cambodia on a journalism fellowship with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

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