I am a new intern with SISHA (Southeast Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities), an anti trafficking and exploitation organization located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. SISHA is focused on investigating cases of labor and sexual exploitation; raiding bars and brothels; rescuing women and children from horrible abuse; helping survivors access after-care services, and assisting in legal cases for those women who desire to bring charges in court against offenders.
Last weekend, four people from SISHA, including myself, hopped into a tuk tuk bound for an art show at an after-care shelter for girls under the age of 18 who have been exploited and abused in the commercial sex trade. Run by Transitions Global at an undisclosed location, this facility is a model for how after-care shelters should be run. Girls are provided with a safe place to stay, nutritious food, counseling, vocational training, and access to education. Due to the nature of the abuse these young girls have suffered and the amount of work and time necessary to work towards physical and emotional healing, there are never more than 15-20 girls at the shelter at any one time. Transitions Global is also unique in their approach in that they ask each girl what they want to do with their lives (rather than simply passing down a mandate that each girl must learn sewing or another set trade) and then they go about working to get them the necessary training possible to make that a reality. The organization even has a “dream book” filled with scores of job possibilities to make it easier for the girls to choose what they want to do. Further, even though this shelter is for girls under 18, they are not tossed out onto the street after their 18th birthday. Instead, they are given the option of moving to another shelter designed specifically for adult survivors of the sex trade.
After getting lost twice, we eventually pulled up to a building surrounded by a high wall secured with a large lock. Ushered inside by a smiling Khmer woman, we were quickly welcomed by several excited girls, all in their early to mid teens, eager to show us the art projects they were so proud of. Looking around the room, I was amazed at the amount of creativity that had been released in the lives of young girls who had experienced such violence and abuse. The room was filled with photographs; jewelry made of gorgeous cloth and large, painted beads; painted clay sculptures, some done with such detail, including an adorable little dog; and pencil sketches. One of my favorite projects was a pink dollhouse made out of construction paper. The roof came off and as I peeked inside, I was blown away by the detail of this home. There was furniture made out of little boxes, a bed with a sleeping girl inside, pictures on the walls of dolphins and tigers (cut out of magazines), and even a vase filled with construction paper folded into tiny pink and yellow flowers.
We also had the opportunity to meet several young girls who introduced themselves with a smile and slight bow. After showing us their projects, they each pointed with pride to a picture of themselves hanging on the wall. There were pictures of over 20 girls, each one clothed in glittering and brightly colored traditional dress, along with gorgeous hair, makeup, and jewelry. It was such a brilliant idea, to take these girls to a professional photographer and give them the opportunity to be the center of attention and feel absolutely gorgeous and special, a feeling sorely missing among children who have been sexually abused.
Despite all the abuse these girls had suffered, there is still so much life and creativity inside each one of them. All it takes is someone willing to take the time to coax it out. For this project, that person was Ben, a 20-year-old volunteer from San Francisco. In Phnom Penh for over two months, he worked with the girls on variety of projects – sketching, sculpture, puppets, etc. Then he asked each girl to think about the project they would like to work on, how long it would take, and then create a schedule for their project's completion. Even though his experience was challenging due to language and cultural barriers, the end result of this art therapy program was nothing short of phenomenal.
Finally, after eating delicious spring rolls, fried chicken, and the most decadent cake (all created by girls at the shelter training to be chefs), one of the young girls showed us a video that she created, her very own autobiography. Then, in a very moving display, she went around the room and gave a small gift to each person in attendance. My box was light pink with a dark pink bow (my favorite color) and inside was a gorgeous bracelet of flowers and stars which the young girl next to me gently tied to my wrist. In her native tongue, this precious little gift-giver explained that she wanted to give us something so that we would all remember her, and in that way, her future would be bright and secure.
Though I can't speak for anyone else in attendance, I for one know that I will never forget these vivacious and spirited young girls who are a testament to the fact that horrific sexual abuse does not have to destroy a life forever. With love, compassion, and the proper physical and psychological care, sexual abuse survivors can heal in time. But that is only if people like you and me continue to support projects and organizations working to eradicate exploitation and trafficking; put pressure on our lawmakers to change laws and provide the proper financial and political support; and be willing to face this crime head on, rather than burying our heads in the sand. If we all do our part, in time, the future of sexual abuse survivors in Cambodia and around the world may in fact be bright and secure.