When you first look at these women, or rather girls, you won't be able to find any tell tale sign that they have been sold, trafficked and forced into sexual slavery by either their families or traffickers. The only signs are the fact that they have been sheltered under the roof of a centre called Tom Dy in Phnom Penh, or being referred to as sex workers by the community.
Tom Dy Centre, founded by Somaly Mann, a Cambodian woman who was once a victim of forced prostitution (refer to my article Who says it is OK to have sex with children), provides more than just a shelter for rescued trafficked girls. It implements a comprehensive care programme where it protects and rehabilitates victims of forced prostitution with the aim of reintegrating them back into society with an opportunity for self-independence. Apart from that, it also advocates against human trafficking by working with governments, partner NGOs and communities to prevent such violations against human rights and dignity.
Today, I had a chance to visit the centre as part of my volunteering work with the Foundation for International Development/Relief (FIDR). Situated about 30 minutes on the outskirt of Phnom Penh, the centre looks like a quiet and peaceful retreat from the chaotic and noisy city. Upon entering, I was greeted by a lusciously landscaped garden, carefully tended by a gardener who is obviously very good with his scissors. He was busy shaping a tall bush into a reindeer.
We were ushered into a hall where interviews with the in house trainers and doctor by the Director of FIDR were to take place. While waiting for the trainers to arrive, I looked at the wall with displays of photos highlighting the training programmes (sewing and hairdressing) conducted at the centre. Then, I saw about ten pictures of girls with small captions underneath. All the captions say, "Deceased in 2001, 2002, etc." These women have all died of HIV/AIDS.
I couldn't help but stared at their young faces. Some were really pretty but mostly they looked sad and empty , as if something had been taken away from them, which was not far from the truth. Their dignity, youth, hope, dreams and life were stolen from them by those whom they had trusted.
I was given a tour around the centre and it was evident that the founder has put in a lot of thoughts and efforts to make the girls feel as far away as possible from their traumatic past. Everything looks as clean, neat and organized as the landscaped garden. It was also evident that Somaly Mann is a respected figure who has become a symbol of trafficked women's hope not just in Cambodia but all over the world. She had pictures taken with Hilary Clinton, the Queen of Spain and received funding from famous personalities such as Queen Latifah and Barbara Walters.
It was comforting to see the girls attending literacy, sewing, hairdressing and make up lessons. Apart from these, they also receive medical treatment, psychological counselling, art therapy and other recreational activities such as beading and aerobics.
About less than 100 meters away from the centre, there is an actual hair salon manned by some of the girls who provide services to the residents in the area. There was a trainer who was previously a resident of the centre giving guidance to some of the novices. She is one of the success stories of victims who have benefited from Tom Dy Centre's care.
I felt very frustrated not being able to talk to the girls; mainly due to language barrier. Besides that, we have been advised not to ask questions relating to their background for fear of invoking bad memories. When taking photos, we must take care not to take direct and close up pictures of the girls. Medical information such as HIV/AIDS are kept strictly confidential to prevent further stigmatization, even from NGOs such as FIDR. Such are the level of protection and care attached to Tom Dy Centre.
Most of the girls I saw were able to maintain a cheerful disposition but there was one particular girl who carries the scars of her violated dignity on her face. She is only 22 but I could see the lines around her tired and lifeless eyes. She is a mother of two children who are also being cared by the centre. Judging from the age of the children, she must had them when she was 16. In a way, I was glad that I could not hear their stories from them because I am not sure how I would be able to contain my anger towards the people who had subjected her to such cruel and inhumane treatment.
On our way back, I had a small chat with the Director of FIDR about our visit. I asked her whether the residents around the area feel any animosity or prejudice towards the girls? Some apparently do, but she suspects that it is mainly due to jealousy. Earlier today, when we stopped to ask a woman for the direction to the centre, instead of referring the centre with its name, she had answered, "Oh, you mean the place with all the sex workers?"
Unfortunately such stigma will be attached to these girls for a long time. What would further reduce their popularity is how these girls are being given quality treatment and support; free medical treatment, meals, training, comfortable accommodation and subsequently small sum of money to help them start small businesses, all these are much more than most other women have. So, it's no wonder that many tend to feel jealous.
Understanding such human nature, the centre takes caution not to keep a girl for too long for fear that they might get too complacent and comfortable which will then deter them from being self-independent. After all, this is precisely what these girls need in order to prevent them from falling victims to further trafficking.