There is a traditional Khmer saying, “If Heaven could cry, then Cambodia would never know drought.” Today, I heard Heaven’s cry.
This afternoon, I sat at a meeting with AFESIP, discussing our next action plan for a market research we have been doing for the past few weeks. We have prepared two separate sets of questionnaires to be answered by rescued victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution sheltered by AFESIP, and vocational training centres run by government and non-governmental organizations for disadvantaged women. The purpose of these questionnaires is to consult the women’s views on what sort of training skills would interest them as well as to understand the reality of the job markets in Cambodia.
We took a field trip to Kandal and Kampong Cham provinces last week to visit a girl, formerly a resident of Tom Dy Center, who is now running her own hair salon in Khsach Kandal district and the Women Development Center (WDC) run by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kampong Cham. We soon realised that our interview with the manager of WDC ran on for more than one and half hours. We figured that we need to be more efficient with our questionnaire as we are going to interview more than two hundred respondents in the next three weeks.
At the meeting, we discussed about the number of residents in each shelter in order to ascertain the number of days needed to carry out the interview. AFESIP runs three such shelters in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap. We are unable to ask the residents to fill in the questionnaire since many are illiterate and instead have to rely on staffs and volunteers to carry out face-to-face interviews. When we asked AFESIP how many residents are taking training courses in their centre in Kampong Cham, they told us 12 although there are 35 residents in total. We then wondered what the other 23 women do at the centre.
Reluctantly, one of AFESIP’s staffs told us that the rest are three to five year-old girls. I was unable to disguise my shock and bewilderment, much to the discomfort of my Cambodian colleague who was sitting next to me. He whispered shamefully into my ears that this is Cambodia and it is common to have girls that age to be sexually exploited. In a way, I wished that I hadn’t display such shock and remorse so openly because many Cambodians I met often feel shameful towards the atrocities committed in their country. It feels almost as if the whole country is so overwhelmed by countless account of tragedies from poverty to human rights abuses that they believe these tragedies only happen here.
When I looked down at the questionnaire in front of me, all those questions asking the women whether they would like to run their own businesses, or whether they prefer to learn silk weaving, etc. seemed so obscene. These questions are not meant for a 3 year-old because she is not meant to be in the shelter to begin with.
I know for a fact that child sexual exploitation is not uncommon here. I read it on the paper almost every other day about which sex offenders have been prosecuted and I see campaign posters on the back of tuk-tuks around the city. But not until I hear it with my own ears, do I begin to hear the cry of Heaven so loudly and heart wrenchingly.