Mao,* age 17, practices weaving as she begins a new life for herself at World Vision’s trauma recovery center for trafficked and sexually abused girls in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision)
Some people may be driven by a painful memory, a haunting fear, or an unconscious belief. There are hundreds of circumstances, values, and emotions that can drive lives.
Fifteen-year-old Mao* has been driven by a painful memory since she was young.
Unlike other children, Mao didn’t go to school for long. She dropped out in second grade because of her family’s poverty. Moreover, family debt pressured Mao into the sex trade in order for her to earn money to pay for what her family owed.
“My family is extremely poor,” Mao explains. “When I was younger, my family did not have shelter to live in…after this, my family moved and lived on other people’s land, but we needed to pay [U.S. $200] per year.
“My mother owed money to many microfinance institutions,” she continues. “Their staff came to ask for repayment. When we said that we did not have cash for repayment, they threatened to take down the zinc roof on our house.”
Mao elaborates on her experience of living in poverty. “I have six brothers and sisters. I am the fourth child of the family. My mother sells fruit such as bananas, mangoes, and flowers. Meanwhile, my father is an assistant chef. Both of them earn a small amount of money, and it is just enough for food and other expenses of the family members,” she says with sadness.
“Since I was small, we have never had our own house, nor land.”
After coming to the World Vision trauma recovery center, Mao* discovered that she was passionate about weaving. (Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision)
Mao continues with her story. “One day, I went to visit a friend and stayed overnight in her house. My friend’s mother asked women and girls staying in her house if anybody wanted to sell Pomme (a Cambodian reference to virginity).”
Hearing the offer, Mao was driven to consider it. Sadly, after thinking about her family and their financial state, she answered to her friend’s mother, “Yes, I will.”
At dawn the next day, two women waited for Mao in front of a pagoda on the outskirts of the capital city of Phnom Penh. The woman instructed Mao to mask her face so no one would recognize her.
Ashamed, she did as they told her. Together with the women, she traveled to Battambang, Cambodia, to a hotel, where her virginity was sold to a man for U.S. $200.
Mao immediately sent $150 to her mother to pay her debt, but did not let her know where the money had come from.
Mao blames herself for what happened. “I should not have been so naïve and ignorant to trade myself,” she says.
There are no official statistics on the number of people working as prostitutes in Cambodia — but according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 20,000 people work in the Cambodian sex industry.
For Mao, poverty pushed her to do it again. Just a few days later, she accepted another offer, still in pain and bleeding from the first incident. That time, the man did not touch her and left her with U.S. $30.
But knowing the ongoing financial difficulty of her family — and her parents’ inability to repay their debts — Mao continued to turn to the sex trade for money.
Mao’s final client happened to be a foreigner, a man who was being investigated and tracked by the Cambodian Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Minor Protection. This investigation led to Mao’s rescue from the perpetrator. Following her rescue, Mao went to World Vision’s trauma recovery center for physical and emotional care.
Mao has spent several months at the center, where she has received counseling and attended classes on health issues, life skills, and language study. While there, Mao has also learned that she loves to weave. She is now about to weave the traditional Cambodian krama garment and is able to earn money from the skill.
Like a girl driven by guilt, Mao spent much of her childhood running from regrets and hiding her shame. Guilt-driven people are often manipulated by memories — but Mao has decided that she won’t allow her past to control her future.
Thinking about two of her friends, who were also traded to a foreigner by their parents, Mao pleads to all parents: “Please do not trade your children.”
Mao’s hope is that her friends and other girls like her would not fall in to the trap of sexual exploitation because of poverty.
“I will share my difficult experience to friends who are living in poverty like me,” she says, “and I will convince them not to trade themselves, because if they fall into sexual slavery, they will be hurt and regretful for life.”
Now, Mao dreams of becoming a teacher. “I want to be a Khmer teacher, so I can read and teach other people to read,” she concludes.
*The girl’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Authored by Ratana Lay