Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sophea's Misplaced Trust

By Katie Chalk

Sophea is only fifteen. She's the newest arrival at Rapha House.

Each time she tells her story it's a little different, a little closer to the truth. It’s never easy for a victim of trafficking to admit how trusting they once were, how easily they had been tricked along the way.

When she met her trafficker at the age of fourteen, she had just returned from three years in Thailand, including a year away from her family working as domestic help for a rich family in Bangkok.

With all that traveling and working, she must have thought herself very grown up. “Sometimes I went to sing karaoke in my town,” she says. “One day a woman came to sing there too, and she talked to me. She wanted to know if I was looking for a job. She knew of one in Siem Reap that paid 3000 baht a month (nearly US$100)”
“My mother said it was up to me. So I decided to go.”

Did she like the woman who promised her such a good start in life? At this question she becomes confused, looks down at her hands with their brightly painted nails.
Finally she explains that she liked her very much. The woman was well-known to her. She was the mother of Sophea's boyfriend.

“Instead of taking me to Siem Reap, we went to a guest house in Udor Meanchey (near the Thai border),” says Sophea. “Then she told me that if we wanted to get to Siem Reap I would have to sleep with the driver as payment. He came into my room, forced me and told me he’d already paid 500 baht for it. Later that night there was another man.”

Next they traveled to Battambong, where they stayed three nights. There were more men, but no money in sight. “I wanted to run away,” says Sophea, “but I had nothing, and my family was too far away now.” Afraid of everything, she did as she was told.
As they headed towards the Thai border once more, Sophea spoke up for the first time about her treatment. Her trafficker reassured her and implied that she would soon organise a wedding between Sophea and her own son. Sophea was left in the hands of brothel owners and told to wait around a month.

"Life there was unbearable," says Sophea. "The men liked young girls and I was the youngest. I had all sorts of customers, Thai and Cambodian – I hated them all. Worst were the beatings if I said no. They gave me drugs and told me afterwards that I would need to pay for them out of my salary. I was never given any money at all for what I was doing, only more drugs."

Sophea woke up from her abusive haze when she realised she had been waiting a year for her boyfriend or his mother to come to her rescue. She managed to escape long enough to make a phone call to her grandmother who called the police.

Rapha House is the first place she’s felt safe in a long time. “I feel good here,” she says. “I feel secure, nobody hurts me. I can learn to read and write properly for the first time.”

The other girls, who have been through similar ordeals, have been friendly to her, and already she’s learning to trust the people around her. The staff say that she has a strong determination to leave her past life, including her drug addiction, well behind. This is helping her to settle in quickly, make friends and plan for her future.

“The first thing I will do when I leave here is look for my mother, my brothers and my sisters,” says Sophea. “I miss them. I want to learn hairdressing and beauty because I think I could earn money with that when I go home.”

Away from the situation, she can see more clearly how she was tricked and how many people must have known along the way, including the owners of the guesthouses where she was abused. She thinks it may not have been the first time her trafficker had taken this path with a young victim.

To other Cambodian girls she gives the advice “Do not fall into such a trick, believing people you don’t really know.”

But she refuses to release her last glimmer of trust. "My fiance can't have known about this, or he would have come to get me," she says sadly.
Katie Chalk is a reporter with World Vision Cambodia which financially assists RH.