In the red light districts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the perils of the sex trade abound, and there are few chances for economic advancement. Cambodia’s chaotic history has turned it into a notorious destination for sex tourism, and Phnom Penh is the epicenter of it all. Here, karaoke bars and restaurants serve as fronts for brothels where the employees serve tourists mostly from the United States and Europe.
In this once desperate area of Phnom Penh, young women are studying and working with the inspiration of a new hope. Tieng Sophy is 20 years old and currently enrolled in Lotus Outreach’s Non-Formal Education (NFE) program. She is learning the technical skills to be able to work in tailoring and escape the degrading work of Cambodia’s red light district.
Sophy was born in the Tuol Kpuos Village of the southeastern Svay Rieng Province. Tragically, by the time she was 10 years old, both her mother and father had passed away. Following her mother’s death, Sophy lived with her 6th sister and advanced only to the 5th grade.
She acquired some experience in sewing and came to Phnom Penh in 2009 to work in a garment factory. Dire circumstances faced by so many women her age led her to start working at a karaoke bar in the Sen Sok District. Fortunately, she discovered another karaoke bar where Lotus Outreach’s NFE class was running and found a new chance to pursue her dreams!
Sophie joined the NFE class in January, 2013 and is currently bolstering her sewing skills through a special skills training. She was selected for the training because of her hard work as a student and her previous experience with tailoring. Sophy is very happy with this new opportunity and dreams of returning to her home town to run a sewing shop and grocery.
Nearly 700 persons have been enrolled in Lotus Outreach’s NFE classes, and less than 4% of graduates return to work in the sex trade. Many move on to further their skills in cosmetology and tailoring and acquire much-sought-after positions in garment factories and beauty salons.
Non-Formal Education not only gives young women a chance to move out of exploitative karaoke bars but also creates develops the economy and creates job opportunities for other people. Students of the NFE program have gone on to start their own businesses which employ other Cambodian women and men. One such graduate started a business which now employs over 100 people!
Education is the cornerstone of any economy, and it’s the center of Lotus Outreach’s development strategy. Women who are educated and economically empowered are more likely to invest their money in their children’s health and education. The long-term impacts of educating women reverberate throughout the community and through future generations.
Born just five years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 29 year-old Channa was part of an entire generation of children that grew up under an education system in crisis. The Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) completely decimated the educated class; 90% of Cambodia’s teachers were systematically murdered and the public school system was disbanded entirely. In the wake of genocide, social upheaval, and political chaos, Cambodia’s school system had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Despite this, Channa was one of the fortunate ones who managed to attend school through 6th grade in her home province of Kandal. In her early twenties, Channa’s fortune turned and she was widowed with an infant son. With a child and three younger siblings to support, she migrated to Phnom Penh in search of work in the capital’s many garment factories.
Though Channa was able to earn $100 a month in a garment factory, it required extensive hours and still wasn’t enough to support five people. Soon, Channa and her younger sister followed the path of many other uneducated and desperate women in Cambodia; they turned to the red light districts.
Channa was given a second chance at continuing her education in 2012, when she was identified by our Non-Formal Education (NFE) and Life Skills program as a prospective student. Channa excelled in her course, and maintained an attendance rate of 80% the entire year. Because of this, she was selected among approximately 100 other NFE students to participate in a new cosmetology apprenticeship program introduced last year.
The program trainer, Vida, describes the structure of the apprenticeship: “It will usually take around a year to finish the program, but there is no time limit. Training can continue until skills are sufficiently developed, so the trainees can work around their schedules. There is also an employment guarantee to work in my salon after finishing the course, either on salary or a salary/commission basis.”
Channa is excited and optimistic about the future. “I plan to continue working here once I finish the course until I earn enough to go back to my village and set up my own shop,” she shares. “After finishing I will be earning $150 per month plus what I can earn from outside work.”
Twenty year-old Chenda likewise didn’t get very far in school. She dropped out in the 5th grade to migrate to Phnom Penh for karaoke bar work. A struggling but motivated single parent, Chenda was selected for both her vulnerability and demonstrated commitment to starting a cosmetology business.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to have been selected,” she tells us. “I really didn’t think a girl like me with a 5th grade education would have a chance to escape the lifestyle and work I was doing.”
Chenda’s mother lives with her in a tiny 5x4 meter rented room with paper-thin walls, one of many rented out by karaoke workers in that building. We visited her in 2010 and even then her tiny room was crowded with hairdressing equipment hanging on every wall, sure signs she was eager to establish an income that would free her from karaoke work.
Chenda enthusiastically shared her roadmap for the future: “I plan to stay and work in the salon for a year after the course and learn wedding makeup and hair which is very lucrative and in high demand. I’m also dying to learn haircutting. I can’t wait to start it!”
Given their drive and aptitude, we have every reason to believe that Channa and Chenda will be successful in their future endeavors.
We are always so stunned to see the extent to which an investment of just $270 can turn the world of one woman – and her family – around completely. The goal of the Non-Formal Education program is not only to empower members of the “lost generation” in Cambodia who missed out public schooling, but break the cycle of destitution for their children and all future generations as well.
In the early 2000s, Dateline NBC went undercover and exposed the village of Svay Pak (on the outskirts of Phnom Penh) as a hub for child sex trafficking, sparking a national and global movement to end trafficking of women and children in Cambodia. At the time, Svay Pak was a known stomping ground for international sex predators, where girls as young as five years old were sold to the highest bidder. After these girls were purchased and brutally raped, their vaginas were often sewn up and they were sold as virgins for a second, third or fourth time.While many of the brothels housing children have been since shut down, Svay Pak remains a notorious red light district with karaoke bars and massage parlors operating as fronts for bonded and freelance sex workers. Since 2005, Lotus Outreach has been working with these extremely marginalized women and girls to provide access to non-formal education (NFE), life skills, and vocational training. Since its inception, our NFE program has witnessed over 100 girls graduate and set up their own sewing and tailoring businesses, leaving the lethal pitfalls of the Cambodian sex industry behind them.Building upon the success of our sewing workshops, Lotus Outreach recently hired 42 year-old Hee Sokeang to bring a higher level of skills training to the girls participating in the program. A professional tailor and teacher since 1994, Hee tells us, “In the past two months I’ve taught the girls usable skills, but the course should run six months so I can teach more advanced cutting and design concepts which are the ultimate in tailoring skills and easily convertible to good business anywhere.” We’re planning to continue employing Hee as long as possible to ensure the girls are equipped to produce quality shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts and even wedding and formal attire—all necessary skills if they hope to start their own tailoring businesses. There were 10 trainees at the beginning of the course and two have already left for work in nearby garment factories. Hee is available in our workshop from 8am to 5pm every day, and the girls flow in and out of the class throughout the day according to their availability.Srey Po, 27, is a 2010 NFE graduate from Srey Sros Karaoke, and recently returned to the program to enhance her tailoring skills. Srey tells us, “I have an 11 year-old daughter to support and feel really happy about the course. I learned basic sewing skills from the program earlier and find this extra training will be useful and it also helps me get up early after working late nights so I can do something constructive with my time.” When asked about her plans for the future Srey Po tells us, “I’ve now saved enough money to buy a plot of land in the countryside and will go back and set up a tailoring shop. The NFE program staff have had a tremendous influence on me. The NFE course helped keep me strong and taught me to be hopeful and make a life plan that I can follow step-by-step. This tailoring course is another step in the right direction for me and I am sure I can now reach my goals.”Based on student demand, we have also recently starting supporting apprenticeships in tailoring and cosmetology. These opportunities are wildly popular, and other promising students have recently asked us to extend the training to them as well. In the words of one student, “please, can you help us so we can leave this terrible work?”
Srey Neang* was born in 1985 in Kandal, Cambodia and is the oldest of 6 children. Her parents are landless, and survive through meager wages earned as agrarian day laborers. Despite her love of learning, poverty forced Srey to drop out of school in the 6th grade in order to earn money to help feed her siblings. Srey was sent to Phnom Penh by her mother to work as a housemaid and nanny for a distant relative. She worked from 4am to 7pm every day, and took home $10 each month—earning just 2 cents an hour.Srey moved through a few occupations before learning about an opportunity at a garment factory and after investing in basic sewing training, she landed a job in Svay Pak (a notorious red light district in Phnom Penh) and was able to earn $60 each month. Srey eventually left garment factory work and married, had a child, then divorced her husband before returning to Svay Pak. Srey was back to earning income at a garment factory when her friends began to tell her about the higher wages she could earn if she took a job entertaining and serving men at a local karaoke bar. Though Srey knew she would face harassment and groping from drunk customers, the wage of $110 a month plus $5 to $10 in daily tips was far too good to pass up; by this time, Srey’s son, her mother and three of her younger siblings depended on her earnings for their survival.Srey hated the work, and faced constant verbal, physical and sexual harassment. “Normally I have to work from 6pm until late night around 2am or 3am and sometimes up to 4am although the closing time is supposed to be 1am,” Srey tells us. “Every four days I have to start work at 1pm. If I am absent for one day on a normal day (6pm-1am time slot), my salary would be cut $5, but if I am absent on the special day (1pm-1am time slot), they will cut my salary $10. I have never been absent so far because I need the $10 bonus at the end of each month for perfect attendance.”“One of the difficulties of working there is that I have to drink a lot—about nine cans of beer per night—and the alcohol badly affects my stomach. I also have to put up with harassment from clients. They like to kiss and touch me. Plenty of them asked me to go out with them and be their secret lover and promised to support me, but I always reject them. Some of the men get mad and challenge me by offering $100 for one night out and big tips each time they came, but I didn’t accept although other girls did. To me, the fact that I got divorced is already shameful and painful enough, so I don’t want to get involved in any unserious relationship.”Srey is one of roughly 100 karaoke girls currently participating in our Non-Formal Education and Life Skills program in the hopes of finding a better opportunity. Srey’s teacher tells us that Srey always comes to the class no matter how late she stayed up or how much she had to drink. “The program got my attention because I always loved studying but wasn’t lucky enough to stay in school due to poverty,” shares Srey. “I need to grab this opportunity and study hard because my son is in first grade now and he is going ask me to explain what he doesn’t understand, so I have to be ready and capable enough. I also send my son to English school, so that he won’t have a hard life like me when he grows up.”When asked what she likes about the class, Srey Neang told us “I enjoy reading and math as before I could not read big words and could only do adding and subtracting but not division and multiplication. Health topics are also very interesting. They teach us how to prevent ourselves from getting STDs and HIV when having more partners and how abortion affects on our health. I also especially enjoy learning about saving and life planning. Before I always wanted to save money but could never manage until learning from my teacher that savings can start small, and we should start doing it right away. Now I am saving in a clay piggybank.”Srey Neang tells us that her passion has always been to open up her own beauty salon back in her home village, where demand for such services is high and supply is low. Because of her demonstrated commitment and aptitude, Srey was one of five students—selected from a pool of over 100 girls—recently offered a skills training and apprenticeship opportunity in cosmetology.“I really don’t know how to thank you all enough for this opportunity,” shares Srey. “You are like my parents! You give me knowledge, study materials, skills training, and a bike to get to skills training. You took me to the health center and paid for treatment when I was sick. You motivated and encouraged me to study hard and struggle for my future. I truly appreciate these things!” *name has been changed at her request
In the first half of 2012, your generous support opened the doors to a better life for 98 women and children living and working in the red light districts of Svay Pak, Beung Kak II and Phnom Penh Thmei, Cambodia. In addition to the Non-Formal Education (NFE) literacy and life skills classes, the project supported training in tailoring, sewing, cooking and cosmetology, paving the way for better jobs outside of the sex and entertainment industry. The program also provided STD and HIV/AIDS screening and counseling to 85 of these students, ensuring they stay healthy while transitioning to better futures.The story of Heab KimNga demonstrates just how much of a difference these courses can make in the lives of the most vulnerable. Born in 1994 in Kondal province, KimNga learned grown-up responsibilities at a young age. Losing her father at the age of three, KimNga was forced to drop out of school in the third grade in order to help care for her seven siblings. Her dedication to giving her brothers and sisters a better life was evident when she moved to Phonm Penh to take up work entertaining men in a karaoke at the age of 15. She wanted to make sure her younger siblings could afford to stay in school no matter what.In February 2011, KimNga joined the NFE class in hopes of finding something better for herself. She absorbed all that the literacy and life skills classes had to offer, and began attending vocational training in sewing. In December of 2011, she graduated from the program and found a good job in a garment factory in the same month (in Cambodia, the garment industry is highly regulated with strict labor laws).Since then, KimNga’s life is looking up. She recently married and now enjoys a productive, loving family life with her new husband who works in construction. “The program has helped me to have the kind of simple, happy life that I think everyone wishes for,” share KimNga. “I feel so warm in the heart now and my only remaining wish is to one day have a business of my very own!"
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