Help a young woman escape Cambodia's sex industry

Apr 3, 2014

Srey-Pov Overcomes Abuse and Poverty through Education

Srey-Pov's wedding day after a difficult journey

Srey-Pov is 26 years old, born in Mittapheap village, Sangkat Russei Keo, Khan Russei Keo, with three brothers. Her journey to complete the Lotus Outreach Non-Formal Education (NFE) program has been long, and she has had to fight every bit of the way.

But this year Srey-Pov completed a skills training in sewing after having taken the NFE literacy course in 2010, and she is finally moving forward into a hopeful new period in her life!

Srey-Pov’s life has not been easy. In the second grade she had to drop out of school to take care of her father who was dying of AIDS. By the time she was 15, her father and her mother had both passed away, her three brothers were scattered to the wind, and Srey-Pov was married and pregnant. After the baby was born, her husband quickly became abusive, there was a difficult custody battle for the child, and a divorce leaving Srey-Pov with nothing.

With no income, no parents, no husband, and no education, Srey-Pov was left with no other option but to find work at the karaoke-parlor brothels endemic to Cambodia.

Srey-Pov quickly became tired of the drunken indignity and powerlessness of karaoke work, and so she signed up for Lotus Outreach’s Non-Formal Education class at the karaoke parlor near where she worked. In the year 2010 at age 23 she learned to read, spent much of her time studying, and finished with excellent grades. After finishing the NFE literacy program, she started to learn sewing through the NFE skills training.

Sewing skills and cosmetology trainings through NFE have the power to transform women’s lives and give an option to escape exploitative sex work. Just $20 covers a month of skills training that can save a woman’s life from tragedy!

It’s not easy to turn your life around overnight. But with effort and a little good luck, Srey-Pov began to see changes happening. In 2013 she landed a job at a garment factory using her sewing skills, and a man fell in love with her. By May she and he were married, and they are moving soon to Sen Sok where she will reunite with her daughter, now age 13. Srey-Pov insists she will keep her daughter enrolled in school until she graduates.

When you start off so far behind, it can take a long time and a lot of hard work to catch up. Taking the NFE literacy class in 2010 was the first step, and it laid the groundwork for her to move forward into a dignified life. Now she is saving her money to buy her own sewing machine so she can work from Sen Sok. With any more luck, her daughter will have a much easier life than Srey-Pov did.

Srey-Pov (2nd from left) graduating NFE in 2010
Srey-Pov (2nd from left) graduating NFE in 2010


Mar 19, 2014

Vhannah: Thriving Textile Entrepreneur

A happy Vannah and her 6-year-old daughter
A happy Vannah and her 6-year-old daughter

Lotus Outreach views the relationship between us and the women we have the privilege to support as a partnership with them for a better, more just world. In this update we are honored to present the tenacious and graceful Vannah. The inspiring story of 31-year-old Vannah demonstrates the underlying potential of the 45% of Cambodian women that have been denied education. Vannah is part of an entire generation that had no access to education due to the Khmer Rouge’s shutdown of the public school system and execution of 90% of the country’s teachers in the late 1970s. Growing up in the wake of genocide, civil war and foreign occupation, Vannah and her siblings were forced by poverty and political turmoil to spend their childhoods laboring rather than studying.

While many NFE participants are able to better their lives tangibly as a result of the classes, Vannah has used the skills she acquired to improve the livelihood of an entire village. She entered the NFE program in 2011 while working at a brothel in Phnom Penh and swiftly rose to the top of her class. Despite the hardships she endured, the determined Vannah used her spare time constructively and encouraged other girls to also take skill training. In addition to her daily lessons in basic literacy, numeracy and business management, she enrolled in our sewing and tailoring course, which proved to be the foundation for her career as a prolific businesswoman. “When I started NFE, I couldn’t sew a straight line,” shares Vannah. “It was the skills I learned during NFE that have made me the successful tailor that I am today.

In just a few years, Vannah has managed to invest in 30 weaving looms and four sewing machines, effectively employing 100 local villagers who support as many as 500 people. Her weaving and tailoring workshops are able to maintain a local tradition of silk making, a process that transforms raw materials into vibrantly patterned, hi-quality silk fabrics. Ingenuity and careful business planning have allowed her to employ the bulk of her extended family, and she reflected on how the family no longer has to experience hunger each day. “Every day we used to worry how we would survive. Now I feel very happy knowing we’ll be okay.” Vannah, a single mom of a 6 year-old girl, is now able to earn $200 a month – two times the per capita income in Cambodia – and hopes to buy her first home in the near future. Vannah is also starting up a small retail operation, and recently purchased second-hand blue jeans, which she plans to re-sell with a good margin of profit.

Our visit with Vannah marked the most interesting and satisfying visit I can remember in many years and hundreds of visits with Cambodian families,” shares Glenn Fawcett, Lotus Outreach’s Director of Field Operations. “Vannah is a warm-hearted and generous boss who pays her employees well and inspires those around her to find the best in themselves. We are so happy to see such a kind and talented person in the midst of great success.”

Thank you so much for your support of the Non-Formal Education project! Your generosity is the backbone of this project and the platform for incredible transformation like the one we witnessed with Vannah.

Vannah puts her sewing skills to good use
Vannah puts her sewing skills to good use
Vannah oversees a worker at a weaving loom
Vannah oversees a worker at a weaving loom
A joyful employee of Vannah
A joyful employee of Vannah


Oct 2, 2013

Sophy is sewing together a brighter future.

Tieng Sophy, hard at work, learning tailoring!
Tieng Sophy, hard at work, learning tailoring!

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 Cambodian men and 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. 

NFE classes bring hope for a brighter future.
NFE classes bring hope for a brighter future.


Jul 12, 2013

I didn't think a girl like me would have a chance


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.

Chenda practicing hair styling skills
Chenda practicing hair styling skills
Channa (left) practices makeup application
Channa (left) practices makeup application


Apr 19, 2013

Planting the seeds of change in Svay Pak

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?”


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Lotus Outreach

Sacramento, CA, United States

Project Leader

Elise De Grande

Executive Director
Sacramento, CA Cambodia

Where is this project located?

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