Help a young woman escape Cambodia's sex industry

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?”


Jan 18, 2013

"You are like my parents..."

NFE class in Svay Pak, Cambodia
NFE class in Svay Pak, Cambodia

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


Oct 16, 2012

Mid-year update & KimNga's story

Your support has given her the gift of literacy
Your support has given her the gift of literacy

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!"

Sewing class
Sewing class


Jul 16, 2012

A New Life for Srey Leak

This month our team visited NFE graduate Srey Leak ("lee-ack") at her new job as a beautician in Phnom Penh’s riverside Old Market. Formerly a karoke bar worker, Leak completed NFE in 2010 and in 2011 was one of five graduates to receive additional beauty skills training from the program. LO Director of Field Operations Glenn Fawcett describes the observable change in Leak’s appearance:

“I remembered Leak’s apparent sadness and lack of energy on the many occasions we met during our visits to the karaoke bar where she lived, and could hardly believe how happy and easy going she is now,” says Glenn. “Her happiness to be away from her former life, where she was prone to abuse and exploitation, and to now be among good friends that nurture and love her is so apparent - the transformation is extreme.” 

During the visit Leak laughed often with her co-workers, and her boss, Pov described the atmosphere: “We all love each other very much.” There is little reason to doubt her sincerity – in addition to full-time work and a living wage, Pov provides Leak with free training in nail design.  

What’s more, Pov has invested heavily in a training course in Hong Kong, and is saving to open up her own training school. It’s clear that Leak has landed in a positive, future-focused environment where she will have room to thrive, living on her own terms.  

“I will continue to add to my skills,” says Leak. “I plan to open my own small business in this market, maybe on this very spot when Pov opens her training school.”

While Pov partially hired Leak out of pity for an orphaned young woman trying to make a better life for herself, Leak wouldn’t have been a viable candidate without the training in hair, nails and make-up she received from NFE.

Bridging the small gap in education and training to make these women marketable in their communities is precisely what NFE is designed to do, and it makes us incredibly happy to see this come to fruition in a case like Leak’s. Thank you so much for making these happy endings possible!

Apr 24, 2012

Postcard: Project Site Visit

With Lotus Outreach Sewing Class
With Lotus Outreach Sewing Class

Jacqueline Lee is an InTheField Traveler with GlobalGiving who is visiting our partners’ projects throughout Southeast Asia. Her “Postcard” from the visit in Cambodia:

On March 14, Alexis and I visited Lotus Outreach’s Non-Formal Education program. Bright and early we met up with Raksmey from Lotus Outreach. First, we attended a sewing training. This training is part of the non-formal education classes providing life skills, basic education, and small business training so that the girls have necessary skills to survive outside of the karaokes, massage parlors, and sex industry. These women are the most vulnerable group because some are illiterate and a large majority never completed higher than an elementary school education.

One of the sewing class trainees explained to me that she hopes to open a small business in her hometown someday. Another said she worked in a karaoke bar and found out about the training, so joined to have her own business one day. A third girl said she might not be able to work in a karaoke forever, so she needs more skills to prepare her for another job. I asked her why she worked in a karaoke and she said she could not find other work to support her child. The instructor’s assistant said before she was illiterate, but now she can do calculations, read, and write since she joined the NFE program.

Following the sewing class, we visited a non-formal education class at the housing accommodations of girls that work in a local “karaoke”. These karaokes serve as locations for men to enjoy the company of women with the option to gain more. 

The challenge is that the families of these girls demand money and support so the girls not able to make enough money in traditional jobs have to take alternative forms of income generation that is quick and provides large sums – income generating activities such as selling their bodies. They often lack skills to gain more secure and higher wage jobs in places like the garment factories, so Lotus Outreach is providing the training and skills as well as job placement for girls in their NFE programs. Providing a sustainable and feasible alternative to the sex industry – a job that the girls can be proud of. Finally, we ended at another “karaoke” where Lotus Outreach provides Non-Formal Education and vocational training classes in beauty like hair, nails, and makeup for the girls to get out of the sex industry.

 The trainer and trainees were busy practicing on each other – creating beautiful nail and hair designs. One of the trainees had barely received any formal education growing up, but now had skills that she could make a living for herself outside of the sex industry.  Soon after, the first customers began to arrive… and we knew it was time to leave. These young women were so inspiring to meet and hear their stories because despite their hardships, they still have hopes and dreams they are working to achieve. These young women live in such harsh conditions, but at the end of day still wake up to attend the basic education classes, to study, and to practice their vocational training to have another life.

with Non-Formal Education Class
with Non-Formal Education Class


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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?

Map of Help a young woman escape Cambodia's sex industry