Help a young woman escape Cambodia's sex industry

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


Mar 13, 2012

After NFE - one graduate's story of achievement

Srey Mach, helping at the restaurant
Srey Mach, helping at the restaurant

Srey Mach demonstrates the importance of Non-Formal Education benefits that cannot be measured, like confidence, as well as the close bond that NFE students develop with project manager Sokhorn. Although she finished the course in 2007, our staff is still in touch with her and easily arranged an interview during our visit in December. 

“The NFE course had a profound impact on my life journey,” says Mach, who is now married and eight months pregnant. “Before NFE I was aimlessly going from one thing to another. The course helped me to think for myself, taught me how to set goals and to understand what steps were required to reach them.”

Mach, just 15 years old in 2007, was struggling to help pay off her family’s $2,000 debt through the only work she could find at a seedy karaoke bar in Phnom Penh. She heard about a new program called NFE and decided she had to make time for it. Focusing primarily on math and sewing skills, she was able to qualify for a position at a garment factory, which she found with the help of Sokhorn.

“I needed to find acceptance and be valued,” says Mach, “and I realized I would have to achieve my goals to win that.”

A career change was the first of many goals Mach has since set and achieved for herself. She worked and saved at the garment factory for a year before returning to her home village at Odor Meanchey to set up a food stall with her mother. Eventually, though, the $100 monthly rent for the premises proved too burdensome, and they closed it. 

Mach returned to Phnom Penh for long, hard hours at another garment factory, but she was able to recover from the food stall setback. Today she still works in the garment business, but closer to home where she is able to help her mother run her new restaurant. This time, they’re using space owned by a relative, and rent is more manageable. Her mom clears $140 a month, and the family eats their meals there, as well.

Mach’s earnings have increased, too, from $100 to anywhere between $140 - $160 a month. Her sister, Raksmey, who also completed the NFE course with her, is making almost the same. Always reinvesting in her future, Mach recently spent $150 on an advanced tailoring course and she has already started selling her own clothes. 

“I now plan to do more tailoring training so after the baby is born,” says Mach.  “I can make the very best clothes I can and will continue to help my mother’s business.”

There’s no reason to doubt that she will succeed. Together in the last five years, the three women have paid off the family debt, sold their house and bought a plot of land, built a new house and just recently bought a motorcycle. After recounting everything that has changed in the last few years, Mach remarks, “ I feel that I have now achieved the recognition I was looking for, and feel proud of myself, who and what I am.”

Current NFE students we met the day before told us that for the first time they could think and analyze for themselves. They felt they had been given a rudder to steer through life, where before they were floating aimlessly. We hope you share our enthusiasm at having given such an opportunity to Srey Mach. You are providing the same chance to dozens of others today through your generosity. Thank you for believing in this project!


Your donation can be matched 30% TODAY! GlobalGiving put up $50,000 in matching funds at 12:01 am EST, Wednesday March 14 to give your charitable contribution to our cause an extra boost. Check out how your donation today will grow:

$10 = $13

$50 = $66

$75 = $100

$150 = $200 

What’s more, for this first Bonus Day of the year GlobalGiving is awarding $1,000 to the project that raises the most money and another $1,000 to the project with the most unique donors. This is exactly how you won GlobalGiving’s Girl Effect Challenge for our Blossom Bus project last October, and we know you can do it again! 

But remember, once the $50,000 in matching funds runs out, the contest and bonus boosts are over. So to make sure you snag that extra 30% AND put us in the running for the $1,000 bonus money, submit your donation now! 

Making her own clothing line
Making her own clothing line


About Project Reports

Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.

If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating or by subscribing to this project's RSS feed.

Donation Options
An anonymous donor will match all new monthly recurring donations, but only if 75% of donors upgrade to a recurring donation today.
Terms and conditions apply.
Make a monthly recurring donation on your credit card. You can cancel at any time.
Make a donation in honor or memory of:
What kind of card would you like to send?
How much would you like to donate?
gift Make this donation a gift, in honor of, or in memory of someone?


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