Restoring hope to trafficked girls in Cambodia

 
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I'm writing from Cambodia where I have been making Hagar site visits for the past two weeks. Regarding our Aftercare project, I have some very encouraging news to share. Over the past nine months, Hagar has developed a leadership program for girls who have survived sex trafficking and rape at alarmingly young ages. A core group of seven girls was elected by their peers. These young girls have been trained in communication skills, leadership. problem solving, and conflict resolution. Now, when disputes arise among the other girls served by Hagar Aftercare, the concerns are first heard by the Child Committee. They are effectively facilitating resolutions in many cases. When a resolution can not be reached, then the concern is carried to Hagar staff.

Even more exciting, these girls have been trained to teach workshops. They have been working with Hagar's Activities Director to design ways to convey lessons on self-esteem, problem-solving, respecting others, etc. They lead a Saturday workshop with the 25 girls in residence every week. Says Sue Hanna, Hagar Cambodia Residential Services Manager, "watching these girls lead lessons they have written themselves can reduce you to tears." We are finding this very encouraging work.

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Bill Brower is a Field Program Officer with GlobalGiving who is visiting our projects throughout Southeast Asia. On January 14th he visited Hagar's Aftercare program in Phnom Penh:

An indication of the magnitude of the problem, GlobalGiving has a number of projects dealing with sex-trafficking victims and gender-based violence in Cambodia. In visiting these projects over the past few weeks and listening to the organizations describe how some less effective organizations in the country operate, I began to get a clear view of some things to look for in a good program for girls and young women who have gone through such horrific ordeals. The most important seemed to be a long-term commitment to reintegrating the girls into a more normal life. One could see the temptation to “wrap them up in cotton wool” (as my Scottish friend would say) to ensure they’re never hurt like that again; the staff at Hagar’s Aftercare recovery shelter give comprehensive and personalized care, with an eye each step of the way toward avoiding institutionalization.

The facilities seem like everything a young girl would want: Clean dorms, a nice classroom for the young ones, space to run around, playground equipment and even a little wading pool that they fill up on special occasions. Each girl, along with five of her peers, is assigned to a House Mother, with whom they spend 24 hours everyday to help build up a sense of consistency and trust. Counseling is available and it sounds like some great informal counseling goes on between the girls who can relate to each others' stories.

The girls were at school when I visited, the older girls in the public school, and some of the younger girls just across the street from the center. I didn’t want to distract from their studies, so we just said a quick hello to the younger girls. Twenty-five or so beaming, healthy looking faces greeted me with a very nice welcome. Though it was hard to see them knowing what they’d been through, I was happy to know they were on the road to recovery with Hagar.

Aftercare school
Aftercare school

The needs of girls from backgrounds of trafficking or other forms of sexual abuse are growing in Cambodia. Hagar’s Aftercare program served a total of 95 girls in 2009, compared to 87 last year. When a trafficking victim comes to Hagar, we always hope that she can be reunited with a loving family. In 2009, this was the case for 23 girls. However, when a child’s family can’t be found or was complicit in the abuse, she can never be reintegrated. Hagar then provides loving, long-term care in a Family Aftercare Home. In 2009, this involved 43 girls in both Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom.

In order to help these girls recover from their horrific abuse, we are now providing a new form of counseling. Recently, eight Hagar counselors were trained to provide Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Although common in the west, it is new to Cambodia. A partnership across Johns Hopkins University, World Vision, and Hagar has made this possible.

Says Sue Taylor, Hagar Cambodia Psychosocial Manager, “Each girl will be more able to take on whatever life throws at her, with strength and resilience and dignity. I am proud of our counseling staff and their commitment to excellence.”

Girls at play
Girls at play
Reading at Aftercare
Reading at Aftercare

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Clare Rutz is a student who is traveling throughout Asia this summer and visiting a number of GlobalGiving projects. On June 4th she visited "Restoring hope to trafficked girls in Cambodia." When asked what she would tell her friends about this project, Clare said: “Great: They are making a difference!"

I visited the aftercare program made possible by Hagar, which has become home for many trafficked girls in Cambodia. This was my experience:

After crossing the street from the aftercare program we enter the school building for grades 1-3, which is where I see a flashy neon pink tuk-tuk parked in front. I catch a proud smile of the director that was brought on by the fact that they had just bought the new addition today. The tuk-tuk will take the girls to and from school in style, and the style is well deserved. The amount of school they missed because they were sold out of a child’s world has forced the girls to spend their weekdays in a classroom in order to catch up and complete two grade levels in one year.

I continue my visit as I head to the playground where I have fortunately intruded during recess. I’m greeted with big hellos and each available hand belonging to the new faces is immediately grabbed. They look up at as us and take the opportunity to practice their English. “What’s your name?” they ask. They’re proud of how far they have come and the friendships they’ve made. When I talk to the girls I see confidence and hear about their newfound dreams of being teachers, doctors, and founder of NGOs to help girls with the same horrific past. Sreyna, the director of the aftercare program, comments, “When they first come their dreams are small then they see hope for the future. They have a high goal.” Survival instincts are replaced with looking positively forward, but this takes time.

There are twenty-five girls living in the aftercare program, while there are ninety girls benefiting from the program who are either integrated back into their family or living in a more permanent housing situation. At the aftercare program each bed is made with a nice family of stuffed animals placed carefully on each corner. There are four full-time “mothers” who cook for the girls, read to them, and most importantly love them while teaching them to trust again. Downstairs there is a room for the four counselors, including both Vietnamese and Cambodian. The importance of having someone who understands your language and culture is valued here, and with a large population of Vietnamese sex-trafficked girls a diverse staff is encouraged. The girls are very difficult when they come to the house at first because of the new scenery and strangers, but as years pass they talk to the counselors and create a trusting relationship. They learn to love themselves and each other while a non-traditional kind of family is formed, but a family nonetheless.

The program started in 2005 and many of the girls are growing up. It is a goal of Hagar to integrate the girls back into their family homes if it possible. Sometimes, after much counseling and monitoring, it is clear that it would not be safe for them to return home they move on into a more permanent “family home” with fewer girls and one “mother” looking after them to create a more traditional sense of family. In some cases the girls go to live with both a mother and father that have devoted their lives to parenting and loving as many children as they are able. The hopeful conclusion is that they can grow up safely in a place that feels like home with a restored hope that opens up once closed doors to countless opportunities.

Hagar has recently established an onsite health clinic staffed with a physician and a nurse. Since access to quality health care has always been problematic in Cambodia, this addresses a long-identified challenge. Through the Hagar clinic, each child gets an immediate medical check-up upon intake. And, coming from backgrounds of rape, violence, and abuse, many children arrive at Hagar’s Aftercare Center with significant health needs. Most have little understanding of proper hygiene and nutrition, and clinic staff help them learn. We’re happy to add this component to our program of holistic recovery care.

A total of 13 girls were involved with court cases against their abusers in 2008, with six of them involved in a particularly egregious case against a Russian pedophile.

We thank everyone for their support in recent months. Funding has been tight due to some major donors being unable to fulfill their commitments. At this difficult time, those who have the capacity to give, at any level, truly have the opportunity to make a difference and transform lives! Thanks to all of you who support our work, at any level.

Says Thi, who was sold into a brothel at age six, by desperately poor parents, “Sometimes, when I think about the past, I feel like a bird with broken wings that cannot fly.”

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Hagar USA, Inc.
Eau Claire, WI United States

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