Help a Trafficking Survivor Heal From Her Trauma

by Lotus Outreach
Sokny and Kumni in session with Thuk, on left
Sokny and Kumni in session with Thuk, on left

When 11 year-old Thuk came to our shelter her behavior was described as that of a caged animal. Frustrated by confinement, she tried to run away time and again; her hair was unkempt, her skin was dirty and covered with scars. She trusted no one, and if she got angry she ran outside and hid in the bushes.

Running away was Thuk’s coping mechanism at home, too. It was her only escape from the abuse of her parents, both of whom beat her severely. She’d never been to school. Last May, she was found hiding in a forest near her home and was brought to our after-care center in Sisophon, Cambodia.

Thuk’s arrival was disruptive to life at the shelter. When she disappeared, which was often, everyone dropped what they were doing to look for her. For weeks she wouldn’t talk to anyone except the monitoring officer that referred her to us; it wasn’t until her third month that she even began coming to her counseling sessions. Everyone was careful with her, and she got very angry if not given attention when she sought it.

Thuk finally began meeting with her therapist in August but showed up irregularly and often late. Even then, she still refused to speak. Kumni had her mold clay into simple figures – things she liked, things she didn’t like, things she was afraid of.

Slowly, Thuk began to share her thoughts in words, although her early voice was barely audible. Moreover, she oddly referred to herself always by a different name. Kumni asked her to draw pictures of her experiences, and at first Thuk only drew from positive memories. Kumni taught her how to make flowers and jewelry, slowly gaining her trust and establishing a safe space. One day while drawing, Thuk opened up and told Kumni her story in her own words.

Over the course of her therapy, Thuk’s behavior changed drastically. She now comes to her appointments when they are scheduled and she is much more cooperative in doing what she is asked. She is attentive to her appearance and personal cleanliness, washing regularly and combing her hair.

Thuk has been enrolled in school and wants to be a teacher. She worries about succeeding because she has missed so much, and she doesn’t want to go home. Her mother gambles, both her parents travel to work in Thailand and she has no reason to think they will stop beating her. Our local partner is looking at options for long-term care so Thuk can continue to grow and study in a supportive environment.   

Outcomes like these bear testament to the patience, love and hundreds of hours our counselors put into their patients. Their work is transformative on the minds, hearts and souls of the women and children that find themselves here. But it is your support that makes it possible for us to provide girls like Thuk with this sanctuary while they recover. Thank you for helping Thuk make her final escape – literally out of the woods, and into a life of nurturing.

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Thuk displays her hand-made jewelry
Thuk displays her hand-made jewelry

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Channery
Channery's art therapy

The daughter of farm laborers, 14 year-old Suy Channery* left the public school system in grade three to help out with adult responsibilities. Her voice became soft when we asked about her education. “I dropped out of school a long time ago,” she says. “When I was 10 years old I worked in Thailand for a year making leather shoes. It wasn’t hard, as I was there with my two older sisters and a neighbor. The working day was 7-12 hours, and we each made $60 per month.”

Last year, a friend from a neighboring farm asked Channery to stay with her while her parents were away. The young woman’s 18 year-old brother came in to where Channery was sleeping that night and raped her, covering her mouth to stifle her cries. "I tried to make him stop, but he was too strong,” she says.

Channery told her mother what had happened, the police were called and the young man was arrested in June 2010. We met Channery when the two families were unable to come to an agreement on compensation, and in September asked our local partner (the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center) for legal advice. They referred Channery to our safe shelter in nearby Sisophon.

Our counselor, Sokny, reports that Channery displayed symptoms of depression and withdrawal similar to that of many trauma victims: she didn’t bathe, she isolated herself from others, cried frequently, and discussed feelings of hopelessness and anger.  “I felt ashamed of myself and felt my reputation was destroyed,” Channery recalls. “I thought my neighbors, being the only people I knew, would think badly of me.”

With nine months of nurturing through shelter activities and individual and group counseling, Channery’s outlook improved markedly. She began communicating more naturally, made friends among the other patients, and reported feeling less ashamed.

When her court hearing arrived Channery gathered all her courage to tell her story in its entirety to a room full of strangers - and her attacker. Once the terrifying experience was over, she was filled with relief. She had braved public humiliation and survived – and found a strength she didn’t know she’d had.

While we hoped that the defendant would be sentenced to 15 years for sexually assaulting a minor, in the court considered the act to be consensual since the perpetrator's sister was not woken up by her cries. He received four years for having sex with a minor and was ordered to pay $10,000 in compensation. 

Re-entering the school system will be difficult for someone as far behind as Channery. She took tailoring training at the shelter, and was reintegrated with a $50 life start-up gift in August. 

*name has been changed

A happy thought
A happy thought

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Mouey at her vegetable stand
Mouey at her vegetable stand

The story of Goong Mouey highlights just how far a small amount can go to help sufferers of violence against women.

Mouey may have survived decades of war and genocide in Cambodia, but she didn’t emerge unscathed. The Khmer Rouge completely shut down the public education system in the late 1970s, and 90 percent of all teachers were summarily executed. Mouey is a part of an entire generation of women to grow up completely illiterate, and with little to no economic opportunity.

Lacking education and living in abject poverty, Mouey is representative of the roughly 30 percent of Cambodian women that suffer from regular domestic violence. Escaping her abusive, alcoholic husband and unable to provide for her five young children, she was forced to turn the children over to an orphanage for two years. “This was especially painful for me,” she shares, “but I had run out of options.” 

Since coming into contact with the DFW-supported counseling and reintegration program, the tables have turned for Mouey. After spending some time at a safe shelter, Mouey received $20 in start-up support along with a $120 small business grant and now runs a highly successful vegetable grocery business near Poipet city. Her business allows her to earn about $50 per day—over 20 times the per capita income in Cambodia—and she has since been able to resume caring for her children. 

“I did have a small vegetable stall earlier but it was not enough to live on and the grant allowed me to offer five times as much variety and volume,” Mouey shares. “Now I can afford pretty much whatever the children need to be well nourished.”  Mouey’s 16 year-old daughter, Srey Mom, pipes in as well: “Previously I didn’t have the money I needed to pay for school tuition or buy food and medicine and now we do.”

The social stigma attached to divorce in Cambodian society is harsh. When Mouey's husband came skulking back to their improved financial situation, she let him in. The difference now, however, is that the physical abuse has ended. “I control the money in the family now,” Mouey tells us.

Thank you for helping dozens of families like Mouey’s get back on their feet this year through shelter assistance, start-up financial support, vocational training and small business grants.

Empowering produce!
Empowering produce!

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Building a normal life
Building a normal life

Tuon Van has known little peace or consistency in her 25 years. She left the unhappy home of her brother at just 11 years old, traveling alone from Pursat province to Phnom Penh to look for her mother. Instead she met an older woman who took her to Battambang for work, where they stayed for a year before the woman sold her to a brothel for $100. The brothel owner was kind to her and did not make her work like the other girls, but she recalls two encounters – one for which she earned $650 and another for $500. Although Van didn’t specify, we believe this means that her virginity was sold twice.

The brothel owner found her a job in a bakery where she worked for a year. Yet at 14 years old, she decided to leave. She became a sex worker in a karaoke bar. Van was unable to explain why she opted to return to prostitution, but our counselor, Sokny, attributes her decision to guilt and shame. With Van’s self-worth severely eroded from abuse at such a young age, Sokny suggests that she gravitated to an environment that felt more suitable to her.

For years she worked in brothels in Pursat and Poipet, although after one raid police returned her to her brother’s home. Yet living in a home with family was too drastic an adjustment for her to make, and she returned to prostitution. Nearly a year ago four of her coworkers got into a fight; the police came and took the girls and Van to our shelter in Sisophon. Of the group, only Van has stayed.

“I wanted to leave almost immediately - I thought all the people here hated me because of what I had been,” recalls Van. “I was surprised when people spoke nicely to me.” Our program director for Cambodia, Raksmey Var, had this impression of Van: “I found Van shy and a lovely person. She has a ready smile and doesn’t carry a dark cloud over herself. I told her that it made no difference to me that she had done sex work.”

Sokny encouraged Van to see that her circumstances were not her fault, and to claim this perspective for her own. She reminded Van that many other women have had the same misfortunes, and urged her to notice that those women were not being judged but were worthy of empathy and compassion. They had suffered, and people could see and understand that.

Van had difficulty applying this vision to herself. She often said, “People look down on me, and that makes me feel ashamed.” Sokny insisted gently that people are generally helpful and caring - the sense of being judged and ashamed comes from within. “Sokny always advised me not to think too much - that’s what I do,” says Van. “She always talks to me, calms and encourages me. It’s a big thing for me to say, but I trust Sokny.” Van gave us her permission to publish her pictures and story, so that we can help others like her.

Tuon Van, learning to be liked
Tuon Van, learning to be liked

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Pich (lower right) wears a mask to hide her mouth
Pich (lower right) wears a mask to hide her mouth

There is no shortage of brave, resilient women recovering from abuse at our safe shelter in Sisophon, near the Thai border. Yet the story of Pich, a 32 year-old woman who came to us after instigating her own rescue from a brothel, astounded our trauma counselors.

Pich’s determination and resolve were evident early in life.  At 15 years old, she made a bitter sacrifice to help her struggling family. Introduced to a wealthy, older man by her cousin, she opted to sell her virginity to him for US$800 – a small fortune – and gave the entire sum to her mother. She married another man later that year.

By 24, Pich was divorced with two children; her husband had left her for one of her friends. Yet another “friend” told her about a job in Battambang, and after a few other fruitless searches nearer to home, she traveled there to work in a bar.  Before leaving the following day, her acquaintance introduced her to the owner, and for four nights Pich sold beer.

The fifth night she had a rude awakening. Her boss told her she wasn’t there to sell beer; he expected her to sell sex. Pich then realized that her friend had sold her into a brothel for an unknown sum. Locked in the building with no way out, she was a sex slave.

Yet Pich never forgot who she was. She objected when customers didn’t wear condoms or when she was made to service clients when while ill. She even tried (unsuccessfully) to escape.  But she paid dearly; each time she stood up for herself, she was beaten, strangled, or worse. By the time she reached our shelter, Pich had only two teeth left in her mouth.

To punish her protestations, the brothel owner had thugs hold her down while he extracted her teeth, one by one, with a pair of pliers. This happened time and again as Pich insisted on her rights, all the way through thirty teeth. Despite having no means of escape and no reason to hope, Pich kept fighting until finally she convinced a customer to let her use his phone to call the police. The police raided the brothel the next day, and brought Pich to our shelter.

In addition to receiving trauma therapy through the CTC program, Pich was provided with legal representation from the shelter’s staff attorney.  In September 2010, Pich’s captors and torturers were sentenced to eight years in prison.

Today, Pich has a positive outlook on life.  Her feelings of anger and isolation have been replaced by optimism, comradery and even activism: Pich recently participated in our local partner’s Violence Against Women campaign, proudly donning the symbolic white ribbon while passing out leaflets on preventing abuse and exploitation.

With assistance from the project, Pich has received dentures and will be entering a beauty skills training program.  With your help, she will never again have to take a job in a strange city, work for someone she doesn’t know, or rely on the type of friends who would sell her into slavery.

We thank you for your support, which has paved the way for a new future for Pich and dozens of others like her.

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Organization Information

Lotus Outreach

Location: Aptos, California - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.lotusoutreach.org
Project Leader:
Elise De Grande
Executive Director
Sacramento, CA United States