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?”