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Proud to Be a Girl: Empowering Girls in Cambodia

by Hagar USA, which supports the work of Hagar International
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Proud to Be a Girl: Empowering Girls in Cambodia
Proud to Be a Girl: Empowering Girls in Cambodia
Proud to Be a Girl: Empowering Girls in Cambodia
Proud to Be a Girl: Empowering Girls in Cambodia
Proud to Be a Girl: Empowering Girls in Cambodia

At only 20 years old, Ryma owns one of the most popular hair and beauty salons in town. Although it’s a new venture, Ryma is full of hope for how it will provide for her in the future. She didn't have that sense of hope when she first came to Hagar.

Ryma grew up in a province on the border of Cambodia and Thailiand. Her parents were subsistence farmers and were often out farming. They rarely had time to watch over her and her six siblings, and she often felt unsafe as she travelled to and from school.

One day in the middle of the summer, a high ranking soldier kidnapped her. She was 17 years old. He raped her multiple times over the two days that he kept her. She was locked up in his living quarters and begged to be let free but he refused. He injured her face, eyes and stomach. Ryma was afraid he would kill her.

After two days, the soldier finally released her and took her back to her home, on condition that she lied and said she had had an accident on the way home. Ryma agreed, but as soon as she arrived home, she told her mother what had happened. When the soldier found out she had told her parents, he said he would marry her. But her parents said no, they wanted justice for their daughter.

They refused to marry her off and filed a complaint at the provincial court against him with support from ADHOC. The man bribed the court to pay a fine of $5,000 and he was released, due to his high rank in the army.

Ryma was referred to Hagar where she was placed in a secure home for women who have survived abuse. She stayed there for over a year, where she slowly started regaining self-worth, belief in herself and a better future.

“Hagar counsellors made me realise my potential, they helped me process what I went through and I feel better. I used to feel worried and scared, but I began talking to more people and opening up about the happiness of everyday life, and opportunities for me here"

Ryma excelled during her catch up education. That fall, Ryma was reintegrated back into her community, where she continued to receive close counselling and mentoring from Hagar. With advice from her case manager, Ryma was encouraged to think about her future. She decided to train as a hairdresser. Recently, she married a man who loves her very much.

“I’ve also had a lot of time to think about my ordeal and how I could help prevent other girls in being in the same vulnerable place I was in. I understand more about personal safety and tell all my friends about how they should be vigilant, yet bold and strong.”

Additional quotes:

“I don’t feel too anxious anymore. I want to focus on the future, and show that women like me can still be business women and earn an income for my future family. It’s not because I suffered abuse that I will let my life stop”

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Sophea grew up out the back of a
market. Her life was not easy. One day, her
father took her to the market and handed her
to a woman he knew.
“My father just looked at me, allowing her
to take me, without saying a word.”
Sophea was pushed into a car and driven far
away to a home where she was kept in slavery,
required to work hard and severely abused.
She was only four years old.
Sophea told us through tears:
“I just wanted to be like a normal child,
going to school with loving parents.”
Everyone was violent towards her – even the
children. She tried to run away many times
but each time the family would catch her and
become more violent towards her.
One day, Sophea took one of the children’s
bicycles and pedalled as fast as she could
for as long as she could. Eventually, she was
stopped by some people who said she was
too young to be riding alone in the dark.
They took her to the village chief, who
referred her to Hagar.
“When I first came to Hagar, I was so
happy. Happy to escape a life of violence
and running away. Happy that I had found
a safe place. I found parents who loved me
and gave me a chance to go to school.
I finally got what I always wanted.”

Of course, that was just the beginning of
Sophea’s long journey to healing. Now a young
woman, with Hagar’s support Sophea has
graduated from university with a Bachelor
of Social Work and works for an organisation
that empowers Cambodian girls through
“Through the years, my passion to help girls
like me has become stronger,” she says.
In 2017, Sophea boarded a plane for the very
first time to come to Australia. Here, she gave
powerful evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry
into whether Australia should introduce a
Modern Slavery Act.
Today, the Modern Slavery Act is law in
Australia. It requires large companies to
publicly report each year on the steps they
are taking to guard against slavery in their
supply chains.
Many individuals and organisations
contributed to achieving this great outcome.
Yet, it was so crucial for our lawmakers to
hear directly from someone who had actually
experienced slavery and Hagar is so proud of
the role Sophea played.

Thank you
“I want to thank every one of you…
If not for people like you who help
girls like me, I wouldn’t be here today…
Thank you for walking with
me in this journey.”

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It was 4:30a.m., and the darkness of the Cambodian night was still lingering. Yem was nursing her one week-old baby girl before dawn arrived, but in the shadows, her husband’s mistress approached and was about to change their lives forever.

Yem immediately felt the excruciating burning on her face and chest, but thought first of her baby, also crying in pain from the brutal acid attack. It left them with severe burns that disfigured their faces, causing Yem to lose an ear, and led to the partial blindness of her daughter, Sophorn.

“We were living in a difficult time. We were very injured from the acid and we hoped Hagar could help us,” Yem says. “I felt very hopeless in my life. But after we found Hagar I started to feel hope again.”

Yem admits that life was far from perfect prior to that night. She was married to an alcoholic who was frequently violent to her, and destructive of their property. Though he worked, he supported his own pleasures and addiction and never the family’s needs. Yem had to work harder to ensure her children received all that they needed to survive given the absence of a supportive husband and father. This attack took away her ability to work, leaving Yem and her baby girl hospitalized for months.

Initially, two other non-profits helped the family, but ultimately could not meet the complexities the family was facing, leading them to link with Hagar. When Yem and her family first arrived at the center they had no money for food and treatment; they were struggling to manage the challenges of their trauma and medical conditions. Once Hagar started working with Yem, we were able to do what we have been doing so well for 25 years, offer compassion and expertise to help Yem and her family begin to rebuild their lives.

The Hagar team knew that this family’s needs were significant and would likely take many years of services to address their challenges, but our team did not shy away. Yem and her family needed the opportunity to heal both physically and emotionally, and to gain confidence in her own inner beauty to help her to come out from the shadows of the acid attack and violence she had experienced.

“Before, my life was hopeless. I felt so much shame. I could not find a job because my face was not good. I didn’t have a job because I didn’t have the skills and knowledge,” says Yem. “But then I found Hagar.”

Hagar has stood with Yem and her family through the years, providing an array of essential services to help them heal, find hope, and to begin building a sustainable and beautiful future. Hagar’s support allowed them to receive medical treatment (including Sophorn’s eye treatments and her older sister’s care for lupus). They received counseling, daily needs support, assistance for Yem to start her business selling drinks and snacks to earn an income, and Sophorn gained access to an education giving the family a precious chance to build new lives. Despite her scars and damaged hearing, Yem says the worst of her health problems are behind her, thanks to Hagar’s long-term support.

Hagar consistently serves survivors with the most challenging of circumstances stemming from trafficking, slavery, domestic violence, exploitation and abuse. Without Hagar, many would simply not have the opportunity to heal physically and emotionally, nor have access to justice, or to economic empowerment services needed to help them thrive.

Sophorn shared, “Without Hagar, my life and future would not be good. Hagar’s help has made me very happy. They helped me to help myself. In the future I would like to be a doctor because I have met some wonderful doctors and I want to help people as they have helped me.”

At any given moment, Hagar continues to serve hundreds of trauma survivors needing our support. During this Thanksgiving and Christmas season, we need your help. By making an end of year or monthly gift to Hagar, you are helping survivors like Yem and Sophorn on their path to hope and wholeness. Help Hagar USA toward our goal of raising $75,000 this holiday season to ensure that we do not turn away survivors in need and can continue providing trauma aftercare services for years to come.

A generous gift of $100 can provide a comprehensive medical assessment for a woman in the aftermath of severe abuse. Today, Yem’s spirit is strong, her smile is confident and infectious, and her hope for her family’s future is bright. No longer living in the shadows of the past, she is now casting her own shadow and charting a new path for her family’s future.

We need your compassionate support so that more survivors can access Hagar’s life-changing care. With a gift of $300, you could help a woman like Yem establish a small business or undertake on-the-job training in an industry of their choice. Please stand with Hagar as we help hundreds of people like Yem and Sophorn, whose bravery and resilience shine so brightly.

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Malis is eleven, and loves playing with her friends in their village. Her community is close knit, with neighbours dropping by often. Unfortunately, an older family member took advantage of this when Malis was nine and sexually assaulted her. Malis was referred to Hagar by local authorities, and that’s when our legal and protection officer Sotheary was brought into her life. Sotheary worked closely with Malis to prepare her for court, showing her Hagar’s children’s book about what things would be like and talking her through exactly what she could expect. Sotheary also worked alongside her parents to ensure they had the tools they needed to support her.

After months of waiting, the time came to go to trial. Hagar took care of the practical side of things, organizing transport and snacks for Malis and her parents. When Malis’ perpetrator spoke in court, Sotheary placed a screen in front of him so that she did not have to be retraumatised by seeing him. Malis was afraid when it was her turn to speak, “I was scared, and my heart was beating so fast, and it was hard to breathe,” but she stepped forward and spoke anyway. Malis made it through the day in court and was proud of herself for how strong she was.

A month after the trial, Malis’ counsellor travelled to her province to let her know that her perpetrator had been sentenced to seven years in jail. Malis was so happy, knowing that she didn’t need to fear him any longer because he could not reach her. She says, “I don’t need to worry anymore, I know the perpetrator is in jail.”

Malis journey with Hagar is not only helping her to heal from the trauma of her past but has inspired her for her future. Malis wants to work for an NGO and wants to be just like Sotheary in helping advocate for survivors of abuse

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Bopha is eighteen years old.  She grew up in a big family in a north-eastern province of CambodiaSupporting six children wasn't easy for her parents, as her father was a logger and her mother was a fruit-seller, and income wasn't often stable for either of themBopha and her older sister decided to shoulder some of their parents financial burden by leaving behind their education and starting work themselves. Her older sister went to work in Thailand and Bopha moved to Phnom Penh to start work in a garment factory.  

Bopha started work in the factory and became friends with a woman there who told her about an opportunity in China, one that would change her life foreverShe told Bopha she could help her get to China and live a better life, that she would have a better job and a higher salary. Bopha readily agreed to go to Chinaknowing that if she made some more money, she would be able to build a future for herself and her family.  

 “I was so happy when I got a job in China with a high salary.” shares Bopha. 

Bopha travelled to China alongside many other women who had been recruited through the same company in Phnom Penh. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when they left Cambodia, but upon their arrival in China, Bopha and the other women were forced to hand over their passports. They suspected they had been tricked, and they feared for their safety, but they had no choice but to comply. 

 After being held for a few days, a man informed them that they were not about to start new jobs, they were going to be married to Chinese men.  Bopha was taken by the marriage broker to a remote area and sold to a family as a bride. Over a number of months, Bopha was sexually abused and treated as a domestic slave. She was given limited access to food and she didn’t receive medical care. 

 Bopha says, “I felt hopeless and didn’t get support from him. He forced me to work on the farm while I was sick." 

Two months later, Bopha came across another Cambodian woman working in the same town. The woman told Bopha that she had managed to save some money, and the pair decided to escape together. They travelled for three days through the forest until they eventually reached the Cambodian Embassy, where Bopha contacted her mother. Bopha stayed at the embassy for around three months. She was brought back to Cambodia in November. Bopha was pregnant with her husband’s child and she was subsequently referred to one of Hagar's partner organizations who support women through crisis pregnancies.  

In January, Hagar's partner organization referred her to Hagar. Bopha stayed with Hagar to receive essential services. She received counselling, medical care, case management, food, and safe accommodation. Bopha gave birth to a heathy baby boy in February and moved back to her home community in the north-east of Cambodia, to be supported by family.  


Throughout Bopha’s reintegration, Hagar’s team of counsellors worked with her family to ensure that both Bopha and her family had the support that they needed 

Working closely with Hagar and our partner organization, Bopha and her son are healthy and happy, and she's looking forward to the future with hope. Bopha is interested in the hospitality industry and Hagar are helping her reach her goal of working within it. 

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Organization Information

Hagar USA, which supports the work of Hagar International

Location: Charlotte, NC - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @Hagar_USA
Project Leader:
Jennifer Valliant
Communications Specialist
Charlotte, NC United States
$6,680 raised of $50,000 goal
89 donations
$43,320 to go
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