Stung Treng Women's Development Center (SWDC)

Sustainable Livelihood and Poverty Reduction

By Kim Green 


In 1984, Chantha Nguon was a young refugee, working as a soup vendor in a lawless border town. While Chan plotted their escape to Thailand, Chantha made ends meet by serving kuy teav to sex workers in a brothel district. Seeing their suffering made her heartsick. “I couldn’t understand how these beautiful young creatures could have chosen such a life,” she writes in her memoir (in progress). “I laugh now at the absurd innocence of that idea.”

Chantha quickly grasped that freedom of choice exists on a continuum of duress. Although she had endured her own crushing losses, these desperate girls came from impoverished villages ravaged by war; some had been brought to the brothels by their mothers to become the family’s breadwinner. “A girl doesn’t have to be kidnapped and chained to see no other destination for herself than a brothel,” she writes. “If I had no hope and nothing to sell for food, maybe I would do the same—how could I know for sure?”

For people in extreme poverty, freedom isn’t black and white. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in their book, Half the Sky, brothel workers can’t be divided neatly into sex slaves and voluntary entrepreneurs; many “inhabit a gray zone between freedom and slavery.”

The same holds true for other victims of labor trafficking 

and modern slavery. The problem is vast, and largely invisible. A 2017 study by the International Labour Office (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation estimates that more than 40 million people in the world live in conditions of modern slavery—nearly 25 million as forced laborers, and 15 million plus in forced marriages. One-quarter of these slavery victims are children, and women and girls are particularly vulnerable.

In Chantha’s work in Stung Treng—for Doctors Without Borders, then SWDC—she has seen the impossible choices poor people make every day: eke out a living on the rice fields, hoping for good weather and good health. Build roads for a dollar or two a day. Leave the village to labor at rubber plantations or factories. Or leave Cambodia to work abroad.

An estimated one million Cambodians have chosen the latter; many do so through illegal channels. These undocumented migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking, which assumes many forms: forced labor on Thai fishing vessels; domestic servitude in Malaysia or the Middle East; or forced marriages in China.

Some forms of trafficking and modern slavery are all too common closer to home: Families in debt, or with more children than they can feed, may sell a child to be sexually exploited. In one case reported by CNN, a destitute mother fell heavily into debt to loan sharks after her fisherman husband fell ill and could not work. She surrendered her 12-year-old daughter to a brothel, where her virginity was sold and she was raped many times a day.

Over the past decade, the work of Kristof and WuDunn, among others, has turned a spotlight on the horrors of trafficking and exploitation—and rightly so. But lasting solutions have been elusive. “Rescuing girls is the easy part, however,” write WuDunn and Kristof. “ The challenge is keeping them from returning.”

But in a larger sense, the challenge for Cambodia is to help families avoid being exploited in the first place, by offering them better, safer ways to support themselves and their children. And also, by providing a safety net for families living in dire poverty, one meager harvest or illness away from starvation.

Our vocational training program offers them another choice. 

To learn more about our vocational training program click here.

Kim Green is a freelance writer and public radio producer. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Parade, Roads & Kingdoms, Hemispheres, and the Nashville Scene, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Nashville Public Radio, Marketplace, and NPR’s Here and Now. She’s also managing editor of Pursuit Magazine, an online publication for professional investigators.

Follow her blog here

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