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A Sisterhood of Support » Women's Courage

A Sisterhood of Support

February 24th, 2011 by elise Leave a reply »

After exploring the horrifying causes and consequences of the sex trade in Cambodia, I think it is time to cover a more positive aspect on the issue: the courage of survivors, the importance of support during recovery, and the road to healing. I’ve chosen to explore some successful programs in Cambodia which aim to empower women through various approaches. As Anne highlights in her book, there are many women’s groups who have come together to support each other and advocate for change. I believe that we can learn from these groups’ approaches and experiences how to best support women and girls who have been rescued or have escaped from the sex trade. As emphasized by Betsi Hoody and Devi Leiper of the Global Fund for Women, it’s “rights not rescue” that we must remember to focus on. With issues of human rights violations, I’ve found that is so important to look at both prevention, education, and awareness and ways to rehabilitate the survivors of abuse and help them integrate back into society, in culturally sensitive and healthy ways.

Devi Leiper explained that many women in Cambodia want factory jobs and economic independence. They move to urban centers hoping to find employment that will allow them to provide for their family, gain social status, and feel empowered by her efforts. With the migration of poor women into the cities, we see many getting coerced into trafficking schemes – taken to other parts of Asia for domestic work, and tricked into sex work domestically or abroad. Women are easily trafficked because their labor (not to mention their worth as human beings) is undervalued and often goes undocumented. So what happens when women see their only opportunity for income or economic independence in sex work? In the words of Somaly Mam, many girls and women “have no choice. They have to sell themselves, they have to have sex.” What if they are lured by promises of a good job, but get taken to a brothel and become indebted to the owner?

What about the girls and women to escape the brothels, or are rescued by NGOs or sudden police raids? Where do they live once they are “free?” How do they reintegrate into society, join the workforce, regain the trust and love of their family? How can we help survivors of abuse find support, love, and acceptance in a supportive community of fellow survivors? I believe we can begin to tackle these challenging questions by learning from the missions and actions of these organizations:

1. Kachin Women Association Thailand (KWAT)

  • Fact: Young women are vulnerable to forced sex because of the violent conflicts in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia.
  • Goal: Train young women to become leaders of the women’s rights movement and work to cultivate gender equality in the community.
  • Approach: Promotes women’s rights and tries to restore their status in post-war society through leadership and skills training “to help women become politically aware and economically independent” (Murray 155).

2. Girl Guides Association of Cambodia

  • Fact: Today’s girls are tomorrow’s women. If we empower young females, we can cultivate gender equality and increase understanding of women’s unique health issues.
  • Goal: Educate young girls to become “the agents of change” by teaching them about domestic violence, gender equity, women’s health issues.
  • Approach: Offer non-formal education and encourage participation in community projects and camping trips to help the girls “develop self-esteem, appreciation for leadership, and concrete roles as responsible members of society” (Murray 68).

3. Urban Poor Women Development, Phnom Penh (UPWD)

  • Fact: Poor women in poor urban areas generally have low social status and limited economic opportunities.
  • Goal: Help poor women in urban areas find jobs and develop economic independence and increased social status.
  • Approach: Give funds to women to start small businesses, train women to be leaders in local organizations and NGOs (Murray 5).

4. Strey Khmer in Cambodia

  • Fact: Cambodia’s political system is dominated by men. Women’s voices and rights need to be heard and respected.
  • Goal: Encourage women to get involved in politics, so that at least 30% of government seats will be filled by female leaders in the near future.
  • Approach: Lead workshops in language training and leadership skills, teach classes on gender-based violence and women’s health, include male supporters of women’s rights in the effort (Murray 223).

As I discussed in my first blog post, I am most moved and inspired by the mission and work of the Somaly Mam Foundation. Founded by Somaly Mam, an escaped Cambodian sex slave, the foundation works with AFESIP to fund shelters in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand that house rescued girls and offer them “the comprehensive services they need to heal, and to create healthy, sustainable futures for themselves.”

Somaly is more than a survivor, she’s a human rights crusader, saving girls from brothels and giving them a new life. “The Road to Traffik” movie explains that “Somaly was once told by a man that if she wanted to survive, she had to keep her silence. But she is no longer keeping silent. She is giving a voice to these girls.” Somaly’s work is a living testament that “raw courage can transcend a world of cruelty.” Her organization is unique because it employs doctors, social workers, and former victims to teach the girls and women at her centers about AIDS prevention, sexual health, emotional health, women’s rights, and the joys of living freely and independently. “Being a former victim myself, I know exactly what their needs are. What they need most is love and understanding,” she explains.

  • Goal: Provide girls and women with the skills to reintegrate into society and the courage and self-esteem to reduce their risk of falling back into the sex trade.
  • Approach: “All of our programs share an emphasis on the collective voice of the survivors, who participate in every aspect of our work. Survivors who have gone through our rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs can choose to join our Voices for Change initiative, which offers them the opportunity”  to do outreach and teach classes to other survivors. VFC members visit brothels, distributing condoms and doing HIV/AIDS education.

The women who have started these organizations are strong, loving, courageous, creative, and determined. The women they serve are survivors, healers, mentors, teachers, mothers, sisters, lovers, and friends. The power of women to envision and actualize change cannot be underestimated. In the words of Maya Angelou, “You can write me down in history with hateful, twisted lies, you can tread me in this very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”


Murray, Anne. “From Outrage to Courage.”

Roy, Norman Jean. “The Road to Traffik.” <Somalymamfoundation.org>


1 comment

  1. jennawg says:

    Elise, this is a great and inspiring post. Throughout the quarter, I’ve been thinking a lot about how women can help each other in the face of discrimination and abuses. Support groups and the like seem like a powerful and perhaps underutilized resource. It can be so beneficial to be able to share one’s story with people who can truly relate. Of course, it’s always wonderful to read about successful organizations. I’m especially interested in the Somaly Mam Foundation–what an inspiring woman. She truly exemplifies the transition from victim to survivor to activist, and I’m heartened to learn how she’s helping other women become the same. This is grassroots change at its best.

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