Fifteen-year-old Mao* spent most of her childhood in Cambodia living in dire poverty, a poverty that forced her to do things that still haunt her.
"I went to spend the night at a friend’s house,” recalls Mao, “My friend's mother asked the girls staying there if anybody wanted to sell pomme,”—a Cambodian reference to virginity.
Mao thought about her family’s financial hardships. About how they had lived in temporary shelters without walls, how they were constantly threatened by their debtors, and how she was forced to drop out of school in grade two, because her parents couldn’t afford it.
She had her answer.
The next day, Mao met two women on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. With her face covered, so she wouldn’t be recognized, Mao was taken to a hotel and sold to a man.
And with that encounter, Mao was robbed of her childhood and her dignity. The price? $200 (U.S.).
She sent the money home to her family. But dared not tell them how she earned it.
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Trapped and Exploited
Poverty, like the kind in Mao’s family, is common. According to a Millennium Development Goals’ report, close to 30 per cent of Cambodians lived in poverty in 2010. This extreme destitution can lead to an increase in children in the workforce—as families’ seek to add to their income.
For Mao, ‘work’ was selling her body repeatedly. Several days after incident one, and still in pain from it, she accepted another offer. For all the shame she felt, she couldn’t see any other option.
Mao's final client happened to be a man who was being investigated by the Cambodian Department of Anti-human Trafficking and Minor Protection.
This investigation led to Mao's rescue from the perpetrator. Mao was sent to World Vision's Trauma Recovery Center to treat her physical, emotional and psychological injuries.
A New Dawn
Several months later, Mao has received counseling, as well as training in health issues, life skills and languages at the Centre. She has also discovered a newfound love: weaving.
She is just about to start weaving a traditional Cambodian Krama, a type of scarf, which she’ll then sell.
This young woman, who spent much of her childhood hiding her shame, vows to not let her past control her future.
"I will share my difficult experience with friends who are living in poverty, and I will convince them not trade themselves, because if they fall into sexual slavery, they will be hurt and will regret it for their entire lives."
*Names have been changed to protect identities.