What you are about to read is a story that has mature themes in it. Some names and locations have been changed to protect the identity of the victim.
Srey Oun was born in 1995 in a rural provincial town a few hours outside of Phnom Penh. As Srey Oun grew up in an impoverished household and became a teenager, she was told the same thing many young teenage girls are told by their families, “We’re sending you to Phnom Penh to work and send home money.” This is an all too familiar story around Cambodia. With widespread corruption and people’s desperation to find more income, human trafficking rings often prey upon these young girls being sent by their families.
Some families knowingly sell their daughters into slavery and some are simply manipulated to think they’re daughters will be well taken care of. Srey Oun’s story is the same as many girls that find themselves trapped in slavery, they were sent by their families with no say in the matter. Srey Oun is not sure of the details of negotiation but can remember the day she was told to go with a woman named Srey Mom to Phnom Penh.
Srey Mom came to get Srey Oun from her family and took her to Phnom Penh. The ride was like any normal taxi ride a Cambodian would take to get to the capital city of Phnom Penh. Even though Phnom Penh is still being rebuilt from decades of war and occupation that ravaged the city, for a girl coming from a rural provincial town, Phnom Penh has the biggest buildings imaginable, incredibly busy streets and any food any one could ever want.
Srey Oun was taken to Srey Mom’s personal house where she was charged with watching her two kids. The only confusion was that while Srey Oun worked around the house, she would hear conversations of business transactions in which Srey Mom would tell people she was a virgin. There were also other girls living in the house being taken care of and being “beautified,” as Srey Mom called it. It was not completely clear to Srey Oun at first, nor the other girls, but the reason they were being forced to stay in this house everyday was to make sure their skin lightened up, making them beautiful enough to be sold for sex.
After about five months Srey Oun was forced from her job watching the kids to go to be sold. Srey Mom’s husband took her to another place with a room where Srey Oun had to stand behind glass for customers to come in and look at her to decide if they wanted to buy her for sex. She was instructed that once she was purchased, she was at the pleasure of the customer. Whatever they wanted she had to do for one night and then return to Srey Mom’s house in the morning, money in hand.
Over the course of two years Srey Oun was sold to different customers six times. Srey Oun’s own sense of dignity pushed her to refuse sex when taken to a hotel by a customer. The angry customers would complain to the pimp, who was Srey Mom’s husband, and they would discipline her. The first couple of times the discipline would include being beaten until she was bruised, bleeding and sobbing. But, after a number of times, as the frustration with her grew, she would be beat unconscious. As Srey Oun’s stubbornness to hold on to her dignity with everything she had maintained, it was only a matter of time before her pimps frustration lever with her would boil over.
As was the cycle, after the sixth time that Srey Oun refused to have sex with a customer, Srey Mom’s husband beat her unconscious. This time however, he would take revenge in the very way that she refused to give in. Srey Oun was raped by Srey Mom’s husband. Over the course of time, he raped her multiple times. For a girl like Srey Oun, with a family that potentially sold her into slavery and a government that is struggling to find how to bring justice, Srey Oun is low on the priority list. Srey Oun had nowhere to turn, nobody to call and nobody who cared.
Out of desperation she resolved to try to runaway. The next time she was purchased by a customer she tried to run. It didn’t work. There was never a time she was alone and had time to runaway. She was recognized in the area and anytime she would run she’d be caught and forced to return. It seemed as though the police in the area would turn a blind eye to the whole situation.
As was his habit, Srey Mom’s husband who was the pimp responsible for Srey Oun, beat her and raped her. It had become such a habit he became careless. The moment Srey Mom found out her husband was having sex with one of the girls, her jealous rage propelled her to physically confront her husband. Srey Oun remembers never seeing anyone fight like this before. Her mind immediately thought of escape. Without a moment to spare, with the attention of the house on Srey Mom and her husband fighting, Srey Oun ran with everything she had in her. As she ran, she didn’t bother looking back or thinking about where to run. She just ran.
As best as she could tell, she was in the clear. She had no strength left in her body and nowhere to go, so she collapsed next to the road. Over the next week she slept in this same spot on the side of a busy thoroughfare. She had nothing to eat and no one to take care of her. As she started finding leftover scraps and ways to survive, some people in the area noticed her and began talking to those around. After about a week a police officer approached her. As they talked he informed her which traffic circle she had been sleeping by. Srey Oun didn’t dare tell him where she had come from out of fear of being taken back. She simply explained she had no place to go. The policeman told her there was a church organization that some people talk about and that they help anybody.
Although at the time Srey Oun wasn’t sure what would happen now, she speaks of this moment as defining the start of a new life for her. The policeman arranged a motor taxi for her and she was taken to FCOP church. Her physical appearance and emotional state alerted staff at the church that this young woman needed immediate help.
As the staff quickly got Srey Oun new clothes, food to eat and a bed to rest in, it was only a matter of hours before FCOP President, Sou Mountha, and staff medical doctor, Lina, were there to meet Srey Oun. Srey Oun began to communicate and speak about the days she stayed on the side of the road. In the following days, as Srey Oun stayed in FCOP’s care, a full medical check-up was done. The results for a physical checkup revealed she would get back to full health after some basic care. There was one medical result that caught everybody by surprise.
It astonished even Srey Oun to find out she was six months pregnant. The thought of having a child scared her and brought back memories of the past two years of torture she endured. Her immediate response was to have an abortion. The decision was hers to make but was reassured by the staff at FCOP that she would never be alone or mistreated again. Even those that were caring for her from FCOP had stories of how they had been taken in by FCOP after being orphaned, discarded or separated from their families with nowhere to go. As Srey Oun considered the options, she was hesitant still to trust anybody, but decided her new family at FCOP meant what they said.
Although Srey Oun took a while to get used to life in a home with a family again, she is insistent her life in this new home is like nothing she had ever experienced before. She still calls those around her to help her process some of the horrors and flashbacks that she experiences. They reassure her she is every bit as beautiful as the day she was born and treat her like their own family. At the beginning it was hard for her to trust and accept what people said but at times, you would see a tinge of hope in her eye as she listened to words of encouragement.
Following months of rehabilitation with the family at FCOP’s church home, Srey Oun became a staff member. She also gave birth to a baby boy who today is walking, talking, and every bit a part of a family as any other kid.
The sad reality is that these stories are happening every day. Srey Oun is convinced there is a way to make it through if girls can find someone like FCOP who will be a family to those that don’t have anywhere to turn. She only wishes she had someone to care for her like this earlier. As she insists, if she can make it, anyone can.