There are an estimated 261,000 people living in modern slavery in Cambodia (GSI 2018). All of Cambodia's 25 provinces are sources for human trafficking. Cambodian women and girls move from rural areas to cities and tourist destinations where they are subjected to sex trafficking in brothels, beer gardens, massage parlours and salons. Children from impoverished families are vulnerable to forced labour, often with the complicity of their families, including in domestic servitude and forced begging or street vending in Thailand and Vietnam.
When Sophea was 3 or 4 years old, she was taken 300km away from her home with a woman she did not know. The woman forced her to abandon her education and sell cakes in the village. When she was 11 years old, Sophea escaped.
I was born in a violent family—violence from my mother—and lived there from when I was born until the age of four. I was sent, by my father, in a car with a lady to live in a place 300 kilometres from my home. I was so small at about three or four years old and did not know whether I was sold or my father just wanted to save me from my mother's violence.
Living far away from my family, I never had experience of what freedom was. No-one cared for me; I was forced to work selling cakes around the village and did not get a chance to go to school for an education. I was beaten by that lady and I was not given food to eat if I could not sell all the cakes. I wanted to be like other children, in that they could go to school, have friends and be loved. And have enough food to eat and not have discrimination from the neighbours. Every day I lived with fear because I had to sell all the cakes. I was beaten by that lady every day and not given food to eat if I could not sell all the cakes. I was forced to sell all the cakes even if I was ill. I was not taken to the hospital or given medicine. What I received was violence all the time.
When I was seven years old, I tried to escape, but I was found by that lady and there was even more violence. The neighbours did not allow their children to play with me because they thought I had no parents, so maybe I was not a good girl, and maybe not good for their children to play with. Because of the feeling of living with fear, I tried to run away many times. I tried to run away from that lady's home in order to find a family that could provide what I needed, like caring and getting me to school. But those families could not provide those needs for me. The four families that I lived with were the same; they beat me and forced me to work more than I should as a child. The last family I lived with gave me enough food and got me to school, but they were even more violent to me. I felt so hopeless because I thought that there were not any other, better ways for me, so I decided to commit suicide on two occasions, by jumping from a window and by hanging myself. But I was still alive.
When I was 11 years old, I decided to steal one of the bicycles of the family in order to escape, to live in a religious home. I heard about that religious home from a lady that came to visit the family I was living with. On my way, it was dark and I was stopped by a family, as it was about to rain. That family allowed me to stay in their home for a while, they gave me love and promised that they would take me as their adopted child and that they would take me to school. They said that, in order to do that, they would need to take me to their home town. But there was interference by a community chief, so I was not sent anywhere else. The community chief found me a safe place. He tried to find an organisation, because he thought that only an organisation could keep me safe and could give me food, education and love, as I had been dreaming of. So he contacted Hagar and sent me there.
The first day in Hagar I felt scared and strange because I had never known this place before. What I was most scared of was that this place might not be different from the previous places and that maybe this place was not able to provide what I needed. But I was totally wrong, because Hagar loved me and cared for me; I got friends and I could go to school. No matter what the circumstances, Hagar never gave up on me, made me whole and I could continue my dream. I have loving care from foster parents; I have a mum and I have a dad. They love and care for me, which I never received before. I have other brothers and sisters living around me. I have a counsellor who works with me and helps me with my problems and with going through my deeper trauma from day to day. I have a case manager to work with me on my care plan, and follow up on my study and financial support, so that I can live and learn as the other children do, and so that I was not discriminated against like before.
Today I have finished my bachelor degree in social work and now I am a social worker, working as the education outreach officer. I have had this job for one month now. What I have got today is from Hagar walking alongside me and not giving up on me. I have freedom in my life; I am responsible for myself and I can help other people who have the same life and background as me. From a small child who used to live with abuse and violence, my dream now is to help other victims who have had the same difficult life I have had so that they are not subject to being abandoned by their parents, to torture or to any other kind of human rights abuse. I want them to get the help they need to be loved, to be cared for and to enjoy freedom, and especially to have their basic needs met. Thank you.
Narrative provided as testimony at the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Subcommittee meeting in Australia