The reality of Cambodia’s sex trafficking industry was vividly exposed to me one humid afternoon as I sat on a courtroom bench in Phnom Penh. I was sitting with four young girls as their sellers were escorted into the room. Their sellers were their mother, aunt, and grandmother. I didn’t need to understand the language to feel the fear, pain, and devastation that had just filled the room. I didn’t need to hear the words of the lawyer or the judge to understand the full situation.
You don’t have to work for a non-governmental organization or visit the red-light district – even the slightly observant tourist eye can see signs of sexual slavery, violence, and abuse. Pick up the city’s thin daily newspaper and you are likely to find another report of abuse, rape, or trafficking. Drive around the block and count the number of “massage parlors” filled with young women and rows of cots. Walk into a seemingly pleasant garden restaurant-bar and pass the “pretty girls” waiting to offer their services after a few drinks.
The perpetrators are shamelessly bold, as I experienced one day while using a hotel gym. After making polite conversation with the middle-aged white man on the next treadmill, I found myself in complete shock when he told me, “I come to Cambodia for the girls. They’re good for one thing only.”
The organization I work for here, Hagar Cambodia, helps women who have been victims of trafficking, abuse, or rape. Hagar seeks to transform despair into true hope. Hagar is passionate about the recovery and restoration of women and children through a long-term commitment to care and a belief in sustainable economic and work opportunities as an avenue for empowerment, dignity, and hope.
On your side of the world you can continue to cry out against this violation of basic human rights. You can advocate, pray, fight, and demand a stop to trafficking and other forms of abuse. On this side of the world are the lives and stories of these women and children. My hope is to build a bridge that connects our two worlds.
In Cambodia I use a bag that carries a story of hope, even on days of overwhelming hopelessness. It’s a bag made by the women employed at Hagar Design, and it’s the story of how beauty can be made out of brokenness and despair. It represents a journey of transformation that may be long and difficult, but that can be sewn together one piece at a time. Hope is what allows us to rise in the morning and gives us strength to carry on another day, no matter what side of the world we’re on.
Elise Elzinga is a former Sojourners intern, and the communications and advocacy coordinator for Hagar Cambodia in Phnom Penh. To read more about Hagar and human trafficking, see “In You I Take Refuge,” by David Batstone, in the March issue of Sojourners magazine.