A fresh look and a fresh start for survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia

Date: Friday, December 14, 2018

Authors: Gaelle Demolis and Lesli Davis

Siem Reap, Cambodia — Three Cambodian women welcome their first customer of the day to have a seat in the salon chair. Chantrea* gently scrubs her hair, dries it, and styles the locks in long twists. When the next customer enters, Kunthea* provides a manicure, her steady hands painting each nail twice before a clear coat seals the color. Finally, Sokhanya* finishes the treatment with a bit of eye shadow and powder to the customer’s face.

A womens salon in the Siem reap province. Photo: UN Women/Stephanie Simcox

Just as these friends make over their customer, they have also made over their lives in the past six months. Through UN Women’s new programme to prevent human trafficking in Cambodia and Myanmar, they were able to quit their jobs in the entertainment industry and start their own salon.

“My family was poor, and we had to pay for my siblings’ school.” Said Chantrea, now 17 years old. “I started working at a massage parlor in Siem Reap at 15. People would touch me, and the customers asked me to go out. Sometimes, I went with them.”

Chantrea uses the skills she learned to braid her customer’s hair. Photo: UN Women/Stephanie Simcox

Kunthea and Sokhanya are both 23 and also worked in late night businesses in Siem Reap. Sokhanya said, “I worked all night at the karaoke bar. Clients touched and harassed us, but I did not want to leave because otherwise I had no other work.” Kunthea said, “I didn’t feel good psychologically because of the job I had.”

In Cambodia, a lack of jobs drives women and girls to move from rural areas to tourist destination cities. They are sometimes subjected to sex trafficking in brothels or transported outside of the country. More frequently, however, they are coerced or tricked into working in “indirect” sex establishments, such as massage parlors, karaoke bars, and beer gardens, where local and foreign men pay tips for sexual services.

As of 2016, an estimated 1.5 million people in the Greater Mekong Sub-region were victims of human trafficking, with approximately 256,000 of those in Cambodia. This is three times the estimated number of victims from 2006, indicating a sharply rising trend.

Kunthea smiles as she reaches for her rainbow-colored nail polish collection. Photo: UN Women/Stephanie Simcox

“A friend told me about this training being advertised by an NGO. She said I could learn new skills,” Chanthea said. UN Women’s partner, the local NGO Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), has trained 100 women in border communities in Cambodia to develop their entrepreneurship skills since 2018 and 30 of them will receive small grants to start up their business.

Chantrea, Kunthea and Sokhanya learned to how to do beauty skills, such as manicures, pedicures, cutting and styling hair, and skincare. The women used their small business grants to open a beauty salon together on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Ms. Thak Socheat, Program Manager for CWCC, said, “There are many women in the entertainment industry who are at risk of trafficking. Some are indebted, some need the income to support their family, and many came to us to get out of this industry. This project provides more than skills and income; we are giving them an opportunity to restore their self-confidence and be empowered.”

Through the training, participants also learn about the potential risks of migration. “Before doing this training, I thought about going to Thailand to work. But we learned the difference in safe and unsafe migration,” said Kunthea. “Now we know how dangerous this can be.”

Kunthea and Sokjanya share a similar background working in the entertainment industry in Siem Reap. “We became friends in the UN Women training and decided to open the salon together,” they said.  Photo: UN Women/Stephanie Simcox

Though the business is young, the women are positive about their future. “We have been open for one month now and already had 20 customers.” said Sokjanya. “I am very happy, and I see my future is bright now.”

* Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

With the generous funding of the Government of Japan, UN Women, in partnership with UNODC, is working in the Greater Mekong Sub-region to ensure that at-risk border communities will be more resilient to trafficking of persons, with a particular focus on women. This includes by providing economic opportunities for trafficking survivors and women at risk of trafficking, promoting increased women’s participation and leadership in law enforcement, and strengthening the capacity of frontline officers in border locations to meet the needs of women.