“My family is extremely poor,” Mao explains. Her mother sells fruit and flowers, and her father is an assistant chef. “Both of them earn a small amount of money and it is just enough for food and other expenses.”
Mao dropped out of school in Grade 2 due to her family’s poverty. Moreover, family debt pressured her into the sex trade to earn money to pay for what her family owed.
“One day, I went to visit a friend and stayed overnight in her house,” Mao says. “My friend’s mother asked women and girls staying in her house if anybody wanted to sell Pomme (a Cambodian reference to virginity).” Hearing this offer, Mao was driven to consider it since she desperately needed money to help her mother pay their debt. After thinking about it for a while, she answered, “Yes, I will.”
At dawn the next day, two women waited for Mao in front of a pagoda. They instructed Mao to mask her face so no one would recognize her. Ashamed, she did as they told her. They travelled to a hotel where her virginity was sold to a man for $200 USD. Mao immediately sent $150 USD to her mother to pay the debt, but did not let her mother know where the money had come from.
“I should not have been so naive and ignorant as to trade myself,” Mao says. But knowing her family’s ongoing financial difficulty and her parents’ inability to repay their debts, she saw few options, and she turned to the sex trade for money.
Mao’s final client happened to be a foreigner, a man who was being investigated and tracked by Cambodian authorities. This investigation led to Mao’s rescue. She was sent to World Vision’s Trauma Recovery Centre for medical care to treat her injuries and for psychosocial support. Mao spent several months in the centre. She received counselling and training in topics such as health issues, life skills, and language study. She learned that she loves to weave, and she now weaves the traditional Cambodian Krama and is able to earn and save some money to send to her family.
Mao spent much of her childhood running from regrets and hiding her shame. But she has decided she won’t allow her past to control her future. Thinking about two friends who were traded to a foreigner by their parents, Mao pleads to all parents: “Please do not trade your children.” She hopes other girls will not fall into the trap of sexual exploitation due to poverty. “I will share my difficult experience … and I will convince them not to trade themselves because if they fall into sexual slavery, they will be hurt and regretful for life.”
Mao dreams of becoming a teacher. “I want to be a Khmer teacher,” she says, “so I can read and teach other people to read.”
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.