She was only 10 years and had been rescued the day before we visited the AFESIP (Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire), a safe haven for young women and girls who are trafficked and are then sold into prostitution. Prior to being rescued her destination was Malaysia or mainland China. Her price - a few hundred US dollars to her parents. For her a life of untold misery, undoubtedly teenage pregnancy and the acute risk of catching AIDS. There are few viable alternatives . . . 40,000 women and young girls are forced into the sex trade.
More than 200,000 Cambodian people are living with HIV - 71,000 are women. A major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS is men visiting prostitutes and then taking the disease back to their wives. Cambodia has the highest rate of increase of HIV prevalence in South East Asia - from 2.4 per cent in 1997 to 4.04 per cent in 1999.
One out of every 236 Cambodians is a landmine victim. Between 1980 and 1995 landmines claimed 2,000 victims a year. Landmines are still claiming victims. It is estimated six million are still planted in Cambodia.
Sibbhanaas Mobile Medical Clinics can have 800 to 1000 villagers from remote rural areas queuing for free advice. Held 3 out of 4 weekends they see patients, dispense medication and handout toothbrushes and paste. Over half Cambodia's population of about 12 million are women, 2000 of whom die every year during child birth. Internal strife has left its mark - following a five-year struggle; Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh in 1975 evacuating cities and towns. Over 1 million died. The Vietnamese invasion in 1978 drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and touched off 13 years of fighting. UN sponsored elections saw some semblance of normality return, as did the diminishment of the Khmer Rouge and the surrender of its remaining forces. With the coalition government formed after general elections in 1998, renewed political stability has returned.
The pain -- stark facts seen by Lorna Mead, Extension / Membership Convenor for the Federation of Soroptimist International of the South West Pacific and six Sister Soroptimists from Singapore on their first visit in November 2002 to Cambodia . . .(it won't be their last visit). Despite the harsh realities there is a funny side. Sex education is in its infancy in Cambodia. Nurses attempted to teach the use of condoms and initially demonstrated on a banana. They soon realised they need a more realistic symbol after an old man happily reported he had used a condom. He had put it on a banana and placed it above the bed when he was having sex. This 5 day visit was to investigate the viability of establishing a women's service organisation in Cambodia, to establish links with charitable organisations and to experience first hand the country's needs.
And the beauty -- the charming and dedicated people who are trying to ease the pain; the stunningly lovely country side and the temples at Siem Reap including the famous Angkor Wat.
The Soroptimist team was privileged to visit AFESIP. It was set up in 1996 by Cambodian Somaly Mam and her French husband Pierre Legros. It's aim is to fight against causes and consequences of sexual exploitation, and in particular the sexual violation of children and adolescents, who are the most vulnerable. Rescuing them from being forced into the commercial sex industry the centre's objective is rehabilitation and social integration. Safe inside this haven surrounded by walls, barbed wire and a security guard the rescued girls can rebuild their lives. This security is very necessary as pimps would climb in and steal back the girls.
While Somaly and Pierre are working to rehabilitate and socially integrate the women and girls they are conscious of the threats against them and their own small children. Somaly also teaches sewing -- an income generating possibility.
The Lotus Pond, another place on the tour was set up single handed by the very dynamic Nivana Cheng on her recent return to Cambodia from years in the United States of America. It is a centre for the training and development of Khmer fine arts and crafts. Nivana trains local artisans to weave, carve and paint in the old Khmer style producing quality handicrafts and furniture enabling them to set up commercially viable enterprises.
When the Soroptimist team visited the Lotus Pond they saw a man carving a beautiful replica screen with his young son helping him - idyllic, except he was the victim of a land mine and wore a prosthesis. His wife was nearby in the tranquil green surroundings sewing pretty handbags.
Another organisation, the Samdech Rasmi Sobbhana Womenas Foundation, was founded by Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Marie Ranaroddah of Cambodia in 1984 to cater for refugee families in the Thai border camps with short term educational and welfare programmes. However after the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, the foundation relocated in Phnom Penh for long-term programmes for the development of women to improve the statue of women and girls through education, skills training and income generating programmes. Silks, quality silver and other goods are sold in their boutique. However this voluntary organisation made up largely of women, organises medical and dental missions (rotating among 10 doctors) into the countryside.
It became very obvious to Lorna Mead and the Singapore Soroptimists that help is needed . . . and this is where Soroptimists within the Federation of the South West Pacific could help . . . sourcing medication, providing used computers, pencils and paper, blankets, clothing for children and much more. Practical help could also be given in marketing and selling Khmer handicrafts, teaching Information Technology and English . . . the list is endless They met with several different groups of Cambodian women. To quote Dr Ing Kantha Phavi, Secretary of State, Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs,
Soroptimist sisters should do all they can to make these precious gems shine.