Human Trafficking, A Survivor’s Story

15 Jul

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Before I begin recounting this story, a little background information is necessary. Tal, a British girlfriend I met in university, has spent the past 4 years working in both Laos and Cambodia as an Anti-Trafficking Coordinator for an organization called Village Focus International ( It is because of her work that I am able to write this story and share with you what is the reality for so many young women in Southeast Asia.

While this is a true story, the names of those depicted have been altered.

When she was very young, Anna, her slightly older sister and her mother experienced great tragedy when Anna’s father passed away. Anna’s earliest memories are of a life of extreme poverty. Her mother spent her days begging for food, often giving anything she could to Anna and her sister while sometimes going days without eating anything herself.

Due to a severe back injury, Anna’s mother was unable to work. The girls were now in their early teens and therefore were deemed old enough to care for and fend for themselves. They were often left alone as their mother went out to play cards for money and meet men. Anna saw many deadbeat step-father figures come and go through the years.

When she was about 15 Anna’s older sister was sold by her grandmother to a man from Taiwan who wished to purchase her and make her his wife. It’s been 8 years since her sister was bought and neither Anna nor anyone in her family has seen or heard from her sister.

Not long after her sister was sold, Anna’s mother began having conversations with a German man of about 60 years old who wished to purchase Anna’s virginity. Because of the high number of HIV and AIDS cases in Cambodia, virginity is sold as a valuable commodity at a high price as it is the perception that if a girl is a virgin it is far less likely that’s she has contracted HIV or AIDS. Anna’s mother planned to use the money she ‘earned’ from selling her daughter’s virginity to pay for an operation that would alleviate her back problems. Anna was forced to meet with the German man and for some unknown reason or another, the deal never went through and Anna was able to keep her virginity, though by this point she’d been robbed of her both her childhood and her innocence.

Time passed and Anna’s mother introduced a heavy-drinking and abusive step-father into her life. Out of fear, 16 year-old Anna ran away to a nearby village where she had a girlfriend who was a few years older than she was. This older girl promised Anna refuge, a safe place to stay and would even help her to get a job in a local bar. Unfortunately for Anna, she trusted this older girl who then turned around and sold her to a pimp.

The night she was sold, Anna was taken to a horrible run-down shanti apartment building in a rough part of town that is notorious for conducting business of the sex trafficking kind. She was led in to a room where she was lined up alongside a number of other girls.  In walked an older man in uniform who began slowly pacing up and down the row of young teenage girls, giving each of them a thorough once-over before making his selection. He stopped in front of the girl standing next to Anna and right there in the room, in front of them all, this man in uniform violently raped the girl he’d chosen from the line-up.

When he had finished he left the room, leaving the girls stunned in horror and terror as his victim lay bleeding and inconsolable on the floor of the filthy apartment. The girls were then ushered hurriedly into a small room where they were locked up for the night. By some miracle Anna and 3 of the other girls were able to escape from the locked room, once again ‘free’.

Having nowhere to go and not being able to trust anyone Anna began staying at a local guest house. She eventually got a legitimate job working in a nearby bar and it was there that she met a guy from the U.K. who was about her age and who had planned to travel Southeast Asia for the next 3 months. This boy fell in love with Anna and abandoned his plans to travel and instead spent his 3-month holiday with Anna in Cambodia. When it was time for him to return to the U.K. they broke off their relationship.

Soon after his departure Anna reached out to her ex to inform him that she was pregnant with his child. Barely earning enough to support herself and not wanting to be a mother at this point in her life, Anna asked if he would be able to send her the money it would cost for her to have an abortion. Her ex agreed to send her the money and so Anna booked the appointment.

On the day of her appointment, money in hand, Anna showed up at the hospital. She checked herself in and while she waited for her name to be called. Somehow Anna’s mother had gotten wind of the pregnancy and found out the date and time of her abortion.  Her mother stormed in to the waiting room, hit Anna and stole the cash she had brought with her to pay for the procedure. Not caring that Anna didn’t want to have a child with her ex who lived in the U.K. she knew that this baby was her ticket to consistent income and a higher standard of living.

That afternoon Anna had to make a difficult phone call to her ex, telling him that her mother had stolen the money for the abortion and that even if he were to send more she wouldn’t be able to get another appointment before the end of her first trimester. Anna and her ex were going to be parents in a matter of 6 months. Anna gave birth to a healthy baby boy whom she named after a European football player as he was born during the World Cup.

During her pregnancy and up until a few months after the birth of her son Anna was living with her mother and step-father du jour in a tiny single room in an area of extreme poverty. When it rained, the room would flood, rain pouring through the holes in the roof. Mosquitos were swarming everywhere, including the newborn baby who lay only a very short distance above the water pooling on the floor.

Once he was made aware of the conditions in which Anna and their son were living, her ex came up with a way to be able to send her more money each month, urging her to move away from the toxic home life she had living with her unemployed mother and step-father.

A short time after their son was born, Anna and her ex reconciled. Her boyfriend was able to come back to Cambodia for 6 months but since then has been back living in the U.K. where he works to support Anna and their son. Anna is a full-time mum, unable to pay for childcare or rely on her mother and stepfather for help. She is also 90% illiterate, making it difficult for her to get work.

She continues to live in Phnom Penh with her mother and step-father in spite of her boyfriend’s disapproval of the living situation. The earliest memories Anna has of her mother are a powerful thing and in spite of the terrible things Anna’s mother has done to her, she remembers her sacrifices following her father’s death and insists on continuing to allow them both to live with her in the home that her boyfriend pays for.

Anna and her boyfriend are working on obtaining her engagement visa which will allow both her and their son to move to the U.K. There, they will have the support of her boyfriend’s family, access to an education and will finally have the opportunity to be together as a family.


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