Kolab does not know who her real parents are. She studied to grade 5, then was forced to worked as a family servant, in a karaoke bar, and to sell drugs and sex. Phalla studied to grade 12, then was sold to a brothel by her grandmother. Here are their stories. (Names have been changed to protect the survivors' privacy.)
What was your childhood like in Cambodia?
KOLAB: I was born in 1991. My parents treated me like a house servant and frequently beat me for no reason. Since they were farmers, I had to help them in the rice paddies after finishing the housework. When I turned 7, I learned that my “parents” were actually foster parents. They told me that my biological parents had sold me shortly after I was born for the equivalent of 1,000 U.S. dollars since they could not afford to raise me, which was very hurtful.
PHALLA: I was born in 1988. When I was 20, my father died and we had nobody to provide for our family, so I had to stop my schooling and move in with my grandmother.
"I was hopeless and thought: The world is so big with many girls and women, why has this problem happened to me?"
After leaving your families, where did you go next?
KOLAB: When I turned 13 years old, my foster parents sent me to a woman in the capital city, Phnom Penh. I worked for this woman and her family every day for the equivalent of $12.50 U.S. a month. The woman forced me to clean, cook, and wash non-stop. I had no time to rest, not even on the weekends. One day, two months after I arrived, the woman went out and I stayed home babysitting her children. Her husband called me into his room and tried to have sex with me. I started yelling, but he raped me anyway.
PHALLA: After living with my grandmother for a month, one day she said, “My baby, tomorrow I will go to visit Kampong Som, do you want to go with me?” I replied, “Yes! Oh, Grandma I want to see the sea.” When we arrived in Kampong Som, my grandma brought me into the village to a nice house, which she said belonged to a friend. We stayed there for a few days and I saw many cars approach the house and then leave with young women. On the 4th day, my grandma introduced me to the house owner and said: “I need my granddaughter to stay here for several days, then I will come to bring her home.” The house owner said: “OK! Don’t worry!” I waited for my grandma for more than several days but she never came back.
How did you get trapped in the commercial sex industry?
KOLAB: To escape the home where I was basically a servant, I went to Phnom Penh province where a friend told me I could find work. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go. I was standing by the taxis when two men asked me where I was going. I told them I didn’t know. They said that if I didn’t have any relatives, I could stay with them. I had few choices and, since they were older, I assumed they were safe to live with so I agreed. When we arrived to their home, I saw 2 men and 15 girls who were strung out on drugs. I felt afraid, but the man told me everything would be alright. He introduced me to a man called Tiger II who I later learned owned the place and was the leader of a gang. After a week, Tiger II ordered me to have sex with a man on video but I refused. He said: “You cannot refuse. You must do this for me.” He ordered someone to inject me with drugs. Then I could no longer refuse because I had no control. I had to do what they wanted which was to be filmed having sex with Khmer men, Vietnamese men and Japanese men. During this time, I also had to have sex with Tiger II and members of his gang. This torture continued for 20 days and they subdued me with drugs. I was hopeless and thought: The world is so big with many girls and women, why has this problem happened to me?
PHALLA: I kept looking for my grandma, but the house-owner said she wouldn’t be coming back because she had sold me. She told me I must make money but I couldn’t leave the house. Then, she forced me into the room and locked the door. After that, I didn’t sleep, I cried and listened. That night, I heard someone turn the lock and I said: “Hello! Who are you?” He said he was my Uncle and that he needed me to do something for him. I was afraid and didn’t want to see anyone. I asked him why he’d come here. He said he needed me to go to Heaven with him. Suddenly, I was fully alert. When he touched me, I immediately pushed him away. He pushed me onto the bed and punched me. My mouth began bleeding and I called for help, but no one answered. He put his arm on my mouth to muffle my screams and then ripped off my clothes and raped me. When he’d finished I asked him, “Why have you done this?” He replied, “You are mine for several days. So, I can do whatever I want to you because I gave a lot of money to your boss. Don’t be angry.” Then he left the room.
"I felt like an animal in the zoo.... I had very low self-esteem, harmed myself and was quick to anger. I felt hopeless because I didn’t think anything of my life. I was a slave prostitute."
What was your life like in the sex industry?
KOLAB: Tiger II ordered me to sell drugs from 9:00pm to 11:00pm and then sell my body from 11:00pm to 4:00am. I was ordered to steal, pickpocket, and cheat my customers by taking their money and motorbikes. They expected me to make $200 to $300 per night; if I did not, they punished me by stripping and beating me with a stick until I fainted, electrocuting me, cutting me and pouring salt water on the cuts, and placing my hands into a bamboo press for up to 20 minutes. I received these punishments several times and still have the scars. To numb the pain, I began taking more drugs, like yama and acetima-mint, which made me feel invincible and unafraid. Tiger II and his gang watched me carefully and punished me for anything I did wrong. They forced me to sleep with as many as 50 customers a day. I had to give Tiger II all my money, but I secretly hid $5 from each customer. Most of the customers thought I was dirty. If I tried to confide in them about Tiger II, they accused me of lying.
PHALLA: After 3 months in the first brothel, I was sold to a new brothel owner in Kosh Kong. The brothel owner and the “guests” forced me to have sex copying styles they saw in sex videos. In the first month, I had 10 to 15 guests a day. I felt like an animal in the zoo. I couldn’t go anywhere, I never got the money – they gave me drugs, curses and beatings instead. Sometimes, they checked me and took money that some guests passed directly to me. I quickly became a drug user because it helped ease my distress but ultimately the drugs didn’t help me lose my pain. I had very low self-esteem, harmed myself and was quick to anger. I felt hopeless because I didn’t think anything of my life. I was a slave prostitute.
After 2 months in Kosh Kong, I was sold to a brothel in Thailand where they forced me to have sex with 20 to 30 men because I was new and pretty. I worked in this brothel for 4 months. One day, I met a Khmer man who helped me escape with 4 others back to Cambodia. I lived with him in Phnom Penh for a week after which he took me to work in a karaoke bar.
How did you escape the sex trade?
KOLAB: I worked for Tiger II in both Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham for almost 2 years. Eventually I gained their trust, and they watched me less carefully. One night, I took the money I had saved and stole an additional $500 from the boss in order to run away with a friend. We went to Phnom Penh and sold vegetables, but the gang found me and forced me to return to the brothel. I was forced to make more sex videos, and again, I ran away. I tried to find work in a factory, but nobody would hire me so I started working at the Hing Hing Massage Parlor. One day, in December 2009, the police arrived and closed down the parlor. I was very scared that I would be arrested, but they told me they wanted to help me.
The police sent me to the Accommodation of Social Affairs department so I could learn some skills and get a proper job. After meeting the non-profit organization AFESIP Cambodia there, I finally was able to leave the sex industry, where I never wanted to be in the first place. I have decided to study hairdressing in the AFESIP center to make a living. I’d like to become a good hairdresser or a staff member of AFESIP, so I can help other victims.
PHALLA: At the karaoke bar, I wasn’t allowed to go out anywhere. After a week, I ran away but they arrested me and sent me back. I was put in a room under ground and beaten by the boss for a few days. Then, they sold me to a foreigner. I was with him for 3 days but I didn’t run away because I wanted to gain my boss’ confidence. After another month back at the karaoke bar, the boss trusted me enough to allow me to go out unsupervised. 2 months later, I met a woman that used to live with AFESIP who told me about the organization and gave me their phone number. I went to the clinic to ask for help and now stay at their center, where I study sewing, English and computer. I would like to become a lawyer because I want to help other victims.