A ball of orange fired up the Cambodian sky, casting heat on the makeshift market stalls lining Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Road. Cars dotted the road and yawned past the protruding awnings, pop-up shops and pedestrian consumers. Veng Sreng slowly stretched itself awake as the clock rolled around to nine in the morning.
AFESIP Fair Fashion’s Executive Director Rotha navigated his truck towards the AFESIP workshop and spoke of the grisly not-so-distant history behind Veng Sreng’s serene façade. Less than three years ago, the workers of this largely industrial area took to the streets in protest for higher wages. The unfortunate result: Five deaths and at least 40 injured as government troops rained AK47 bullets on the crowd.
Without Rotha filling in the background, I’d have remained ignorant to these tragic events of early 2014.
The AFESIP workshop shows a similar façade; situated on a peaceful side street near Veng Sreng the workshop holds not only the machines and materials for a fashion design business, but the sex trafficking survivors who keep the business afloat. The serene location and facial expressions of the ladies diligently designing and sewing do not betray the horrific acts they suffered in the past.
A spin-off of the NGO AFESIP (a French acronym meaning “Acting for Women in Distressing Situations”), AFESIP Fair Fashion started in 2003 with the objective of rescuing, rehabilitating and re-integrating victims of sex trafficking, forced prostitution or other sexual exploitation.
In a marriage of social and business objectives, survivors are given the support and training they need to transition to normal life and economic independence. Their arsenal of new skills includes everything from fashion design and tailoring to the minute details of business operation. They are true stakeholders, operating with creative autonomy and encouragement.
I first learned of AFESIP four years ago after reading numerous inspiring stories about women who survived unimaginable hardships in stark contrast to my staid Canadian upbringing. Their gripping and inspiring stories show the true tenacity of the human spirit and what one can overcome. In my mind, these women are heroes.
Two years and an intercontinental flight later, I landed in Phnom Penh and took the opportunity to visit the workshop and meet the AFESIP team in person. Despite initial logistical issues, the indefatigable Rotha fit a meeting into my restricted schedule and even organized transport to collect me from my guesthouse. The tuk tuk arrived on time and ferried me from the wide leafy streets of Tonle Bassac to pothole-laden dirt roads where storefronts vied for space amongst crowds of humans and vehicles.