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Monday, 31 October 2016

AFESIP Cambodia: Helping Sex Trafficking Survivors Re-integrate

Written by Andrea Oikawa
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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.


My arrival at AFESIP brought a bundle of energy down the stairs in the form of Rotha. His enthusiasm carried through our initial conversations at the boardroom style table with two small water bottles carefully laid out. Rotha inquired how I’d come to find them.


After reading about Somaly Mam in Half the Sky, her story caught my interest so I read her book to learn more about her. Shortly after, I ordered my first AFESIP silk necklaces online. Impressed by the quality and beauty, I continued to order them for myself and as gifts.” I replied, continuing with the path that eventually lead me to our meeting on the outskirts of a city very far from my home.


Rotha filled in the details of their work, of their struggles. The double victimization the women face; the initial one is obvious. The second being the stigma they face if they return to their villages. Branded as whores. As though they had a choice.


Time for a tour; we ascended the stairs to the second floor where the women sat earnestly at their sewing machines with calm concentration. Undeterred by the entourage of Rotha and myself, the facial expressions of the women belied the horrific happenings of their past. Their introductions included details such as their ages or the area of Cambodia they hailed from.


When presented with some new designs, a simple, smart silver and black necklace with circular discs decreasing in size from the center jumped out at me from the striking silk colors. Up another set of stairs lay the nursery room. A basic and bright space, the neutral colored walls were adorned with alphabet posters.


Their workday concluded with a meeting conducted in Khmer, a language indiscernible to my native English ears. I simply sat in awe of these amazing women. Rotha asked if I wanted a message translated to them and words failed me. Chiding myself on poor preparation for that moment, I merely said something about admiring their courage. Although true and authentic, I wished there was more I could say.


For the occasion of the International Women’s Day I helped distribute wrapped gifts to the women -- and they presented me with that smart silver and black necklaced I’d been eyeing upstairs. Complete with a hug, tears edged out from my eyes.


And what would a trip to the AFESIP workshop be without a round of shopping? My eyes grew as wide as the selection of colors the necklaces, scarves and many other accessories were available in. There were some new designs I hadn’t seen yet in the online shop. I wanted all of them but a rogue sensible thought entered. Remember Andrea, you are a budget traveler, a backpacker. Unemployed. You have no income.

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Nonetheless I amassed a small collection that came mindfully wrapped in iridescent silk pouches. We all said our farewells and I hopped back into the tuk tuk with my spoils.


Will you come back next year?” Rotha inquired shortly before my departure. Knowing I was on the verge of moving to one of Canada’s most expensive cities -- with no job -- I was unable to make this promise for the following year. Perhaps the one after?


Funny old life; two more years passed and circumstances found me residing in Bangkok. Travel to Cambodia a much simpler undertaking than from Vancouver, I put some birthday money to good use; a plane ticket to Phnom Penh. Despite the final destination being some much needed R & R in the seaside town of Kep, I took advantage of this opportunity to visit the AFESIP team.


Rotha’s enthusiastic smile was in danger of outshining the strong Southeast Asian sun as he eagerly collected me from the arrivals hall of Phnom Penh International airport and ferried me to AFESIP Fair Fashion’s new location, where one lone woman greeted me with her soft smile; the remainder upstairs stitching new creations.


My visit began with a walkabout of the new premises. Mango trees peeked cautiously through the windows of Rotha’s office. “All gone.” Rotha laughed as he opened and closed the window, affording a quick view of the -- now fruitless -- trees. A terrace where the women could relax on their breaks graced the first floor. The street was silent, save the odd passing motorbike.


Carrying on through the workshop, I saw some familiar and new faces. We went over the current products and discussed ideas for new ones. Creations I’d not previously seen included earrings and wallets; as the thought popped into my head for mobile phone, tablet and laptop covers I mentioned it.

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In a deja-vu moment, everyone slowly migrated to the boardroom table to conclude my visit. The ladies presented me with a plate of colorful Cambodian sweets as Rotha encouraged me to try them. I reciprocated with a variety box of Ferrero Rocher; wishing I’d had the foresight three months ago to pick something up from my country while I was there, something with a bit more meaning.

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Rotha updated me on their news, the hardships they’d had in the past two years and introduced new members of the team, while providing his translation services as the only present speaker of both Khmer and English.


Of course I’d set aside a shopping budget and being employed meant I could dig slightly deeper into the pockets to acquire some gifts for myself and friends and family. The ladies presented me with a gift, this time a beautiful tote bag. Interestingly enough, as I packed for this trip back in my Bangkok apartment, I thought it would be handy to have a tote bag to bring to the beach in Kep.


The morning finished with photos and giggles over striking a pose; laughter is a common language. They bade me farewell as my eyes swelled with tears and my heart with love and respect for these women, in addition to some perspective; they had survived horrors I have never known, nor will likely know.


I look forward to my next visit to Cambodia and the amazing AFESIP Fair Fashion team; farewell is not goodbye.


©Andrea Oikawa

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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 November 2016