Nicky Mih -Free to Shine – Changing the lives of girls at risk of sex slavery
Three and a half years ago I read Somaly Mam’s book, ‘The Road of Lost Innocence’ about how she was sold to a brothel while she was still a child. Edmund Burke’s quote has always stuck with me, ‘all that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.’ When I thought of it like this, that these girls are being tortured with acid, electrocuted and raped up to 30 times a day because you and I are doing nothing to stop it, I knew it was time for us to step up. I booked a flight to Cambodia and went and spent a month with more than 200 survivors. I saw terror in the eyes of girls who had just been rescued, I met survivors who were rebuilding their lives and reintegrating back into their communities, I met survivors who had been tortured, and survivors who had been sold by their parents when they were just 7 and were now helping other survivors, and I met a survivor who was just 6 years old – she was sold when she was 4! It changed me. It taught me that you can love in an instant. It taught me what real strength was. And it taught me to spend my time doing something that really mattered.
I asked these survivors how I could help, I asked them what they wanted. They wanted to end sex slavery. They wanted for survivors to be able to attend university so they could become teachers, doctors and lawyers as they viewed these professions as being fundamental in ending sex slavery. They knew that most girls don’t get to go to school because teachers charge them to attend whereas if they were teachers, no matter how little their government salary was, they would never charge a student as they knew the importance of the girls being safely in school. They remembered times in captivity where they’d received a beating so severe they had been taken to the hospital. Nobody had seen that they needed help. They knew that if they became doctors and nurses they would spot a girl in need and not send her away with the pimp after patching her up. And they wanted for survivors to become lawyers so they could prosecute the brothel owners and the traffickers.
They also explained that when girls are rescued from the brothels the brothel owners do not go without girls. They simply go out into the rural villages and take a new young girl. They wanted these girls to be protected. They believed that if these young girls were in school they would not be trafficked. Investing in a girl’s education means she is no longer just another mouth for her parents to feed but someone who will be able to get a job in the future and support her family. So I had to figure out how to get into these villages, identify which girls were most at risk and how to get them in school and keep them there.
Skip forward to today and we now have 72 girls on our scholarship program, as well as 2 survivors. We fund her enrolment fees, necessary photocopies and handouts, exam fees and provide her with a school uniform, shoes and bag, books and other educational resources as well as a bicycle so that she can reach school. And our girls each have a case worker who visits the family to provide ongoing support and education. This is a key part of keeping her in school, and keeping her safe.
The villages our girls live in are among some of the poorest. Most of our girls and their families live in small houses made of woven palm leaves. Some of our girls families own a plot of land on which they grow rice or vegetables. Others don’t own any land and have nowhere they can grow crops. Mains electricity has not yet reached these communities. Some still pump water from wells, while others collect water from the dirty river. A few have water filters which ensure safe drinking water, but most don’t. Most families do not have toilets. The range of work our children have been involved in varies from growing vegetables and harvesting rice, picking lotus pods out of the pond, looking after nieces and nephews to enable their older siblings to work, weaving baskets, collecting plastic to sell and even working in factories. Several of the girls on our scholarship program have either one or both parents who have died or have left them, are abusive, alcoholic, have HIV/AIDs or have been or still are sex workers. Several of our girls have suffered physical abuse, from being bitten, having food withheld as a punishment, being hit and beaten, to being put in a sack and thrown in a pond. And several of our girls have been raped. Those girls who were living in highly neglectful and incredibly abusive environments now access our scholarship program from the safety of a child protection centre.
Now our girls are thriving in school. Some are also attending additional classes in English, computers, traditional Khmer dancing, art and craft, hospitality and sewing. Their case worker teaches them the importance of education, and that a university education is possible and several of our girls have dreams to become teachers, doctors, nurses and accountants!
Free To Shine wasn’t set up to ‘fix’ Cambodia, but to empower girls, both survivors of sex slavery and those girls at risk, to be the change they want to see in their own communities and country. Our girls are already becoming leaders by working together to improve the house and living conditions of each scholarship student. They go first to one girls house and sweep and tidy, create rubbish bins, repair holes in the roofs and walls of houses, build fences and plant veggie gardens. And then they move onto the next girls house. And other members of their community see what they are doing and follow suit. In this way they’re already leading their own communities! We have Bona in grade 7 who comes top of her class! We have Roathana in grade 9 who was selected as the only student from her entire high school of 1,500 students to sit an exam to discover the best maths student in the entire province. She now wants to be an accountant. We have Ampo who is studying hard in grade 10 and volunteers on a Sunday as a trainee case worker, visiting 30 families in her community and teaching about the importance of education, about health and hygiene and budgeting!
We have created a dynamic, professional organisation with growing support from passionate volunteers, sponsors and investors, enabling us to grow and reach more and more girls. We are entering an exciting phase of development with the recent recruitment of 9 competent and dedicated volunteers, setting up an office in Cambodia from where we can recruit and train full time case workers and from where our scholarship students can access additional support, a library, computers, life skills training, and leadership training and there’s even a documentary in the making! So many of our girls talk about wanting to be teachers or nurses or doctors because they want to give back to their communities, they want to help Cambodia progress and develop. And with the education opportunities we are able to provide them because of the support of fundraisers, sponsors and investors, we know these girls will go on to lead their families, their communities and even Cambodia itself!
If you want to join the Free To Shine family and play a part in providing girls education and keeping them out of the commercial sex industry, we’d love to have you. Help us set up the office, employ our first Cambodian staff and enrol additional girls.