There is a Cambodian proverb that says men are like gold, a good polish will make it look new, and women on the other hand are like cloth, once it gets soiled it’s not the same. This phrase pretty much sums up the society’s attitude, specifically men’s attitudes, toward women and sexuality. It comes of no surprise to me given this is pretty much the double standard all over the world. What IS shocking is that according to their culture, if a man sleeps with a virgin he will be blessed with youth and it will bring him good luck; hence, the act of buying [from the girl’s own family] or taking a young girl’s virginity by force is quite normal. Because this atrocity is an inherent part of their superstitious culture, the demand for younger virgins is on the rise.
In America, if a 6 year old girl gets raped by a man it will make national headlines, 330 million people will hear about it, discuss it in the office with their colleagues or over lunch with friends or start a social media campaign with a hashtag like #InnocenceLost. Further, the perpetrator will surely get imprisoned and even segregated inside the jail so that other criminals won’t strangle him with a shoe lace or shank him with a sharpened toothbrush. In Cambodia, if a 6 year old gets raped, no one might ever find out because it’s shameful and because the girl will forever wear an invisible Scarlet letter or simply because the perpetrator is a government official or a wealthy man….so silence is the better option. Moreover, due to the culture’s oppression of women, the victim and her family might never want or be able to seek justice.
Poverty calls for desperate measures and the less fortunate, the vulnerable, along with women and girls, get short changed in Cambodia. Contrary to popular belief, not too many families sell their daughters’ souls to the sex trade or get kidnapped and sold to brothels. What’s happening here is that predators seek the poorest of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and recruit girls to work at “restaurants, karaoke bars, or massage parlors” promising their families economic stability. Hence, families agree to send their daughters off to a promising future but most of the time it turns out to be the beginning of a nightmare that ends up shattering their spirits. In one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, every man is for himself and if this means ruining the lives of uneducated peasant girls from villages in order to better themselves then so be it. However shocking this may be, it’s nothing new. Throughout history, the weak or less fortunate have always suffered at the hands of those in power from the concentration camps to the plantations and in the midst of wars. What’s heart-wrenching is that it’s still happening in 2014 and that the government turns a blind eye due to the profitability of the industry. There’s a law in Cambodia which states that if an undercover investigation is being conducted to take down a brothel, the evidence is not admissible in court. Because of this law, seeking justice for sexual trafficking perpetrators has been quite difficult.
Volunteering here has been a surreal experience. From the moment I met the orphanage’s director, a bright blue-eyed petit ex-pat from Missouri who had been in Cambodia serving others for 5.5 years, I felt connected to her. We sat in my hotel lobby and chatted for a bit. Together, we came up with a game plan and budget to buy all the gifts. We spent 4 hours shopping and running errands and getting to know each other. At the market she gave money to every single beggar. A kind spirit she is and you can sense that from a mile away. Then she dropped me back off at the hotel, I scarfed down a protein bar and some fruit, showered and headed to the shelter to assemble the gift bags and attend their Christmas party. Immediately upon arriving at the shelter in Siem Reap I was greeted by a gorgeous 7 year old girl with a face and smile that would make you melt. Without an introduction from the director, she hugged me and held my hand eager to show me around. My eyes welled up…the love I felt from this little angel was overwhelming.
The next five hours were spent between my assembly line of gifts and watching the show the girls put together consisting of skits, dancing and a gift exchange. They also sang happy birthday to one of the girls, a gorgeous 12th grader with striking features. A few of her friends came up and recited some kind words about her. Her closest friend was crying from the minute she grabbed the mic…as the director translated what she was saying the tears started flowing down my face. Turns out, these two besties are from the same village and came to the shelter together. Then the director introduced me to the group as an American who managed to raise money so that I could bring them gifts. The girls cheered and clapped. I was so moved while trying my hardest not to lose my shit crying. I was incorporated into the gift exchange and after receiving their gift from the shelter each girl and staff member came to me to receive their gift bag and a teddy bear embroidered with a heart and the phrase “I love you” or “Te Amo”. The girls were ecstatic and as they approached me, they put their hands in a prayer formation, bowed and smiling in broken English said, “Thank youuuu”. It was beautiful.
The next day we went to their annual Christmas mass. It was interesting to see the girls practicing their faith. During most of the ceremony, the 7 year-old gorgeous girl who initially greeted me sat in front of me and held my hand during most of the mass. She kept pressing my hand to her face and trying to tickle me and make me laugh by making funny faces. I naturally did the same given my long history of misbehaving at church. Then we all had lunch and on the way back to the shelter she asked to sit in front with me on my lap. So much love.
My last day at the shelter in Siem Reap we did some arts and crafts and the girls wrote “Thank You” cards. What all these cards had in common was the phrase “I Love You” either in English or Khmer and some even said “I Love You Loren”. My eyes would get watery reading or having every card read to me and all I kept asking the universe was not to let me start crying like a lunatic during “arts and crafts”. Soon after, I invited the director to lunch. We chatted more about life, our lives, Cambodia, the girls, etc. That morning I had taken notice of one of the girls in particular which I’m guessing is around 10 or 11. I quickly realized she was the comedian of the group because every time she blurted something the other girls and staff would burst out laughing. I also noticed she was missing all her teeth (except for two molars) and that the bottoms of her feet were very rough possibly even severely scarred. Her mannerisms at times were rough and at times delicate…she had said “I Love You” to me the day before. I sensed that she had gone through a lot, way beyond being sexually assaulted. So I mentioned her to the director during lunch and she confirmed what I had sensed. I told the director I felt that besides the sexual trauma, I felt she had also endured some serious physical abuse and she’s probably one of the ones that has the most trauma. She nodded in agreement, without elaborating. We also spoke about the one girl who went to church the day before wearing a hat and a face mask. She explained it was because her fear of being in public and around people is so intense she rarely leaves the shelter and if she does she covers herself. She also said she still doesn’t feel safe at the house and is a bit of a loner. I don’t know anything that happened to her but hearing this broke me and I started to cry.
We wrapped up lunch and headed back to pack up the other supplies for the shelter in Battambang. None of the girls were around when we got back except for HER…the funny-doll-faced-angel. When she saw me she came up to me and hugged me and in Khmer said she would miss me. I hugged her tightly and said “I will miss you too”…she asked when I would return and the director said “soon…soon”. And then it happened, locked in an embrace, that recurring dream and thought that ruminated in my mind for months, that image and that thought of having this “moment” with one of the girls. We just couldn’t let go of each other. And then she started crying intensely and when she looked up at me, I started balling…trying not to hyperventilate, trying not to break down. A continuous river of tears ran down my face onto the top of her head and hair as my jaw quivered uncontrollably…her tears finding refuge on my shirt and chest. During the embrace, which lasted over 20 min, I felt all the pain this child had experienced. I became an empath. It was surreal…almost like an out-of-body experience. I kept praying over and over that all her pain be transferred onto me…because I could handle it, because I hadn’t suffered like she had, because I’m a woman and she’s a child who never deserved any of it. All the love and light I have within I asked the universe to give to her…I loved her like she was my child…I wanted to give her everything I had, my heart, my earrings, my clothes, a better life, take her to school, take her around the world, cook for her, take her to meet my family, buy her a puppy, brush her hair, tuck her in bed, teach her English…I wanted to heal her…remove every ounce of pain in her heart…erase all her scars…guide her, love her, protect her. We couldn’t stop crying and we couldn’t let go. And every time she looked up at me and I saw fear and love in her eyes…my heart wanted to explode. I had never felt something like this…ever. So many thoughts ran through my mind…I felt so many emotions…we just couldn’t let go. Two of the staff approached us and I asked them to ask her why she was crying…she said she would miss me and that she hoped I would come back soon and just kept on repeating that over and over. I told them to tell her that she was beautiful and that life was beautiful and that there are so many people that love her…that I love her and that she needed to be strong. She nodded. She asked them if she can walk me to the car and held my hand. We hugged one last time and said our goodbye(s) and I Love You(s). And I got in the car heading to the shelter in Battambang…with a heavy chest filled with pain and my heart exploding with love.
I knew this moment would come…the moment that would forever change the course of my life and reassure me that what I was doing is exactly what I needed to be doing.