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.
> WHAT YOU CAN DO : Somaly Mam, a victim of sexual exploitation herself, established AFESIP in 1996. Read her incredibly moving and brutally honest memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, of surviving captivity in the brothels of Phnom Penh to become a leader in the fight against sex trafficking. Invite your friends to read it, and follow up with a discussion group; we have included a reading guide with sample discussion questions here .
Girls participate in a sewing course at AFESIP. Photo courtesy of AFESIP.