Issue: Dowry Deaths and Bride Burning

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Asha is 28, university educated and unmarried. For a Nepali girl she’s deviated far from the accepted path. Asha finished university with a degree in sociology and speaks fluent English. In discord with her parents, she refuses marriage proposals on a regular basis.

Asha works 12-14 hour days in the family business. Her brothers refuse to pay her. When they’re not looking, she takes her wages from the cash drawer. Every month she deposits the accumulated income in a secret savings account. It’s taken her 4 years to save US$1000.

I sit in a wicker chair, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of masala tea. Asha sits in the chair next to me. It’s late and most Nepalis are in for the night. Two boys play with sticks in the street, but Pokhara is quiet. One of the boys trips and tumbles into a bush. I laugh but I realize I’m the only one. I turn to Asha who looks overwhelmed with worry.

“Hey, ash, are you okay?”

She sighs deeply. “I don’t want this life,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Latent panic enters her voice, “I don’t want my life to turn out like the rest of the girls here.”

I reassure her, “Don’t worry. It won’t.”

“Have I told you about my sister?”

“You have a sister?” I’ve been in Pokhara for a month. I’ve met all her family members and no one had mentioned a sister.

“Yeah, she died.” Her eyes swell with tears. “Svara. She was 3 years younger than me.”

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Organization Profile: AFESIP Cambodia

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‘Human trafficking’ is “the illegal trade in human beings for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor.” My friend Katy calls it a “dinner party term.” She says “It reveals nothing about imprisonment, abuse, physical pain, slavery, withdrawal of basic human rights like freedom, destruction of trust and of a person’s identity.” I couldn’t agree more.

Katy modeling clothing for trafficking awareness.

I first heard about AFESIP while reading Somaly Mam’s The Road of Lost Innocence. Somaly’s memoir documents of her sexual enslavement and escape. I was so moved by her story and already interested in anti-sex trafficking efforts that I contacted AFESIP while planning my trip to Cambodia. This ultimately led me to Katy’s blog and her volunteer work.

In Cambodia, the sex industry thrives. It’s an issue you witness in the streets. A brothel is never more than a 5-minute walk away. And while it may look like the girls “consent,” the truth is most feel like they have no other option and no way out. The rescued girls who come to AFESIP suffer from abuses difficult to imagine. Many experience torture and addiction to drugs  such as methamphetamines and heroine. (For more information on the sex industry in Cambodia visit my previous posts: The Issues, The Sex Industry of Cambodia, and Cambodia: Masculine Mentality, Sex Culture, and Gender Based Violence).

A photo taken by Katy demonstrating the self harm (cutting) many girls resort to, relieving the mental and physical pain of their daily lives.

So the question becomes: how do you combat an issue so broad and destructive? How do you access girls held hostage in this lifestyle? And if you can reach them and remove them from imprisonment, how do you attempt the recovery process? How do you rehabilitate a girl who’s grown up in an environment where she’s routinely raped, violently beaten, and force-fed drugs? Continue reading

Cambodia: Masculine Mentality, Sex Culture, and Gender-Based Violence

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Gender plays an important role in Cambodian social life. In Phnom Penh, clusters of men sit in restaurants and litter the street corners. I rarely see a group of girlfriends chatting around a table for lunch.

At night this division becomes more apparent. Men meet at restaurants and karaoke bars to indulge in a night of drinking and bonding. For men, many nights in Phnom Penh end with the purchase of sex. In 2007, a study of men who frequent entertainment venues, karaoke and bars, revealed 53% had paid for sex in the last 12 months with an average of 8 partners. (The unfortunate outcome of this statistic is every time I meet a Cambodian male I question whether or not they fall into that 53%.)

Cambodian masculinity centers on group inclusion and confirmation. When a group decision is made to end a night at a brothel, one member rarely refuses because of the Cambodian tendency to avoid conflict and high levels of peer pressure. Many men admit they pay for sex because they don’t want to feel excluded from their social groups. Some report waiting outside brothels while their friends have sex, but more admit to following the pack.

In Cambodia, masculinity implies an inability to control sexual desires and actions. Many men consider sexual self-restraint biologically impossible.

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The Sex Industry of Cambodia

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Here are 4 videos that will connect you to the issues of sex slavery, prostitution, and virginity trade in Cambodia. Right now I’m working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with a partner organization of CARE International called PHD. I’m writing grant proposals for their HIV/AIDS awareness and gender equality projects.

I have learned so much about the sex industry here from interviews with CARE and PHD and the many surveys and reports I’ve found in their offices. I’ll be writing a post in the upcoming weeks that explains the sex industry, the idea of Cambodian masculinity, and the repercussions of the situation for Cambodia. For now, watch the videos so that you have a visual image of what happens here. Just a warning, you may find them disturbing, especially the last one which is about child prostitution. Also if you have any questions use the comment box and I will make sure to find the answers for you.

The Issues

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I said I wouldn’t discuss women’s issues until I started my position in Cambodia, but I had the urge to write.

I don’t consider myself a feminist under the stereotypical interpretation of the word. I’m not going to preach that all women are victims and all men are evil because that’s not the truth. And I’m not going to try to convince you that American women should be paid higher salaries because who really cares?

I believe every human has a right to education, security, and choice. Unfortunately, many women face illiteracy, violence, and a voiceless existence on a daily basis. But instead of dramatizing their plight it’s important to view them as the solution. These issues are not inevitable. They can be solved. It’s just a massive task that few attempt to tackle.

I completed 16 years of education and no one discussed the marginalization of women. Maybe as a college-educated female no one thought I needed to know? Or maybe an effort was made to shelter me from the disturbing reality? But after my conversations with people about my trip’s purpose, I realized few are informed. This post will give you some background and context to the crucial issues women face around the world. I apologize if some of the information is upsetting, but I think it’s valuable information that everyone should know.

The top issues are:

  1. PROSTITUTION/TRAFFICKING
  2. VIOLENCE/ABUSE
  3. HEALTHCARE
  4. EDUCATION

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