Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Deception Endured by Domestic Workers and the Impact of Trafficking

A 22 year old woman and her mother greeted us at our next stop in the village. There house was made of the same material as the Mrs. Heang’s but it was much larger and had a distinctly separate kitchen area at the base and a narrow staircase that lead us to a large living areas. Beautiful straw mats lined the floors, which I later learned the mom made herself.

Upstairs—they had walls and two windows, overlooking the kitchen area. The windows were cut outs—so they were permanently open.

I remember thinking, wow, this is really nice. And, for them it was. At the same time, it was sad to think that a few walls, and windows made for a significantly better living experience. In NY we complain about our tiny apartments—but we rarely think that the bare basics that we take for granted are pure luxury for counterparts around the world.

We sat together on the mats upstairs. The 22 year old sat silently next to her mom. If I hadn’t known her age I would have guessed 14. Ms. Noeun and Sophanara assured me that they both wanted to meet with us.

After about 5 minutes of taping, I asked the videographer to stop. I hadn’t even heard any of the dialogue translated, but I saw from the lost look on the 22 year olds face as her mom spoke, that a difficult story was being re-hashed and I just didn’t feel that is was fair to make her re-live the experience in any way, especially it is wasn’t even her talking about it.

The mom clearly was still traumatized by the experience and felt a great deal of responsibility. She blamed herself, a widow in poverty, for encouraging her daughter to seek work as a domestic worker (helping with house work, cleaning, cooking, etc) for a foreigner. Her daughter, along with 4 other girls lived full time with the man from New Zealand and his Cambodian wife. While living there all 5 girls were sexually assaulted. The first time it happened to the 22 year old, she didn’t say anything—she didn’t know what to do. The second time, she dropped a hint to one of the others and soon learned that many had already been abused. She’d been threatened by the man, and her fellow workers also threatened her not to tell. They would lose their income, they would become disgraced by their families, and on top of that, there didn’t really seem like a way to escape.

The 22 year old managed to escape and her family supported her and pressed charges. The man is now in prison. But the long term implications linger. Her mother explained that in Cambodia, being a virgin before marriage is a must. “I have three daughters- 28, 22, 19. Because this happened to one of my daughters none of them have been able to get married….most girls here are married before age 19.” CWCC is working on community empowerment, but changing deep rooted stereotypes are not easy.

The daughter herself seemed to have more courage, more optimism. She said she hopes to learn to be a hair stylist and hopes to have the money one day to start her own company. She has the motivation to succeed. She smiled, I think almost with surprise, when I commended her courage and explained that often victims don’t have the courage to come forward. I said she is an example of hope for so many other victims. And her legal victory, with CWCC’s support, and her willingness to speak up, has prevented other women from becoming victims. I shared a poster of the Brooklyn Bridge with her and suggested that when she looks at it in the future to remember that many Americans believe in her and support her. I explained that in many ways she is a role model to other survivors for her courage and strength to come forward.

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