Posted Dec 10, 2010 by 15 Comments

My mind was whirling.  I simply couldn’t come to grips with what I was seeing.

Beauty covering pain.  Smiles covering indignity.

How could these shy, giggling girls be the victims of one of history’s greatest injustices?


The other day I had the opportunity to interview a family in the Phnom Penh region; to sit in their home and get a glimpse into what everyday life is like for some of the poorest communities in the city.

Sreypich’s home, little more than a two-room shack.

I had come to visit a girl that will soon be part of the Center for Global Impact’s new dress-making program, the Daughters Project.

Her name is Sreypich (I’m changing all the names in this article to protect the family’s identity…).  I visited her family with Theary’s brother, Aliya.

As we walked down the street leading to Sreypich’s home, my heart was a bit unsettled.  I knew what was going on just beneath the surface…


When Aliya and I arrived at Sreypich’s home, it was early afternoon.  We walked down the dirt path leading to their family’s compound.  Inside the fence, four small shacks sat in a line, nestled between a few shady fruit trees.

In Sreypich’s community, sex trafficking is a normal part of life.

Because it was the heat of the day, most of the family was asleep.  They lay in hammocks or simply on mats on the floor.  Only a few of the younger kids were awake, quietly playing in the dirt.

When one of them saw us, she hurried to wake up her family.  Before I could get out the words, “Oh, it’s ok. We can come back later!” she had begun waking everyone up.

16 year-old Sreypich came to the door, her hair messy from napping, and gave us a big smile.


Within a few minutes, Aliya and I were sitting in the middle shack talking to Sreypich’s mother and aunt.  Sreypich and a couple of her sisters sat on the other side of the room, whispering to each other and smiling when they heard us mention their names.

Sreypich has three younger sisters (not pictured here). It pains me to say that the oldest of these was recently raped… a wholly different injustice in a community where girls are not valued.

I asked the women about their lives, about their kids and about what life is like for them on a day-to-day basis.  After quite a few clarifying questions, I was able to piece together their story.

Sreypich’s mother Sophoan, 40, has seven children.  She makes money selling eggs at a roadside kiosk.  Weather permitting, her husband goes fishing.  In season, he is able to catch enough fish to both feed his family and make a few dollars at the market.  But on windy days like the one when we visited, he always comes up empty.

Sreypich’s aunt Sokheak, 51, takes care of five kids (the children of her other sister, who passed away several years ago). With seven mouths to feed, including her 63 year-old husband’s, Sokheak has a hard time making ends meet.  She sells vegetables at the kiosk with her sister, but often has to rely on loans with exorbitant interest (sometimes as high as 30%) to buy food.

“It’s very stressful,” she told me, “I get headaches a lot.”


Their story sounds like one I have heard all over the world: a family struggling to make ends meet, malnourished kids too poor to finish school. The cycle of poverty personified…

But as I sat and listened, I knew that there was something significantly different about this family’s story. Something more sinister was happening beneath the surface, and I had a hard time coming to grips with what I knew.

Sreypich’s two youngest sisters (neither pictured here) have not been trafficked yet, but when their time comes, the Daughter’s Project will be there.

The truth, as explained to me a few days earlier by Theary from CGI, is that Sreypich’s family has resorted to sex trafficking to get by.  Sreypich and at least two of her sisters have been sold for sex by their own mother.

I don’t know what I had expected trafficking victims to look like, but Sreypich and her sisters were not it. These shy, giggling girls sitting across the room from me were not scarred; they weren’t cowering in the corner.  They were just… girls.

As we talked, I stewed over this fact in my mind.  I could barely concentrate as I realized the full implications of what I was seeing.  If these girls were trafficking victims, anyone could be.

And knowing what it actually meant for these girls to have been trafficked, I had a hard time maintaining my composure…


Here in Cambodia, virgin girls are worth around $500, a year’s wages for many impoverished families.  Faced with the agonizing prospect of watching their children go hungry or the distasteful option to resort to trafficking, many parents end up choosing the latter.

After negotiating a price with a “madam” (brothel manager), who takes a significant cut herself, the family of a virgin girl will send her off to be locked in a hotel room for a week.  There she will be forced to have sex repeatedly by the paying man.

Once she returns home, the girl’s “value” drops significantly.  A non-virgin girl is worth only $30 a night.  Of course, now that her dignity has been shattered, it isn’t nearly as difficult for a family to send her off again.

The worst part of all is that, for many girls here, this horrific process begins around age 12.

There is hope for Sreypich through the Center for Global Impact!

While it may seem abhorrent to you and me to even think about something like this, sex trafficking has become an accepted part of life in many impoverished communities here… An unpleasant act a girl must do to help provide for her family.

When it happens generation after generation (girls trafficked by their mothers who were trafficked by their mothers and so on), the sharp sting of indignity inevitably gets pushed to the background.

Not Hopeless

To think that this sort of thing happens to innocent girls absolutely breaks my heart.  To know that it happens simply because their parents are poor leaves me overwhelmed.

As I sat across the room from Sreypich and her sisters, I honestly didn’t know how to feel.  Sad? Enraged? Hopeless?

Well, no.  I couldn’t feel hopeless.  As awful as her situation was, I knew that Sreypich’s life was about to change.

You see, as of last week, Sreypich was enrolled in CGI’s Daughter’s Project.  Starting in just a few weeks, she will move into a home with nine other girls for the year-long program.  Safe, protected, and loved, Sreypich will have an opportunity to heal and to discover her true potential as she learns the valuable trade of dress-making.

Although for legal reasons I cannot show her full face, I couldn’t help but share Sreypich’s beautiful, bashful smile.

With a loving house mother, a beautiful garden to explore and three square meals a day, Sreypich will soon be able to rest and be herself, knowing that she is safe.

When she finishes the program, Sreypich will be a different person.  She will have valuable skills.  She will have confidence. Most importantly, however, she will have hope.

She will know that her true value lies in more than just her body.  And some day, when Sreypich grows up and has a family of her own, a very different future is in store for her children.

The cycle of shame will be broken.


As Aliya and I walked out of the family’s compound, my heart was a swirl of emotions.  But stuck in my head was a single image that continued to fill me with hope:

Sreypich’s beautiful, bashful smile.

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Next Steps
    • CGI’s big need right now is sponsors for the Daughters Project girls. In total, they need $300 a month for each girl. You can help with a part of it by visiting CGI’s website and making a pledge of support today!
    • The Daughter’s Project is also in need of two 20-something American women willing to come for one to twelve months to tutor the girls in English. Teaching the girls, eating with the girls, loving on the girls… This is a fantastic opportunity for someone looking to make a difference in the lives of trafficking victims! For more information, email the director of CGI, Chris Alexander.
    • Pray for the Daughters Project girls. Many of them have a long road of healing ahead of them. Pray that their hearts would be open to accept their true value as children of God.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Steve H. said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 12:11 pm  

    Easy to ignore what’s going on half way around the world… thanks for opening our eyes. Interested to hear your thoughts on what else you think could be done.

  2. Chuck Easton said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 12:12 pm  

    Wow, what can be done? What can we do? What can I do?

  3. Amy Sorrells said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 2:41 pm  

    “I don’t know what I had expected trafficking victims to look like, but Sreypich and her sisters were not it.”

    Trafficking victims. Rape victims. Incest and molestation victims. Whether 1/2 way around the world or next door, they never–we never–look like anyone expects. This post made me lose it, Barry. My keyboard is a sopping. wet. mess. Nothing–NOTHING–does more to destroy a heart and soul more than these things.

    Chuck asks what can be done.

    Do what you’re doing . . . there. And do it here in America, too. Love victims/survivors. Acknowledge what they’re going through and have been through. Don’t be afraid to talk about these dark and secret places, because in doing so, you set them free. And freedom, ultimately, is what they–we–all need.

    “Safe. Protected. Loved.”

    That’s what they–we–all long for.

    And praise God, He brings those things.


  4. Dave Rod said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 2:48 pm  

    I have no words. Struggling to grasp the hope. Church, are you listening to this?

  5. Ron Stohler said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 4:34 pm  

    Innocence shattered. Only Christ can heal.

  6. Vic said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 5:17 pm  

    Obviously I thought of my girls when I was reading this and I cannot imagine the sin and overwhelming feeling of guilt and sorrow this mother is feeling over what she has done to her daughters…. intentionally at that. The root problem of this saddens me the most, that mom doesn’t know Christ. Sin is awful, ugly, vile, disgraceful….most thankful for the work of Daughters Project, that they can be the face of Jesus to these precious girls…. most thankful for hope.

  7. Lana Greene said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 5:22 pm  

    After reading this, everything else seems pretty insignificant. This absolutely breaks my heart.

  8. Jessica said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 9:18 pm  

    Heart-breaking. What I hate most is how accepted and normalized it seems.

    I want to know about the other side of this issue, too. Who are the men who pay for this, who make this industry possible? Local men, Westerners who go to Cambodia for sex tourism?

  9. Barry Rodriguez said... 


    December 10th, 2010 at 9:26 pm  

    Chuck, what can you do? Read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof, get involved with the Center for Global Impact, partner with International Justice Mission, buy Christmas gifts from! That would be a great start.

    Jessica, great question. I just met with the IJM Cambodia staff yesterday, and that came up. Turns out that, although sex tourism is covered a lot more by the media, sex tourists make up only about 10% of the clientele.

    Most “customers” are men from the communities in which the brothels are located (although not necessarily where the girls are from, since many are trafficked between cities and across borders).

  10. Jo Nading said... 


    December 11th, 2010 at 2:04 am  

    i have no words. i only see the little girl’s eyes – the gorgeous girl with pearls. those eyes seem to be asking us – asking me – “do you REALLY care?” “about ME?”

  11. Tasha Simons said... 


    December 13th, 2010 at 9:35 am  

    Wow! Words fail me. Such a sad situation. It’s a heartbreaking story. I’m so glad there is hope for these families. Great job covering this, Barry.

  12. Chris Francis said... 


    December 14th, 2010 at 3:14 pm  

    Barry, thank you for opening our eyes to this issue. I had a questions about the political aspect of this. Is prostitution legal there or is local law enforcement just corrupt? Why have Western governments not put any pressure on this obvious human rights violations?

    Thanks for your work.

  13. Barry Rodriguez said... 


    December 15th, 2010 at 5:45 am  


    Great questions. I asked the same ones myself when I got here. No, prostitution isn’t technically legal. And child trafficking is especially frowned upon.

    The government works well in some ways with anti-trafficking orgs, but it’s also a major problem. Lots of government officials and police officials are the ones hiring the girls in the first place. So obviously those specific leaders have no interest in cracking down.

    In other words, it’s messy. Lots of conflicting motivations. Thankfully the work of lots of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and at least some international pressure brought by the West has made it more difficult for traffickers. But it is still WAY too prevalent here.

    Does that answer your question?

  14. Marie Saenger said... 


    December 16th, 2010 at 2:50 pm  

    Wow I can hardly say what I’m thinking and feeling. Sickened – at the poverty, squalor and living conditions as I’m sitting in my warm, lovely house contemplating wrapping a large pile of Christmas presents. Saddened – at the loss of innocence these little girls have experienced as I think about my own daughter and how we’ve ruthlessly protected her. Disheartened – if their government and their own parents allow this, then what hope is there for these girls? Hopeful – thankful that Daughter’s Projects exists to help break this cycle. Challenged – what do I do with this??? Although this is painful to read and process, thanks, Barry, for helping to bring darkness into light.

  15. Jeff Unruh said... 


    December 26th, 2010 at 12:48 pm  

    Sex trafficking–the concept–now has a story–Syrepich’s. It’s harder to ignore a face than a statistic. Thanks, Barry.

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