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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - International Day of the Girl Child

International Day of the Girl Child

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Sreypov Chan at the Somaly Mam anti-trafficking centre in Tuol Kork. Photograph: Alex Crook/Phnom Penh Post

At the age of seven, Sreypov Chan, 21, was sold by her mother to a sex broker. She was taken to work in a brothel in Phnom Penh and forced to have sex with up to 20 men a day.

Having escaped and been rehabilitated, she mentors other trafficking victims and wants to be a public speaker.

Hers is one of millions of stories of young women that today will be remembered across the globe to mark the first International Day of the Girl Child.

Established by the United Nations and celebrated today, the International Day of the Girl Child, is intended to draw attention to the plight and challenges still faced by young women, particularly in developing countries.

Cambodia ranks near the bottom of the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, at 99 out of 145 countries.

Although there have been improvements in the status of women over the past decade, there is a still a long way to go.

Women are more likely to be illiterate and less visible in the public sphere than men, while domestic violence is rife and often goes unreported, according to United Nations statistics from last year.

An estimated 22.5 per cent of married women experience violence within the home and up to 89 per cent do not report it, according to a survey by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 2009.

But many of the Kingdom’s young women are working to change these figures.

We spoke to three young Cambodian women whose very different lives and stories have shaped and strengthened their ambitions.

Sreypov Chan, 21

Sreypov was sold by her mother at the age of seven to a female sex broker and taken from her Kandal village to work in a brothel in Phnom Penh. After enduring over two years of rape, torture and abuse at a number of brothels, she escaped and met an outreach worker from sex trafficking NGO AFESIP. She is now working as a communications officer and has spoken at forums across the world. She joined the organisation’s Voices for Change (VFC) education program and would like to pursue a career in development and public speaking.

“There needs to be a cultural shift in this country – women who are not virgins should not face discrimination. They should have the freedom to fall in love and get married. The women I work with give me a lot of strength. When I first arrived at the shelter, I harboured a lot of anger and was resentful, impatient and had a bad temper.

“One of the most significant tasks I have is to be a mentor to trafficking victims at the centre.  I love public speaking and sharing my experience. Rather than being shy I actually gain confidence and empowerment from talking in front of crowds.

“It’s much harder to be a woman in this country than a man. Take one look at any shelter, girls are the predominant victims. I would like to see things change.

“My mother, five siblings and I were incredibly poor as my father had died when I was young. So when the woman came to our village and I was told by my mum to pack my bags. I assumed I was going to work as a cook or cleaner. When we arrived in Phnom Penh I was locked in a dark room with no bathroom for two days. Then the men came.

“They told me I had to accept clients, but I didn’t know what they meant. I didn’t know what sex was. When I struggled they used electric shock on me and beat me.

“Sometimes I had up to 20 men a day because I was so young. I’ve forgiven my mother now. I believe education is crucial in terms of the issues plaguing Cambodia. When I have children I want to teach them about compassion and equality.”

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Chen Sokha, 18

After she was orphaned at six years old, Chen Sokha was a scavanger on the Steung Meanchey dump selling rubbish to support herself and her sisters on between 500 and 2000 riel a day.  The non-governmental organisation  A New Day Cambodia (ANDC) took her to their centre and provided food and education. Chosen to feature in a documentary, 10 x 10, which tells the story of 10 girls from the developing world and features Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, she has had the chance to meet Michelle Obama.

“I started working on the dump. after my parents died, picking up rubbish to sell to get a little money for my sister so I could fund her schooling. There was no shelter, and we would work every day in the smoke and hot sun. I wished I could go to school.

“I think that if women can get education, men will stop treating them badly.  When I was on the dump I saw men beating their wives every day. It was hard to see that happening in front of my face. The women have no jobs  so they stay at home looking after the children while the husband works and makes money for her.

“But it will change.  Women can do what men can do. If a woman works, and the family want a divorce, they can do it. Before, women used to have to beg their husbands to stay but now he can go wherever he wants to go and he can beg the woman to come back.

“My older sister is scavenging at the dump. I see her maybe once a month but I am busy with school now.  She will not have the same opportunity because she is married. I want to get what I wish: a great job, as an ambassador or a social worker. If I do, I can help her.”

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Rous Chansocheata, 21

Rous Chansocheata grew up in Ratanakiri province. Despite having little time to study, working to support her large family, she won a scholarship to live and study at the Harpswell Foundation, which run  womens’ dormitories with the intention of raising young women leaders. She now studies Business and Finance at The National University of Management in Phnom Penh and and wants to run her own company.

“For me, this dorm is the place that empowers women to be a leader in Cambodia. I learn a lot from the women here – we share ideas. I want to be a leader. I want to develop my country – particularly my province.

“At home, my mother is a seller at Banlung market. She sells rice and noodles. My father is a provincial official. While I was growing up, they both earned money to support my study but there was never enough. I had to help my mother at the market until 8 or 9pm every night. There was not enough time for studying.

For some women, there is not an emphasis on education. Women who are married cannot come to study or maybe their parents force them to marry. I won’t marry yet, I want to get a job and be strong first.

My province is a rural area and education is limited. I’ve planned already what I want to do there. I want to open a library so students can come and research everything they want.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Poppy McPherson and Claire Knox at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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