WHEN an 11-year-old girl has spent her young life enduring slavery and beatings, even a fleeting grin can be taken as a symbol of hope.
It has been more than six weeks since police burst into a house in the capital’s Sen Sok district and discovered the young victim.
She had been held captive and forced to work as a domestic servant after she was sold to a couple when she was only 2 years old, police and rights workers said.
The constant beatings she received, which left her body covered with horrific scars, could only be described by police as torture.
“Her whole body from her head down was covered with frightening scars and wounds from her mistreatment,” police said at the time.
Today, however, those wounds are slowly healing. She is living with a foster family in a secure area run by the NGO Hagar International, which helps abused women and children.
Last week, she started school. “It’s really exciting to see her going off to school every day, with a new uniform and a new school bag,” said Sue Taylor, who manages the group’s psychosocial services department.
“She’s doing what every other child of her age should be doing in Cambodia. It’s lovely to see.”
Recently, Taylor noticed the girl was starting to smile more often. Those hints of happiness are another sign of her gradually improving psychological health.
She has already spent two weeks in hospital so that doctors could reset a fractured wrist that hadn’t healed properly. She also looks healthier, Taylor said – a result of good nutrition and the fortified soy milk she has been drinking every day.
The emotional scars are another matter. “She is starting to smile more,” Taylor said, “but you still see the pain in her eyes. That will take a long time to heal after living in fear for so long.”
Still, there are signs that her emotional recovery has started, and that she seems to have bonded with her foster mother. “It’s probably the first good relationship she’s had in her life,” Taylor said.
Ultimately, her recovery will take years. Hagar plans to help her through school, ensuring she catches up to others her age.
Taylor estimates that she’s at least two or three years behind an average child of her age. When she’s ready, she could be placed with a permanent foster family.
In the meantime, a court investigation continues into the three people arrested when police took her from her brutal existence. The three remain in pretrial detention, said Am Sam Ath, a technical superviser with rights group Licadho who has been following the case.
For now, those working with the girl are taking her recovery day by day; small signs are all reasons for hope.
The first one came weeks ago: She started playing with other kids.
“I don’t think she’s really learned to communicate as a child,” Taylor said. “It’s a lot about recovering your childhood, really, and allowing her to be a little girl again. It’s just being able to play with other children, play games and communicate. Do normal things, like girls do.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHRANN CHAMROEUN