While talk about women's rights is uncommon on Cambodian workplaces, at Afesip's
garment factory it is part of the normal workday.
Pedalling her old-style sewing-machine, Vanna feels good to be among people sharing her troubled background.
In Thloc Tchroeu, a village along the banks of the Mekong, 70 kilometers north of
Phnom Penh, Afesip, a human rights NGO, has built its own garment factory where female
victims of sexual exploitation are retrained, rehabilitated, and "re-empowered".
"In a society like Cambodia, men have all the rights. You women need to open
your eyes and get self esteem. You can do anything you want," says Angeles Sanchez,
opening up a discussion on whether this is really possible in a country with such
strong family values.
Sanchez is speaking at a monthly workshop. Previous workshops have covered issues
like fair trade and human rights. It is all part of empowering the staff, she says.
Among the listeners spread out on the floor is 22-year-old Vanna. She follows every
word, taking notes in her little book with cartoons on the cover. Like most of her
co-workers, she is a victim of trafficking and was sold into prostitution.
"It feels good that we all have the same background", she says. "Even
though we don't talk so much about the past, we understand each other and can offer
each other help. That is good. And I am glad that I don't have to live in Phnom Penh
after all the bad things that happened to me there."
After her rescue from a Phnom Penh brothel, she stayed a year in one of Afesip's
shelters. Provided with new skills, she went back to her home village in Battambang
province, setting up a small sewing-business. But making a living in such a poor
rural area proved hard. First, there were many customers, she says. But after a while
they did not pay. In 2003, after two years in the village, she came back to Afesip
and was offered a job in their garment factory. Vanna's own story is elsewhere on
According to Ana Chico, co-ordinator of Afesip's garment venture, many victims of
trafficking share Vanna's difficulties in getting back to a normal life. Apart from
the money problems, they have to cope with the accusing glances and talk behind their
backs. Many have traumas from what they have gone through and suffer from poor health,
due to sexually transmitted diseases and violence. With no family support, Ana Chico
says, they are vulnerable returning to prostitution.
Seeing the need for an alternative after the shelters, Afesip decided to set up its
own garment factory. And in February 2003, "Afesip Fair Fashion" started.
Today, 15 women, aged between 18 and 27, work in the factory.
Afesip Fair Fashion offers its workforce more than the average employer, Ana Chico
says. A psychologist makes regular visits and considerable work time is set aside
for skill training. At $65 a month plus bonus and medical insurance, the salary is
better than at most other garment factories.
"It allows them to eat properly, send some money home and maybe even save a
little," Chico says.
The factory is located in a rural area in Kampong Cham province.
"All of these women have rural backgrounds and we want to contribute to the
rural community, to generate incomes outside Phnom Penh," Chico says.
To compete with the hundreds of other garment factories in the country, Afesip Fashion
hopes to create its own niche, combining social awareness and good design. The key
to commercial success, Chico says, is to make clothes that people want to buy.
"We really hope to change the image of fair trade. To do something nice, but
with a message."
The clothes - made from Cambodian silk - are sold at a couple of shops in Phnom Penh
and Siem Reap, with more retailers on their way. Few products have so far been exported,
but Chico expects this to change as soon as the costly bureaucracy is sorted out.
Her native Spain is first on the list, but more countries could follow. The goal
is to make the project self-sufficient by 2006.
Afesip sees a big future in fair-trade fashion, both in Cambodia and in other parts
of the world. In late June, a second factory was opened in Ho Chi Minh City, making
clothes under the same "Afesip Fair Fashion" brand. The interest from the
outside world is growing, with delegations coming to visit.
But while Afesip can make a difference within the factory walls, little has changed
in the outside world. Ana Chico says she is aware that some of the villagers talk
behind the women's backs or keep their children away.
"Unfortunately, some people talk here, and they will talk anywhere. We have
to make these girls so strong. That is why we are having these workshops."
Meanwhile, the discussions are complete and Vanna gets on her bicycle to leave for
the day. She sets out into the warm sunlight with her roommate Sophea on the back,
perhaps ready to face the world with a little bit more of that strength.
as told to Staffan Lindberg
"I grew up in a poor rural area in Battambang province. Soon after I turned
18, my father died. My mother was left with me and my seven brothers and sisters.
"One day, an older aunt comes up to my mother. She suggests that I should follow
her to Phnom Penh. She says I could get a job as a maid or even in construction,
and that I will be able to send some money home. Reluctantly, my mother accepts the
"When we arrive in Phnom Penh, my aunt takes me to a big building off Norodom
Boulevard, near the Independence Monument. I have no idea what kind of place it is,
nor why my aunt has dressed me up and made me pretty.
" Inside the building, she talks to another woman in a business kind of way.
But I cannot hear what they are saying and no one says anything to me. When I ask
what sort of job this is, my aunt simply replies, 'Don't worry, it will be a good
"The next day, she takes me back to the same building. I notice a big luxurious
car parked on the outside. Inside, there is a man. He looks at me closely, in a strange
sort of examining way. My aunt tells me not to worry.
"The next evening, we go to a floating restaurant on the river. The man with
the strange eyes is there, surrounded by some of his friends. We have a lot of food
and after eating, I leave the table to go to the bathroom.
"As I come back, my aunt holds up a drink. 'Here, have this,' she says. 'It
will make you more beautiful, make your skin lighter'. After a few sips, I feel very
tired. My aunt tells me to go and sleep in the man's car, while they finish their
"Next thing I know, I wake up in a hotel room, alone and the door is locked.
The man from yesterday enters. I ask him why I am here and where my aunt is. 'How
stupid you are,' he says. 'Your aunt has sold you to me to be my one-week wife.'
"Finally, I realize what situation I am in. I try to escape, but the man grabs
me and hits me, threatening to use even more violence if I don't do as he says. I
feel so scared. He orders me to take a shower.
"As I get out of the bathroom, he pushes me down on the bed. And then he rapes
me. After, I want to kill myself. I feel so sorry. But I am forced to stay with him.
During the following days, there are times when I think I can see some pity in his
eyes. But for most of the time he just seems to enjoy it all.
"After a week, I am released. I am brought back to the same building. My aunt
is waiting for me. I rush to her in anger, asking her 'Why?'. But she just blames
my mother, saying it was her idea and that the money has been sent back to her.
"I want to go home, but my aunt tells me that I first need to work up enough
money for the trip.
"So she takes me to a brothel in Tuol Kork. I refuse to enter, but she says
I don't have a choice and that it will only be for a week or two. But the weeks pass.
After two or three months, my aunt finally shows up, only to say that she has sent
more money back to my mother that I am now in debt and have to work longer.
"But back home my mother - who has never received any money - is getting worried.
She sells her few belongings and travels to Phnom Penh. But she has no an idea where
to look for me.
"One day, she tells a motodop driver her story. He then explains how many young
women end up in the brothels. He takes her to Tuol Kork.
"But my pimp - who fears I will try to escape - keeps me locked up inside the
brothel. Still, through a hole in the wall, I can look out on the street. And one
day, I see my mother as she passes.
"By pure luck, she sees me through the hole and stops. Seeing me, she is speechless.
We cry a lot. I tell her what has happened and she explains how she never received
any money. We want to leave straight away, but the pimp refuses to let me go, saying
my aunt has left me with a debt I need to work off. I feel so miserable.
"One day, a customer asks me why I am so sad. After hearing my story, he promises
to help me. He tells Afesip the story, and they report to the police. Soon after,
the police raid the brothel and I am released.
"I accept the offer to stay in Afesip's shelter in Phnom Penh, to recover and
learn some skills, like sewing.
"My mother and I want to report my aunt. She has caused me so much misery and
kept all the money to herself. But my grandmother decides that what happened is a
family problem and that reporting it to the police will only make people talk, resulting
in even bigger problems.
"My aunt is now back in my home village. I know that she keeps spreading rumors
about me. Looking back, it all seems so unfair. But I know that there is nothing
I can do about it. So I tell myself to calm down and face what has happened. Maybe
it has to do with something from the past, something that happened a long time ago.
"I don't expect that much of the future. I just want a good job so that I can
send some money home.
"Maybe one day, I could start a tailor shop in my own village. Sewing is my
favorite interest and it could allow me to save more money for my family.
"As for me, I dream of having a family. But I am afraid that few men will accept
my past. If I could find such a man, I would be very happy. Even without love, we
could have a good family."