Where the Sex Trade Got Real

Four girls sit in a market stall not much larger than a single-car garage, intensely focused on their work. Each one hovers over a small notebook in which they practice artwork that, once they’ve achieved a level of confidence, they will paint on the fingernails of paying customers. They’re clearly embarrassed by the attention of the eight Americans watching. When they dare to look up from their work, they do so blushing.

These four girls work in a beer garden. I know what you’re thinking: craft beers served in large pint glasses, maybe even in lederhosen. But here in Phnom Penh, beer garden means something else entirely. Here, the beer garden (as well as the karaoke bars) are the places where young girls like these are expected to not only to serve drinks, but to entice the patron to eventually pay for other services.

These four girls – who look to be in their mid- to late teens – began their training with the Precious Women ministry just yesterday. They will be trained to paint nails first, as a way of learning a skill that will give them the ability to make income so that they can quit their job as a beergarden girl. The hope is that they will choose to enter a year-long vocational training program so that eventually they can arrange a micro-loan in order to start their own business. But, to be honest, that seems a million miles from here, and there are so many obstacles.

The reason I’m in Phnom Penh with Love146 is to see the how complex the problem of human trafficking is. We’ve met with various groups that Love146 has partnered with over the past decade, and let me tell you, there are so many factors that create vulnerabilities in these young girls. There’s a cultural vulnerability stemming from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, there is legislation, familial and cultural expectations and attitudes that make these girls vulnerable to those eager to exploit their bodies for money. We’ve sat with groups trying to make a difference and those who have dug deeply into the research trying to understand the problem and how to make a difference, how to end the trafficking of children, yes, but also all those who are vulnerable.

But, standing at the door of the market stall, watching these four girls practice their designs, I’m suddenly choked up and tears well up in my eyes, hidden behind my aviators. In just the next 12 hours, these young girls will be groped and fondled and eventually expected to fulfill the whims of men two and three times their age. And suddenly, right now, shit gets real. In this beautiful country, filled with beautiful people who almost sing their beautiful thank yous, hellos and goodbyes to us, this is what will happen tonight.

It breaks my heart. And I’m sure it breaks the heart of God as well.

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