Home > Local News > From prostitution to pepper

From prostitution to pepper

I’m writing about pepper and Cambodia for several reasons, but to start off I’ll share two:
The former sex workers are taught skills such as sewing at the Daughters of Cambodia workwhop in Phnom Penh.
TEE’S STORY: At 15, Tee left her province in rural Cambodia to
find a job in Phnom Penh. For four years she worked as a waitress. When
the restaurant closed, she went to work as a karaoke girl. She was sold
to a brothel by a friend. The friend took the payment and Tee was
forced to work it off.  f she complained, she was beaten. If she refused to have sex with the
brothel owners, she was beaten. She was forced to stand on the street
to attract customers. If she didn’t lure enough customers, she was
beaten. She finally ran away when the brothel owners were sleeping. But
carrying the stigma of having been a sex worker made finding a new job
all but impossible, and she ended up back in a karaoke bar.
PERL’S STORY: Perl has no education, but she does have eight
siblings. She came to Phnom Penh to help earn money to support a sick
father and a disabled sister. Perl got a job in a garment factory but
the demands for money continued. She started work in a karaoke bar. Her
family wanted more money. Her next step was prostitution.

She serviced men at night and slept during the day. Customers forced
her to drink with them. They often cheated her out of money by refusing
to pay after sex. Perl was forced into a room with many men and gang


When my wife Cris and I decided to import pepper from Cambodia into
the U.S. we had two basic goals: to provide a market for some
hard-working farmers and help a deserving charity in one of the poorest
nations in the world.

We aren’t in it for money; there a lot more effective ways to make money than selling pepper from Kampot, Cambodia.

But we had heard about Daughters of Cambodia on a previous visit.
Simply, Daughters takes in former sex workers and teaches them a trade.

The nonprofit organization now has about 55 girls and 15 boys learning to sew, make jewelry and wait tables.

There’s a Daughters of Cambodia gift shop and café in Phnom Penh just
down the street from the National Museum. Daughters also runs a
three-story workshop deep in the alleys of one of Phnom Penh’s numerous
brothel districts.

Who better to make the packaging for our pepper?

Ruth Elliott is an earnest English lady. She’s a psychologist. She
has lived in Phnom Penh for seven years, is married to a Cambodian man
and has four kids. She started Daughters of Cambodia four years ago.

“I felt God put it in my heart,” she says of the organization. “I
felt Cambodia needed more help than just about any other place.”

Ruth provided a little insight into the Cambodian sex trade:

An estimated 40 percent of the sex workers are HIV positive.

The customers break down something like this: 49 percent Cambodian, 42 percent from other Asian nations; 9 percent Westerners.

Often, the families sell the girls into the sex trade. The
causes include broken families, domestic violence, materialism — the
families want a new TV or motorbike — and alcoholism. “Ninety percent
of the girls who are sold are sold by their families,” Ruth says.

The girls typically take a pay cut when they leave the sex
trade for Daughters. They likely were earning about $100 a month as a
prostitute; they get paid $75-$80 a month at Daughters.

It’s impossible to imagine selling a child into a brutal sex
business. But it’s also hard to imagine the poverty of rural Cambodia.

The young women enter the Daughter’s program voluntarily but they
bring a lot of baggage: alcoholism, no self esteem, depression, victims
of domestic abuse.

Recently, Daughters has taken in ladyboys – young transvestites who
work the sex trade. Says Ruth: “They are more despised (in Cambodian
society) than the girls. They can only come out after midnight because
you have people in the streets screaming things at them. We just give
work and a purpose. Some want to become boys again and we try to help


I got a tour of the workshop.

After a winding tuk tuk ride through the alleys of Phnonm Penh we came to a big iron gate.

There are two rules: No photography and men must be accompanied by someone from the organization all times.

The rooms are filled with sewing machines, tables for assembling
jewelry and rooms with groups of girls crocheting. Kids were napping on
mats in the day-care center. A nurse visits once a week.

It was strangely quiet when I entered the sewing room. The 30 sewing
machines were still. But out on the balcony — where it was a little
cooler — 15 giggling young women were gathered, putting the finishing
touches on the pouches we had ordered to hold the pepper.

The traditional Cambodian material had been purchased at a local
market. It’s a sturdy, checked cloth that local people use as a scarf, a
bandana and to carry babies. It’s worn by both men and women. You might
recall photos of the Cambodian butcher Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge
soldiers wearing red and white kramas.

I stuffed 160 pepper pouches into my suitcase along with 30 pounds of pepper.

It was time to go home.

TEE TODAY: She works as a cook at the Daughters of Cambodia
café. She is single and lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a rented
house. She takes part in child-care and domestic-violence workshops. She
boasts that she is one of the fastest cooks at the café.

PERL TODAY: She’s learning English so she can better
communicate with foreign customers at the Daughters shop. She’s a
cashier and a management trainee. The increased responsibility means a
higher salary. She has regular counseling and has become a Christian.

“In the past people always looked down on me,” Perl says. “I now have hope.”

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