Kampong Speu province, which lies just east of the capital Phnom Penh in Southern Cambodia, is one of the most dangerous areas in the country for children. The province’s close proximity to Cambodia’s financial and tourism capital makes the poorest residents of Kampong Speu especially vulnerable to endemic poverty, high incidences of child and forced labor, and sex trafficking. Chronic unemployment and limited education outlets only perpetuate the cycle of poverty and vulnerability; children, especially young girls, are often those most at risk, as their families lend or even sell them to pimps or traffickers for fast cash. According to the United Nations Inter-Agency on Project Human Trafficking, over 50% of Cambodians are under 20 years of age, and around 200,000 Cambodians join the labor force annually, swelling the numbers of unemployed or illegally employed. With an imbalance between jobs and job-seekers, many young Cambodians are now working in largely unregulated sectors such as bars and the entertainment business where exposure to human-trafficking poses a much greater risk.
Guerrilla Aid’s Cambodia connection goes back to 2005 when Barton Brooks founded GC after an especially impactful trip to the region. Our current partnership began in 2007 when we partnered with Vichet Uon and the Sao Sary Foundation in Kampong Speu. Vichet founded Sao Sary in order to protect children from all forms of violence, especially sexually-related violence, sex-trafficking and prostitution. At the time, Guerrilla Aid was a much smaller organization, but by partnering with Mr. Uon and the Sao Sary Foundation, we designed a back-to-school outreach campaign and enrolled over 100 street children into school. We received a major donation from a family in LA in memory of their son, Jeff Scott, an American surfer and photographer. Jeff had been traveling to Cambodia for years and his big heart and quick smile endeared him to the local community, and his family felt that it was important for part of his legacy to remain in Cambodia. With that additional help, Guerrilla Aid provided backpacks and supplies for all incoming students, hired a doctor to examine each child, and got prescriptions for those needing specific medicine. We remain committed to this region and in 2011 we successfully lobbied for funding to design a larger scale project that would strengthen our partnership with the Sao Sary Foundation and expand our local impact.
We returned to Cambodia in November 2011 based on the incredible generosity of the Karuna Charitable Foundation - encouraged to learn that the Sao Sary Foundation had continued its work and expanded its crucial protection and legal counseling programs. The foundation now provides safe, emergency short and long-term housing for over 40 children, and offers free legal counseling to the victims of rape and sexual violence. In addition, SSF offers classes on health education and microfinance, and provides much-needed skills training in sewing, gardening, and raising livestock. It is believed that if a family is able to achieve a steady monthly income of roughly $100, the likelihood of that family becoming involved with child-traffickers is significant lower than those who live in extreme poverty.
Since tourism is one of the major commercial industries in Cambodia, the Sao Sary Foundation, Karuna, and Guerrilla Aid decided to create a hospitality training center by renovating a guesthouse where former victims of child-trafficking can learn on-the-job training and support themselves and their families. Classes in English literacy, personal finance, and anti-trafficking awareness will also be taught at the new guesthouse and training facility. The guesthouse is located along the main highway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville – a beachside resort town and popular tourist destination. The training center’s close proximity to international NGO offices such as the Red Cross heightens visibility and presents valuable opportunities to collaborate with other organizations similarly devoted to the protection of child and human rights.
The guesthouse and training facility will be a place where at-risk youth in the community can receive job training for careers in accounting, customer relations, housekeeping, and barista and culinary arts. By working and taking classes at the guesthouse, students will build their skills, self-esteem, and prepare for future jobs in Kampong Speu or nearby Phnom Penh.
We also expect that, for those working at the guesthouse, additional opportunities to earn extra money will enable them to open independent bank accounts and begin saving money and accruing credit. The guesthouse is intended to be a collective project where former victims of the sex-trafficking industry gain skills and regain a positive sense of self, but it also a vehicle by which young Cambodians can achieve financial independence.
In addition, The Sao Sary Foundation and Guerrilla Aid have established a vegetable garden pilot program. Located just outside Kampong Speu, the garden plot will provide vegetables for the Sao Sary Foundation and training center, and teach students about small-scale agricultural enterprises. Boys and girls from SSF will be in charge of cultivating and selling surplus crops at the local market, thereby earning enough to continue renting and cultivating farmland in 2013. The plot of land was specifically chosen to achieve maximum community benefit, as the parcel of underutilized land is owned by a widowed grandmother who will use the supplemental rental income to help support her family.
Guerrilla Aid is pleased to announce that The Sao Sary Foundation’s Karuna Guesthouse and Hospitality Training Facility is open for business as of March of 2012 – not least of which is the business of helping once “at-risk” youth become empowered future professionals in Kampong Speu, Cambodia.