Thursday, June 16, 2011

Not By Choice

Conversations With A Sex Worker  

A young Cambodian relates the appalling events that led her into prostitution.
It was the sort of day that made you want to really seize all opportunities.
There was a beautiful blue sky dotted with white wisps of clouds and the kind of sun benevolent enough not to burn your skin.
It was 8am in Cambodia and the adventure at hand was a trip through Angkor Archaeological Park.
My guide?
A 22-year-old sex worker named Samnang, the Cambodian word for Good Fortune.

“You can call me Sam,” she said, smiling shyly.

I had met Sam two days earlier, by accident, when I got lost meandering through the streets of Siem Reap.
At first, she tried giving me directions, but when I failed to comprehend, mostly because I’m not good with maps, Sam offered to walk me back to where I was staying during my week-long visit.

When we arrived, I asked Sam to have dinner with me, but she declined, saying she had to work.
When I asked what she worked as, she explained in halting English that she was a sex worker.
I tried to sound casual, telling her why I was in Cambodia and that I was looking for someone who could show me around.
I asked if she would be interested.

And so, two days later, on a gorgeous day in Siem Rep, Sam takes me on a journey very different from the one I had in mind.

As we walk down Sivatha Road, we talk about our lives and I ask her if she would tell her story for me to share with others.
She agrees but asks that no photographs be taken.
We find a restaurant and seat ourselves for a meal.
Spicy chicken rice at 8.30am is indeed the breakfast of champions. 

The Journey Begins

Sam’s life began as a rather happy one, but it quickly turned into a horrific series of events.
Born in Vietnam, she went to Thailand when she was 17 in search of a better life.
She found a job as a waitress.
One day, she met a foreigner named Gerard who was very pleased to learn that she was a Vietnam native.
He was a businessman who was enthusiastic about importing cheap scooters into Vietnam.

After several lunches and dinners, Sam agreed to take Gerard to Vietnam to help him start his business.
Felicitations of love followed soon after, and a promise of marriage was extended.
One thing led to another and Sam found herself pregnant two months into the relationship.
The business was also warming up.
But Gerard’s ardour toward her cooled drastically.

“He began ignoring me and wasn’t shy about doing it openly,” she shares.
Gerard also turned out to be a paedophile, having his way with many underage girls.
“In Vietnam, if you have money, you can get away with anything; you just pay the police to keep them quiet,” Sam says, frowning.
I tell her that this happens around the world.

Gerard left Sam in her third month of pregnancy.
“I tried asking him to help me and the baby with some money, but he said it’s not his problem anymore,” she says, her voice thick with emotion.
“He told me that I should get an abortion, which he was willing to pay for. I didn’t want to do this and I had nowhere to go. One day, while I was looking for odd jobs, I met an old friend who was working as a seamstress. She took me in without question.” 

On the Run

Months later, Sam gave birth to a beautiful girl and named her Maelea, which means Flower Garland.
Soon after this, she found a job as a cleaner and life seemed better for a while.

About a year later, while she was out with her baby, Sam bumped into Gerard at the local market.
The man who initially wanted to get rid of the baby now wanted her for himself when he saw how cute she was.
“I refused of course,” Sam says.
“I knew what he did with the other young girls. I didn’t trust him anymore and I was afraid that he would hurt my baby.”

But Gerard got his way through his connections and by using corrupt officials.
But after a month, Sam got Maelea back with the help of a visiting social worker from the United States.

“I cried for days after I saw what he had done to my baby. Her private parts were swollen and discoloured. She was only one year old.”
Sam’s petite body shook with heavy sobs from this terrible memory.

When confronted, Gerard rejected the accusations and threatened to hurt Sam and the baby if she continued to pester him.
But he still wanted Maelea.
“He would come to the house that I shared with my friend and send thugs over to threaten us. I was afraid for our safety and decided that I would leave and hide out in Cambodia.” 

Starting Anew

After a difficult journey, Sam found herself in a foreign country.
She couldn’t speak the language, and had a little child to feed.

“I tried for three months to find a job. No one would hire me. I had to beg on the streets with my daughter in my arms. We were staying at bus stands and wherever else that we could find shelter. I thought that if feeding my daughter and providing her with a roof over her head meant that I had to sell my body, then it was a small price to pay.”
And so she turned to prostitution.

“I will never forget the first time I did it. I just kept my mind on the food that I will be able to buy for my child and me. That made it easier.

“I have been doing this for four years now and have met many women like me. In the early days, one of them told me that I would get used to it, that it would get easier. This is not true. I have never gotten used to it and I will not be doing this for much longer.”
There was conviction in her voice.

Sam says she will give it another half a year.
“What will my daughter think?” I am stumped for a reply.

“Soon, she will be old enough to start asking me questions,” she adds.
Later, I ask her if she would ever tell Maelea of her past.
Sam takes a long pause and says, “Right now, I don’t know if I will. I want to be honest, but I also think that she doesn’t have to know the ugly side of my life.”

I ask what she would like to do for a living.

“I am saving some money to go back to school and study. I want to become a teacher.”
And then she asks shyly, “Do you think I can?”

I am too overwhelmed to say anything and I nod my answer.

At the time of writing, Sam has already started her classes.
After so much misfortune, it does look like she is going to live up to the meaning of her name after all.