by Kim Green
In 1984, Chantha Nguon was a young refugee, working as a soup vendor in a lawless Cambodian border town. While her partner Chan plotted their escape to Thailand, Chantha made ends meet by serving kuy teav—noodle soup—to sex workers in a brothel district. Seeing their suffering made her heartsick. “I couldn’t understand how these beautiful young creatures could have chosen such a life,” she writes in her memoir (forthcoming, date TBA). “I laugh now at the absurd innocence of that idea.”
Chantha quickly grasped that freedom of choice exists on a continuum of duress. Although she had endured her own crushing losses, these desperate girls came from impoverished villages ravaged by war; some had been brought to the brothels by their mothers to become the family’s breadwinner. At night, she heard those mothers shushing their crying daughters.
“A girl doesn’t have to be kidnapped and chained to see no other destination for herself than a brothel,” she writes. “If I had no hope and nothing to sell for food, maybe I would do the same—how could I know for sure?”
For people in extreme poverty, freedom isn’t black and white. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in their book, Half the Sky, brothel workers can’t be divided neatly into sex slaves and voluntary entrepreneurs; many “inhabit a gray zone between freedom and slavery.”
The same holds true for other victims of labor trafficking and modern slavery. The problem is vast, and largely invisible. A 2017 study by the International Labour Office (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation estimates that more than 40 million people in the world live in conditions of modern slavery—nearly 25 million as forced laborers, and 15 million plus in forced marriages. One-quarter of these slavery victims are children, and women and girls are particularly vulnerable.
In Chantha’s work in Stung Treng—for Doctors Without Borders, then SWDC—she has seen the impossible choices poor people make every day: eke out a living on the rice fields, hoping for good weather and good health. Build roads for a dollar or two a day. Leave the village to labor at rubber plantations or factories. Or leave Cambodia to work abroad.
An estimated one million Cambodians have chosen the latter; many do so through illegal channels. These undocumented migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking, which assumes many forms: forced labor on Thai fishing vessels; domestic servitude in Malaysia or the Middle East; or forced marriages in China.
Some forms of trafficking and modern slavery are all too common closer to home: Families in debt, or with more children than they can feed, may sell a child to be sexually exploited. In one case reported by CNN, a destitute mother fell heavily into debt to loan sharks after her fisherman husband fell ill and could not work. She surrendered her 12-year-old daughter to a brothel, where her virginity was sold and she was raped many times a day.
Over the past decade, the work of Kristof and WuDunn, among others, has turned a spotlight on the horrors of trafficking and exploitation—and rightly so. But lasting solutions have been elusive. “Rescuing girls is the easy part, however,” write WuDunn and Kristof. “The challenge is keeping them from returning.”
For Chantha, cinematic rescues of sex workers are an "instant noodles" approach—a quick fix that too often, does not last. Impoverished women with no education or skills often go right back to the brothels, if they can find no other way to support themselves. If you want to change a woman's life permanently, says Chantha, the work cannot stop with the rescue; the next step is helping them learn a new livelihood.
The challenge for Cambodia, she adds, is to find a "slow noodles" strategy—by helping families avoid being exploited in the first place. By teaching them skills and providing them with better, safer ways to support themselves and their children. And also, by building a safety net for families living in dire poverty, one meager harvest or illness away from starvation.
"What if we could offer an alternative to subsistence farming, garment-factory drudgery, or the brothels?" she writes. "We saw that economic independence was a superpower the women of Stung Treng desperately wanted."
Building a new life of self-sufficiency takes years, hard work, and courage. It's not a quick fix. But it's a lasting one that can be passed down to the next generation. SWDC weavers' daughters can go to school for as long as they want to. Maybe some of them will go to college, just like Chantha's daughter did.
With enough patience, anything is possible. #SlowNoodles