“I thought my life was finished.” These were the words of a 16-year-old girl who was sold into forced marriage to pay off her family’s debt.
Thavy* was just 14 when her mother traded her in as part of a deal – her daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for a loan.
Paying off a debt
Accepting the offer would give the family a reprieve from the mounting debt they were incurring following the collapse of their small vegetable business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maggie Crewes, Hope for Justice’s Cambodia Director, said: “The family were in dire circumstances. As the tourism industry shut down, the hotels they usually supplied shut their doors. Many other customers lost their jobs and were not buying, and so their fragile business fell to pieces.”
A broker promised to pay off the debts and to provide a loan if Thavy would marry ‘a kind, rich man’ in a neighbouring country. Her mother promised that she could return home if she did not like it. So Thavy travelled to China, hoping to improve her family’s fortunes.
“It was at this point that Thavy’s world started to crumble,” Maggie said. “The ‘rich husband’ was an older man, a lonely factory worker earning the same as her father. They could hardly communicate as they spoke different languages. The man was mean and abusive, and expected Thavy to do all of the housework, cooking, cleaning and also care for him. She was scared, lonely, isolated and terrified of getting pregnant.”
Thavy seeks help
When on one occasion she was entrusted to buy some groceries from the shop, Thavy seized the opportunity to run away. She used the money to buy a train ticket to the furthest destination possible. After a six-hour journey, she arrived in a large city and found a police station. Thavy used Google translate to communicate that she was from Cambodia and needed to return home. Thankfully on seeing this vulnerable young girl signalling for help, the police made contact with the nearest Cambodian embassy. Two days later, an officer attended the station, interviewed Thavy, assisted her to obtain temporary travel papers and helped her to return to her home country.
Social welfare officers met Thavy at the airport and referred her to Hope for Justice. She was enrolled at our Lighthouse where she received safety, a warm bed, nutritious food, healthcare and other support.
Our social workers were able to locate Thavy’s grandmother and nine-year-old brother, but unfortunately learned that her father had died and her mother had moved to Thailand to find work.
Rebuilding her life
Thavy chose to move into our Stepping Stones Project – a programme designed to support young girls as they learn a practical skill, but also learn to live independently and safely in the community.
She told us: “When I was stuck in that awful place in another country I thought my life was finished. I am so thankful to be free from all that and get another chance to start my life again through Stepping Stones.”
Thavy has recently graduated from a six-month vocational training course in salon work. The soft skills programme has taken her through a range of important skills specific to the workplace, how to relate to future employers, how to apply for jobs, how to conduct herself at interview, good work ethics and more.
She is now doing an internship to improve on her salon practice, with the hope to move home and find paid employment in a nearby town to support her brother and grandmother.
Maggie Crewes said: “It’s been a rough road but Thavy is taking one step at a time and taking control of her life, finding a new start through the Stepping Stones programme.”
*Name and image changed to protect identity of the survivor
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