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IJM Cambodia: One Girl’s Voice Makes Her Community Safer


Kanya* sits at a wooden table and thoughtfully chooses the color of each marker. She is drawing a picture of her new home, a one-room hut built from bamboo on tall stilts. Kanya lives with her grandfather, and the 11-year-old girl’s confidence is on display as she draws.

IJM met this bright-eyed, confident girl three and a half years ago, and much of that time has been spent advocating for her community’s safety: Kanya was a key witness in a case of sexual violence and trafficking that unfolded in her backyard. The perpetrator is an Australian man who abused children with impunity—until this little girl spoke up.

Speaking Up Against the Odds

Kanya was born into a very poor Vietnamese family in a northwestern province of Cambodia; she is part of an ethnic minority that has been historically marginalized. Her parents abandoned her when she was a little girl, and her grandmother passed away soon after. Kanya’s grandfather has been her sole caregiver since. He loves Kanya, but he couldn’t afford to send her to school.

Most days, Kanya plays with a neighbor named Chenda.* Kanya calls Chenda her little sister. The girls roam their rural community and play make-believe games like most children do.

When a middle-aged Australian man befriended them, they were excited to play in his big house and eagerly accepted his kind offers of candy and sometimes food or money they could bring home to their families.

But one day, Kanya looked into the window of this man’s home and saw him doing bad things to Chenda. Kanya was frightened, and she ran home to tell her grandfather and Chenda’s family.

Kanya, with her IJM social worker Sopheap, on the left, and a social worker from her school.

At first Chenda’s family refused to believe Kanya, reprimanding her and sending her away. Kanya pleaded with her grandfather to do something to help her friend, but he did not know what to do. His community had never received help from the police, and he assumed they would side with the powerful foreigner who had plenty of money and rented the large house nearby. Finally, he and a few neighbors summoned the courage to report what Kanya had seen to local police.

Finding Help to Tell the Truth

The local police passed the complaint along to their district’s anti-human trafficking police unit. That unit has received extensive training from IJM over the past decade, and the officers called IJM for assistance during the investigation process. The girls’ families could not afford to send them to school, let alone to hire a lawyer.

As anti-human trafficking police investigated the allegations against the Australian man, IJM social workers and a lawyer visited Kanya and Chenda at home. It was hard for the girls’ families to imagine how their daughters could stand up against this powerful foreigner.

IJM’s social workers explained how Kanya and Chenda could share their testimony in court as evidence—evidence that could result in the Australian man being put behind bars. Deciding to testify is always a very brave decision; in Cambodia, it is all the weightier because many families fear their daughters may be stigmatized or shamed by the community even though they are the victims.

When Kanya decided to participate in the trial, her reasoning was simple: "I wanted to help Chenda and tell the truth.”

A Small but Strong Voice

IJM staff helped the girls prepare to share the truth by explaining how the trials would work. "The court room is unfamiliar and intimidating. Our goal is always to help survivors understand that they did nothing wrong, that they are not in trouble,” says Sopheap Seng, an IJM Social Worker. She adds, "For girls this young, they won’t have the vocabulary to articulate the abuse, so we have dolls and puppets that the girls can point to and explain what happened.”

Both Chenda and Kanya testified on the same day. IJM’s lawyer ensured the Australian man was taken out of the courtroom so they would not have to stand in front of him. Chenda was timid and quiet—not surprising for a child so young. Kanya’s testimony was bold and clear.

The perpetrator’s attorney peppered Kanya with questions, at one point trying to discredit her testimony by stating she was too short to see into the window. Kanya stood up from the chair on the witness stand and asked the police if they could take her to the house right now so she could show them how she stood on a rock to see into the window. She told the judges exactly what she had seen, emphasizing, "I saw it with my own eyes.”

In August 2011, the Australian man was convicted under Cambodia’s anti-trafficking law. The entire community was stunned.

Justice Delayed

The perpetrator quickly appealed the conviction, and another trial in a higher court began. The appeal trial was frustrating; at one point, the public prosecutor, who is responsible to prove the suspect is guilty, asked the judge to drop the case. Many times this indicates bribery. But the judge upheld the conviction, based on the strong evidence against the perpetrator.

The perpetrator appealed the decision again. Another legal battle ensured, but after five months, the court upheld the earlier convictions. On January 9, 2013, the Australian man was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Again, the community was stunned. The law had proven stronger than this man’s power and wealth. He has been in custody since August 2011, and IJM will continue monitoring the case to ensure his proper sentence is served.

After the conviction, Kanya’s grandfather told IJM staff: "I am proud of Kanya. I had heard about the abuse and I was angry about what the foreigner was doing, but I was scared. When Kanya said what she had seen, I was proud of her and I wanted her to tell the truth.”

Kanya and her grandfather, pictured in their new home

Moving Forward

Kanya’s testimony in court helped secure this monumental conviction, and it made her community a safer place. She said, "When I was interviewed I was scared, because there were three judges in front of me. But I was able to answer all their questions, I just wanted to help my friend and tell the truth.”

Kanya spent time in a shelter for survivors of abuse and trauma before going back home with her grandfather. Her IJM social workers connected her to another NGO in her community that helps children enroll in school and offers after-school programs.

In March 2013, at 10 years old, Kanya started going to school for the first time. She says her favorite classes are reading and writing, and she is getting some of the top grades in her class.

IJM social worker Sopheap has grown close to Kanya and her grandfather. Kanya’s transformation from shy and quiet to friendly and confident stands out to Sopheap. She adds, "I hope Kanya will continue to receive education and grow up to be a knowledgeable woman living safely in her community.”

*Pseudonyms have been used and images have been obscured for the protection of these IJM clients.

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