Meet Daughters of Cambodia: Changing lives of victims of sex trafficking through economic empowerment

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Daughters of Cambodia is a Phnom Penh-based faith-based organization that empowers those trapped in the sex industry to walk free and start a new life.

Handprint sat down with Sheila Whittle, the Communication Manager of Daughters of Cambodia on the story behind Daughters of Cambodia and how they started their mission to holistically change the lives of everyone who were in sex work.

What was that one pivotal moment that inspired the start of Daughters of Cambodia?

So Ruth Elliot, the founder and director of Daughters of Cambodia, first moved to Cambodia back in 2004 to work as an anti-trafficking care director. At that time, the only method of anti-trafficking is the raid and rescue model. It’s exactly as it sounds—they would raid well-known brothels or areas that are known to have high trafficking possibilities and place the victims in a shelter to receive services.

Throughout Ruth’s time there, she noticed really poor outcomes. A hundred percent of the beneficiaries of the anti-trafficking program she worked for returned to the sex industry. That’s what drove her to found Daughters in 2007.

Daughters actually just started as a day center where she would provide basic services. Even therapeutic activities like making jewelry or doing a spa-type day. And she would literally just go to the brothels. Because it was during the daytime, there was not a high frequency of customers and the women were able to participate in these programs.

In her conversations, she found out that the number one reason that they stayed was simply economic. After they left the shelter or the institution, these women went back simply because there was still no generation of income. They received these great services, they didn’t want to be a part of the sex industry, but because of the pure fact that they didn’t have money.

The fact that they’re in a Southeast Asian culture, they’re not only providing for themselves. They’re providing for family, extended family, parents. For them, they made that sacrifice.

Ruth realized that if she could help them find reliable income and fair wages that they would leave voluntarily from the sex industry. And that’s really what prompted her to start Daughters of Cambodia as we know it today.


This concept of focusing on empowerment is interesting. Can you tell me more about the exact process of helping those who come forward?

We’ll often do some red light district outreaches in main sex work industry areas throughout Phnom Penh. Just recently we had our 15th anniversary and majority of our clients now come from word of mouth.

Many anti-trafficking organizations will have safe houses or residential centers for the clients to live in. But she found that—being in an Asian culture—taking them from their community and that support system, actually does more harm than good. Putting them in an institution or putting them in a safe house, away from their built-in structure, however, healthy or unhealthy was hard for them.

Because our clients still live in these communities where they had been vulnerable to sex work, they know a lot of their neighbors are working in the sex industry.

They know a lot of their community members. And so when they find out they offer them the opportunity to, um, to meet and apply with daughters. We’ll have an interview process to find out what their needs are. So it takes anywhere between six to 12 months, depending on their skill level.

Again, many of these are unskilled, and that’s a big reason they were vulnerable. They didn’t have a high education. They didn’t have very many opportunities to obtain skills that could be used to have other types of jobs. So what we do when they first come to us, they work in our production center where they’re learning different skills like sewing, making jewelry, screen printing.

And as they are learning those skills, they’re also receiving social services, basic medical care, counseling and therapy, and life skill classes like basic hygiene and parenting and this is all free of charge. We also have a daycare on-site to help prevent that cycle of abuse or that cycle of trafficking. We want to make sure that their children are in a safe place.

We understand that it’s not just the job. We have to change those mindsets. Once they are trained, we place them in different roles, different positions.

One of those options is our daughter’s visitor center. Those are for the girls who are pretty well along in their healing journey. Our head of quality control is a previous client. Our inventory manager is also a previous client.

But we noticed that a lot of them liked being in a community of people who understood where they were. So there is no timeline for how long they can stay or how quickly they can leave. Some of them end up getting amazing jobs in other restaurants because of their cafe experience with us, or in retail shops. It’s really wonderful to see them branch out and grow for those who are ready to move on to other positions.

Our goal is for them to be able to be fully independent in all areas of their life, not just economically.


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Did Daughters of Cambodia encounter any struggles in establishing the organization?

Being in a country like Cambodia there’s going to be a lot of gray areas when it comes to law and legislation. What worked for us is working with partners. We have our own NGO director who is in charge of government compliance and just learning those ropes and making sure we’re following the rules.

In terms of finances, yes, especially the past few years. We’re not immune to the pandemic and a huge hit that we’ve received is with our Visitor Center since we’re located in a main tourist area. It relied on the business of tourists. With COVID, we had to shut down our cafe because of all the requirements with food services and we couldn’t operate our cafe.

Our Daughters’ center usually consists of our retail shop, the cafe, and the spa. Because of COVID we’re down with one of our businesses. The shutting down of non-essential businesses greatly affected our ability to provide for our clients and we had to shift gears. A lot of our revenue during the clients’ production stage is dependent on donors and individual sponsors. Since the pandemic, everyone was struggling and going through their own responsibilities and donations were one of the things that got cut first.

That’s one of the reasons why we’re so appreciative of Handprint. The more awareness we can spread, the more opportunities people can learn what we do and decide to sponsor—it sustains us. Just by exposing businesses and potential clients to our work is just an awesome opportunity to sustain our ability to employ those exiting the sex industry.


How do you think DOC changed sex trafficking and exploitation in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh? Do you see an increase in being more open to ask for help among victims?

Back in the early ‘90s, the only method that we know is the raid and rescue. With the establishment of Daughters in 2007 and its model of economic empowerment, it really was a grassroots effort. She was a pioneer in the anti-trafficking movement, especially in Cambodia since that’s just not being done. You can just throw donations, right? But there’s no change.

You can help them financially, but none of that long-lasting individual change. When you give someone money, there’s appreciation. But when they earned it, they’re empowered and they see “Hey, I have these skills. I’m able to pull myself out of this situation.” Through counseling and life skill classes, seeing themselves become better parents. They parented the way they were parented and seeing that change in the next generation has been really significant.

One of the things they told us that even though they would bring the money back home to their families, they weren’t often welcomed because of the shame and stigma of sex work. What we found is that once they have this job, once they’re able to have an opportunity to make honest money, their families welcome them back. That in itself was healing.

And again, most of those who come to us now are through word of mouth—referred to us by past clients because they are the evidence of the effectiveness of the program.

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Can you give one specific accomplishment that has become a game-changer for your organization?

One of the most recent ones is being a part of the World Fair Trade Organization in 2020. As a WTFO partner, it adds legitimacy to what we’ve been doing before. It’s great to have that designation that we’re providing opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, that we have transparency and fair payment, among others.


What are the main goals you’re aiming for in 2022 that you’d really love people’s support on?

One of our main goals is sustainability, especially with the strain that COVID placed on our income generation. We’re looking for ways to be sustainable for the long-term. Cutting costs by streamlining, looking for new areas where we can generate income, and developing partnerships like with Handprint so that there will be awareness that can be raised on a wider scale.

Also, one of our goals that we’re pushing for is our Daughters’ overseas expansion. We really want to empower women to leave sex work and live lives free of exploitation. Right now, throughout Southeast Asian regions. Our target countries are going to be the Philippines and Indonesia. That’s a major project that we really hope we can have the funding for, have the staff and the people in place to help us with the launch.

Continuing our efforts to raise awareness. Ruth is currently working on writing an autobiographical book about herself and the founding of Daughters to help raise awareness about what we’re doing and raise support for our missions.

You can start supporting Daughters of Cambodia’s mission here.


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