In Cambodia, family is important. One of the greatest ways a child can honor their parents is by getting a job to contribute to the family’s needs. So that’s what Mealea did.

She didn’t realize that decision would put her on a path toward exploitation.

The work seemed innocent enough. Mealea’s job was selling fruit to customers at a local establishment. But other expectations come with the work when that establishment is a beer garden.

Mealea constantly fended off advances from leering customers. What’s worse, the proprietress of the beer garden encouraged the vulgar behavior. In her eyes, the beautiful Mealea was just another draw to her business, a walking attraction that kept the customers coming. And when those same men offered to purchase Mealea for sex, her boss was more than happy to oblige them.

girls in red light

Estimates of minors exploited in the commercial sex industry in Cambodia were 15%-30% in the early 2000s. A study from 2016 found only 2.2% of minors age 15 years and younger in Cambodia making up just 0.1% of the sex industry

Despite the advances and pressure from her boss, Mealea’s parents protected their daughter as best they could. When “customers” or the proprietress came to her house in an attempt to “rent time” with her, her brave parents continually sent them away.

But things became more desperate when an elderly family member in a nearby province fell ill. Mealea’s father was forced to stop working so that he could care for them, leaving Mealea the sole provider of their already struggling family. It seemed like Mealea was being forced into a brutal choice: sacrifice her body to provide for her family, or sacrifice her family to save herself.

That’s when we offered a third choice.

Her Choice

For Mealea, the choice was easy. She was able to leave her high-risk work at the beer garden to focus on school. She entered Destiny Rescue’s EMPOWER program, where she learned key ways to navigate the trauma she’d suffered. During her tenth-grade studies, we provided the family with a stipend until her father could return home and resume work. Our local staff said Mealea’s parents were “grateful to Destiny Rescue for stepping in to rescue their daughter.”

When Mealea showed interest in the culinary arts, we partnered with another local non-governmental organization (NGO) to help her study to become a chef. The industrious student completed both her standard education and cooking program simultaneously. Her caseworkers were impressed: “This girl is a hard-working student and has a great motivational mindset.” 

Visna, our team leader, agreed, saying, “We are really proud of her and believe that she is going to… shine in the community.”

This past August (2023), Mealea graduated from the cooking program and celebrated the event with friends and family. The tall girl smiled radiantly in her chef’s uniform, proudly displaying her diploma flanked by her beaming parents.

 Our staff, who kept up with the charming, hard-working girl after she completed her course of care with us, joined in the celebration. “This young girl is amazing,” Visna said.

Mealea holds her certificate of completion from her training program alongside her parents and Paul, Destiny Rescue Country Manager for Cambodia

Mealea holds her certificate of completion from her training program alongside her parents and Paul, Destiny Rescue Country Manager for Cambodia

Mealea poses with Thary, Rescue Agent

Thanks to her hard work, Mealea’s future is bright. Her performance during the cooking program is opening up new opportunities for a financially stable life doing what she enjoys. The school has already offered her an internship at a local 5-Star hotel! And Mealea knows just who she’d like to treat: 

I will cook a meal for the Destiny Rescue staff and invite them to visit where I work one day. I thank them for all the support they have provided me.”

Mealea was able to escape a high-risk job before her trafficker could fully exploit her thanks to our intervention. The bright student has made the most of that opportunity and is now on the path to realizing her hopes and dreams. Will you give other children facing dire circumstances the same choice? 

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