Keang Ko

works to end the trafficking of girls

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Weather: 32 degrees

  • Where do you live? Phnom Penh
  • When do you start working with Hagar: Aug 2020
  • How long have you worked in anti-trafficking: Over 20 years

For 10 years I was a teacher of chemistry in Phnom Penh. I believed education was the key to healing this country. After the Khmer Rouge, over 80% of women were left illiterate. It was very common – especially amongst poor communities – boys were sent to school but not girls. A policy to deal with literacy was developed. I was determined to help see it succeed.

While rates of illiteracy have come down, girls now drop out of school to work in the garment industry to earn money. And so, their education stops.

They earn enough for themselves but if they get sick, they have to borrow money at high interest rates from loan sharks, which leaves them indebted and vulnerable to traffickers with promises of being sent to places like China to earn higher salaries.

There are over 500 cases per year of this occurring – which are the official figures.

Many men in China are construction workers who want children but struggle to marry Chinese women, who are not attracted to them due to their work. So brokers bring Cambodian girls illegally into China to force a marriage she never agreed to. Once in China, she is often treated like a slave for the whole family. She can’t leave the house, has to serve him sexually and do all the chores.

If these girls escape, they often end up in jail or a detention centre in China before being sent back to Cambodia.

Why did you choose to work for Hagar?

I researched human trafficking in Cambodia and learned how many NGOs rescue and re-integrate girls and believe their job is done, but due to low self-esteem, trauma and abuse, these girls often end up as sex workers.

Hagar does powerful work, supporting survivors across the whole journey of their recovery. This is harder and takes longer, but creates far more life-changing results.

What inspired you to do this complex, difficult work?

I was 8 years old in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power. At first, children and adults were separated. We were housed in a rural community and worked all day, every day. If you said anything negative about the Khmer Rouge, you were killed. There were spies everywhere.

First they killed my father, my five uncles, then later my eldest sister. One of my great fears is I think they raped her before they killed her. I saw many people being led away to be killed. At night you could hear the wolves howling as they came to eat the bodies of the dead.

“We lived in fear of being killed for 3 years 9 month and 20 days”

In 1975, the Vietnamese destroyed the Khmer Rouge. Although this started another terrible time. We walked for three months until eventually finding safety. So many people died walking across the country, from starvation, hunger or stepping on landmines.

I still have nightmares that I am sleeping in that hut as a child, walking to work at 1am to build a canal in a rice field, working all day, eating rice twice a day, drinking water from puddles in the ground, fearing I could be killed at any moment.

When I had COVID I was very sick in hospital. I saw the faces of the trafficking survivors we help today. I do this work to help others – to see women become strong after what this country has been through – knowing how much the Cambodian people have suffered. Women must play a key role in continuing to rebuild this country.

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