|Yoshiko Ogawa, chief advisor for the Japan International Cooperation Agency's communications and hotline anti-trafficking programme, awards certificates to An Giang Province border guards for completing a course on anti-human trafficking activities. — VNS Photo Van Dat
by Van Dat
AN GIANG — A full two years has passed since Thach Thi Sa Lal (not her real name) was rescued from a brothel in Cambodia and brought back to her hometown in An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta.
Despite the passage of time, the memories of those dark days fill her with dread, and when asked during a recent interview to speak about the experience, she would only lower her head in silence.
The 16-year-old Khmer-Vietnamese girl, who had to quit school after the sixth grade because of her family's poverty, said that she wanted to talk about the future, not the past.
Rescued by the Cambodian police, the native of An Giang's Tri Ton District now lives with three other trafficked girls at the Compassion House shelter in Long Xuyen City. The shelter receives support from the US-based Pacific Links Foundation.
For six months, Sa Lal has been studying sewing at a vocational school and now feels confident that she can apply for a job or open her own workshop.
Prior to her experience in Cambodia, she knew little about human trafficking, having read only a little about it in newspapers or on the internet, she said. So, when it happened to her, she felt confused and did not recognise the true intent of the traffickers.
"My family is very poor," she told reporters visiting the province to learn about an anti-trafficking hotline and communication project organised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Her dream, she said, was to raise enough money to build a house for her parents and one sibling.
Behind her on the shelter's walls were colourful papers containing the written hopes and dreams of the girls who live with Sa Lal at the shelter. One girl said she wanted to get married and have a baby and another dreamt of having enough money to help her parents.
All of the girls living at the shelter were trafficked to either Cambodia or China.
A cook who has worked at the Compassion House for six years, Le Thi Mai (who did not want to use her real name), said the girls did not want to share their stories because they felt ashamed of their situation.
"I dare not ask them what happened. They see me as their mother, so sometimes they will talk. After they were rescued, they had to be questioned by the police several times," she said.
Since 2008, when the shelter was opened with support from Pacific Links Foundation, most of the girls housed at the shelter have been between 14 and 30 years old.
Some of them returned to their families or got married, but others had to live at the shelter again because of poverty, the cook said.
Nguyen Van Nguyen, deputy head of An Giang Province's Social Evil Prevention Bureau, said the shelter had housed a total of 40 young women since it first opened.
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, programme manager at Pacific Links Foundation, in a phone interview with Viet Nam News, said she hoped JICA's new hotline would provide important information that could assist her foundation in offering prompt intervention and support to victims.
The hotline, she said, would be instrumental in locating young women who could stay at Compassion House and receive job training and health care.
In addition to the hotline, the JICA programme for An Giang Province also includes a communication course for local citizens and border guards that raises awareness about trafficking.
Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, 24, of Tinh Bien District, who attended the JICA communications course, said that previously she had never thought much about trafficking.
"But now I know the consequences, and I'm really concerned. Women who live in poverty and need a job are much more vulnerable to human trafficking," she said, adding that she would call the hotline about any suspicious activity.
"I decided to take part because I see the benefits to the community, and my husband supports my decision, too," Thuy added.
Vo Thi Kim Tram, 54, who has also taken the course, said she had always been sensitive about the issue and had once warned the parents of a 14-year-old girl about a woman who was often visiting their house.
But, now, after receiving training, Tram said she would be even more vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the hotline.
In addition to the training course, a communications club partly financed by JICA has been formed for 30 teenagers at the Nguyen Trai Secondary High School in Long Xuyen.
The teenagers, who visit schools in the province's districts that share a border with Cambodia, perform dramatic skits to raise public awareness about trafficking and later write articles about their field trips for school publications.
La Thanh So, secretary at Nguyen Trai Secondary High School's Communist Youth Union, who is the club's mentor, said the interaction between peers had made the club a success.
"Teenagers are innocent and don't have information about this issue. They're very vulnerable to trafficking," he added.
Acknowledging the need for public awareness, Yoshiko Ogawa, chief advisor for JICA's hotline project, who met recently with the province's Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, urged local agencies to improve coordination via training courses.
Although such efforts will contribute to reducing the number of trafficking victims across the border, Trinh Hoang Phuoc, deputy head of Tinh Bien Township's People's Committee, pointed out that poverty remained a major factor in leading people into prostitution.
Fighting trafficking was essential, but the only sustainable solution would be to offer low-interest loans and jobs to residents in the area, he said.
Of the border district's 3,720 households, 515 live in poverty and 182 live near the poverty line, Phuoc said. — VNS