When HFTS was making its documentary about sex trafficking in Canada, we met and interviewed a man named Brian McConaghy who runs an organization called the Ratanak Foundation. Ratanak works in Cambodia with child victims of sex trafficking, and several kids have been rescued and put into Ratanak’s safe houses to receive counselling, love, and skills to build new lives. The first sex tourist to be convicted in Canada, Donald Bakker, abused 7 little girls when he was in Cambodia, and video-taped himself in the process. 6 of the 7 girls have since been rescued out of the trade and put into Ratanak’s safe house. They have grown into beautiful young women with a passion and a zest for life. A picture of hope.
When we asked Brian about the recovery process for these Cambodian kids, he has this to say:
“These kids are extremely resilient. They have been brought up in a culture and environment that tells them they are worthless. So when someone rescues them out of a life a slavery and abuse, they all of a sudden feel worth, thinking, ‘someone cares about me enough to come rescue me, therefore I must be worth something.'”
Brian is not saying that a lot of trauma has to be worked through, which is difficult and painful. But their attitude helps in the healing process. On the other hand, in Western countries where everyone has “rights” and knows about those rights, girls who are violated (whether they are raped once or sold commercially), have a much more difficult time resuming a life of purpose and meaning after they are rescued. Instead of the thought being, “someone rescued me so I have worth,” the thought pattern is more likely to be “someone violated my rights and my body, so I must not have worth.”
Therefore it is crucial that cultural attitudes and norms are taken into consideration when dealing with rescued victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. Approaches that work in Cambodia may not work in North America, and vice versa. Brian and his team have done their best to understand Cambodia’s social, political, and cultural climate so that their work is effective, and we would all do well to follow their lead.