Over the last few weeks Steve and I have had the privilege of joining a pioneering Iris Cambodia trip, Iris Ministries are eventually hoping to establish a presence in the nation. We have had our hearts broken for Cambodia, shedding many tears but also much laughter with the beautiful Khmer people and a fabulous team. As soon as I arrived in Phnom Penh I felt like I was walking through water; my spirit felt so alert to what was going on around me. After reading and learning so much about the child prostitution in this nation part of me was still shocked to see these things actually happening before my eyes.
During our time in Phnom Penh God gave the team such favour and we were able to meet with many influential and inspirational people. The first organisation we visited was Chabdai. Here we were informed about the realities of child prostitution, who is involved and how they are working to stop it. I was shocked to learn about the scale of the problem. Child sexual abuse is ingrained in the culture and many of the customers are in fact local men. Some believe that they will be cured from HIV/AIDS by intercourse with a virgin because they think they will get rid of it by giving it to them. Others believe that if you sleep with a virgin it will make your business prosper and others think that they will be become more youthful by performing such an act.
Outside a Temple in Phnom Penh.
Many children are sold for sex outside the grounds of local temples and the relationship between culture and religion is strongly intertwined. Chabdai goes into rural villages and schools and teaching young children the dangers of being groomed by traffickers who try and go to the villages to entice them to a “better life”, away from their poverty and desperation.
One organisation we met (who I will not name) is involved in the investigation of paedophiles their main aim is to protect vulnerable children. They have signs all across town with a hotline number for anyone (tourist or local) to ring who sees suspicious behaviour and is concerned about a child’s wellbeing. They will investigate all reports, they are doing incredible things and have rescued hundreds of children.
The local police cannot always be trusted so this organisation makes sure all evidence is gathered properly and then hands it over to the authorities. Sadly though when the perpetrator has a lot of money or power their hands are tied; one man guilty of numerous acts of child molestation and who was convicted of over a decade in prison actually in the end got a Royal pardon! (read the article here). Most people say this is because he has invested millions in the country and is very influential.
A slum in Phnom Penh
Another incredible project we visited in Pnhom Penh is called “feed my lambs”, there are 400 slums in the city and this organisation goes into some of them to feed all the children and mothers. We got to go with Anne to help out. The first thing that hit me was the stench – a “river” more like a sewer was on the edge of the slum , with a rubbish dump on the other side. The slum felt so sad and hopeless, people lying around in rubbish, filth and the scorching heat. Many hadn’t eaten that day and many were ill, one baby we had to send to the hospital.
However as I watched Anne I saw how people lit up when she came to their homes , they told her their problems and she loved them and said she would try and help. She has funded many new roofs, medical treatments and much more for these people. They loved her and she brought them hope. However it was still sad to see such poverty, with many people on less than $1 a day (usually made from sorting through rubbish). One of the saddest moments was when 2 different ladies tried to give me their babies as they couldn’t cope with another mouth to feed. They did not want these beautiful babies; not because they are bad mothers; but because they cannot feed them. Anne who is in her 60’s has adopted a girl from this village who was born with a cleft palate – her mother did not want her and begged Anne to take her, she is now a beautiful little girl who is so full of love. This visit completely inspired me as I thought of how amazing it would be to watch Jesus transform and redeem places like this.
Steve and a few others also had the honour of meeting an incredible woman who is working with the street children on the main red-light district called the Hard Places Community. They are the only ministry working with young boys in prostitution. Her faith, endurance and incredible heart was really inspiring. She had even adopted 2 little babies who were rescued during a raid on a brothel when they were only a few weeks old and she is raising them as her own children.
One of the best times we had was just hanging around the riverside area (near the main red-light district) and just playing, loving and feeding the street kids. We had so much fun with them! Such beautiful, joyful and precious children, many of whom have been prostituted – this became apparent by the way they behaved. It brought tears to my eyes as one little boy around 8 years old was thrusting against my leg and biting and kissing my arm. Despite this it was such a privilege to show these children love and to also tell them about Jesus and to pray for them.
One night we were sat at a bench in the city centre and watched a middle-aged white man pay money to another man for a little girl in a beautiful party dress; she was only about 7 years old. We witnessed this kind of behaviour several times; a few of our team tried to follow the direction of the men and the little girl to report them to local investigators but sadly we lost them.
Another evening we went into the bars and brothels in the riverside area and just followed what God told us to do. We ended up just getting to know some of the girls who work there and loving on them. They were so lovely and seemed desperate for authentic friendship and love. One lady who I met said she hated working in the bar and servicing clients but she had no other option. She had a child with her husband and he left her, she then had no money so was forced to get a job here and works all night till 7-8am and then goes home gets washed and goes to work in the market selling vegetables all through the day. She has no spare time or sleep and rarely gets to see her little boy. She had such sadness in her eyes. One lady we spoke to had tried to kill herself several times but she said miraculously she didn’t die! God clearly has huge plans for this precious woman.
On one occasion we were walking around the red-light area and we saw a mother and her 2 young infants lying on the pavement. She looked very tired and hopeless. Her babies were asleep and a 2 year old girl had no clothes on. You could tell by looking at her that it was obvious this little baby had been sexually abused in the past. We quickly went to buy something to cover this baby up and then went to go speak to the mother. It was difficult as she spoke no English but just hugged her and prayed for her and her 2 babies. A few days later we were walking past in the evening and they were there again; this time we had our Cambodian friend Dong with us. The woman told us the children hadn’t eaten and they were all feeling ill and she was just so desperate and poor. We bought her some food and we prayed for her and I told her she was so precious and so loved by God and she started sobbing. It was so so sad as I felt that was probably the first time anyone had ever said that to her. Initially I had been angry with this woman to allow her children to be so vulnerable, but then I realised she didn’t really have any options but to live on the streets and was desperate! Our friend is going to get them some help by getting them in touch with an NGO we know about and hopefully things will be different when I see them next.
Tower full of skulls, a monument in one of the "killing fields".
Despite all Cambodia’s economic and social problems when you consider what the country has been through it is actually doing really well! Pol Pot and the Khmer rouge devastated this nation. Nearly 1/3 of the population were tortured and killed. The people arrested were anyone who had a profession; teachers, doctors, artists, writers etc. Also people who wore glasses, people who didn’t grow enough rice and other various ludicrous reasons. Even some babies and children were seen as a threat and were also tortured and killed. During this time people couldn’t trust anyone and people lived in such poverty, fear and shock at what was happening.
Our Phnom Penh tour guide told us how they had killed two of his sisters when he was 12 years old (he is only about 50 now), and most people have lost a significant someone to them and it still has an emotional impact on their lives. Our guide said he never feels peace or has a decent night’s sleep because he is still in shock from it all. Steve offered to pray for him and we all got to lay on hands and pray for him in Jesus’ name, he said he felt so much more peaceful! I’m convinced he has slept better since! Only Jesus is the fix for such trauma in people’s lives and only He can bring peace to troubled hearts!
Only Jesus is the answer, I have been so inspired to see how His body (the church) is raising up to make a difference in this country. It’s inspiring to see the church around the world rising up and doing something about the broken and the hurting and they are making a big difference. Phnom Penh alone has hundreds of amazing Christian NGO’s!
We got to go to and see so many more than we have time to write about and we were so inspired by all of them. Whether they make beautiful cup cakes to sell to the public or offer services such as manicures and pedicures or hair cuts they have each come up with a way to change people's lives by giving them employment and get them out of the sex industry. Individually some of these NGO's may seem small but as a whole they are so crucial and together they make a huge impact.
As we spent our last few days by the beach just off Sihanoukville we really got chance to process all God has showed us. It was sad to say goodbye to our Iris family as many of them have now returned home (some will return permanently to Cambodia in a few months). There is much more I could talk about from our time in Cambodia! But one thing I know is that it was such a powerful time and I know we will be back there soon.
Being in this country has captured our hearts and had a life long impact on us. We are still unsure as to whether we will be in Thailand or Cambodia working with Iris (it could be both) but we are open to being wherever God wants to place us. We are now returning to Thailand and have been instructed to spend a short season seeking God and His heart for this region. Wherever He will send us or whatever we will be doing we are so grateful to have the opportunity to be here and share in the exciting things He is doing at this time. Whatever that involves we are just so full of joy that we get to walk in the plans He has for us!
Please pray for this country, even though we have seen so many devastating things while here we have also discovered that there is so much hope and actually so much to be thankful for! The people are so wonderful and such loved and precious treasures of God.
Please pray for the ~ 90 000 children working in prostitution in Cambodia! Only God can transform a whole nation and turn mourning into dancing! (Psalm 30:11).