A week that felt like a year in Cambodia

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The itinerary for the past week was incredible but non stop, thank gawd for the Khmer ice coffees!

The background of why I am here is to represent the PROJECT FUTURES Board as one of AFESIP Cambodia’s long standing donors who was not willing to just cut them loose when the negative news came up about Somaly Mam. We are here to seek the best solutions for continuing and improving their programs along with representatives from the USA who also felt that Somaly was so unfairly treated and the lives of women and girls in the three centres were at stake if we just stood still. The future plan is to merge AFESIP Cambodia and the USA based organization as one – PROJECT FUTURES is remaining separate. The US counterparts have worked with AFESIP Cambodia staff directly over the past four months (with some working for no pay) to ensure there is a plan forward. The details will be presented in the coming months once all parties are able to explain the final details of this plan that we have worked on together to their Board’s and respective major donors. Keep posted

Day 1:

I arrived in PP went straight to the head office of AFESIP where I was greeted by the AFESIP team, Somaly, former SMF staff member and new Executive Director of this potential new entity Rigmor, former Estee Lauder employee who was instrumental to the creation of Somaly Mam Beauty Salon in Siem Reap, Doug and PROJECT FUTURES Board Member, Dr David Cooke.

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Today we hit the ground running and met with two social enterprises who currently employ former AFESIP residents – Kumnith Thmey (Lotus Culture) and AFESIP Fair Fashion. Both organizations are also suppliers of PROJECT FUTURES. Lotus Culture makes our Stella Fella bow tie packets and AFESIP Fair Fashion supply our beautiful bow tie clips. The meetings were the start of a more collaborative and cohesive working relationship to keep women in training and potential employment once they leave the centres.



The afternoon took an unexpected turn when Somaly got up and said “I need to go to the brothel and give a women who gave birth some milk’. David and I went with Somaly while the rest of the team went to another social enterprise visit. Going into this slum area was intense. I had done an outreach visit with the AFESIP team in 2010 along with some PROJECT FUTURES supporters. We sort of shadowed their head outreach person and gave condoms and soap to women working in local brothels and saw their care in letting them know about their rights and options. I remember thinking ‘how could anyone want to have sex in these places’ it made me feel ill and I remember it threw me to think people actually do. This visit was more somber, these women were older – Somaly explained that these women didn’t nessasarily have a pimp but previously (when they were younger) may have. Now they are outcast – not ‘in demand’ as much as younger women. Sopheap one of the Voices for Change outreach team told me stories of some of these women as she regularly visits them. Two women I met had 6 and 8 children, some not having the same father – some not knowing their father. One woman was clearly drunk and looked like she was in a daze. Sopheap told me she knew her when she too was on the streets. She used to drink and do drugs to feel less pain. Sopheap has a passion for these women, I can’t help but feel she thinks she could have still been there had it not been for Afesip.


Somaly opens five big boxes filled with instant noodle packets and three big packets of popper milk to give out. Women took what they could and pushed their kids up to Somaly to take another packet. Everything was gone in a flash. One woman fondly berates Somaly asking when the AFESIP clinic would be re-opened. The clinic closed a few months ago due to the cut in funding, a service that these women use and need as no other NGO picks them up to bring them for checkups and medical care and then brings them back. AFESIP use to do that.

David asks Somaly if it might help for these women to be given some money that he has in his pocket. I am torn by this. We always let people know when they come to Cambodia on our trips that buying from or giving money to children on the street can actually be more harm than good, as you don’t know where it is going. But my heart breaks – if I were in these women’s position a little compassion would be all I craved for. Somaly told us if you don’t have enough to give to everyone, better just leave it as it might cause some issues.


When I see places like this and hear the cries for help first hand you cannot say that this is a black or white issue. Sometimes I get frustrated by the politics that western NGOs can get caught up in or the fickleness of he said she said media that would rather report the one bad thing compared to the hundreds of good things a NGO does – there isn’t a perfect solution, but I would prefer that an imperfect NGO is around to try to find one.

Day 2:

Today our group travelled to Kampong Cham to visit the AFESIP centre located there. I always enjoy going to this centre but I leave thinking about how young these girls are and I feel guilty that their lives are hanging on our generosity.  I love to hear them laugh and play and as young as they are, they do realize their lives are dramatically different because of this safe haven. Kampong Cham is different to the other centres in Phnom Penh and Tom Dy, they house girls under 16 years of age there. It was a hot and humid day, but the girls truly lift your spirits. They adore Somaly, she is like a mum to them. Children have great instincts and it is obvious that they see this woman and the staff as people who didn’t turn their backs on them, even when some of their own families did. After spending the morning and having lunch we travelled 4 hours to Siem Reap where we would spend the next four nights.


Day 3:

This was the day I was looking forward to. I knew it was going to be tough but I was ready for it. It was a full day strategy meeting with the AFESIP staff, former SMF staff and the international team at the Siem Reap centre. What a day!!! We went through the draft plan for the new entity and spoke in depth about the current structures and programs of AFESIP and what needed to be changed and improved. Donor input was vital and I could give them an understanding of what people expect of them, especially as the scrutiny will be even more focused due to the negative press. I was adament that they needed to share not only their successes but also their challenges. The financials will be outsourced to a independent company – which will cost more but enable a transparency that we all believe is the best way forward. There will be less of a focus on accommodation for residents and more on reintegration and training especially with outside partners whom we will be meeting with in the next few days. This will help women to not be so isolated or institutionalized and really gain a better understanding of the outside world that they may have escaped from once, but needed to build trust for again.


Day 4:

We begun the day early at Siem Reap centre furthering the strategy and worked there until after lunch. We then visited the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon funded on a three year sponsorship by Estee Lauder Companies which provided a training place independent of Siem Reap for AFESIP residents. The salon currently employs three women who were former residents of Siem Reap centre with full time employment. The salon is a social enterprise and AFESIPs strategy is focusing on various ways they can create or partner with new/ exisiting enterprises for long term employment for future residents. We visited Marlise Salon, an amazing woman Marlise opened her own salon a week ago and was previously a Siem Reap centre residents and one of the first women trained by the Somaly Mam Beauty Salon. She is now stepping into the world of entrepreneurism and has employed two women from the AFESIP centre. She still has a lot of work to do but it is amazing to see her explain her plans. Marlise epitomizes what AFESIP hopes to achieve with every woman and girl in their centre. It is not an easy road and it takes years – but the outcome is profound and beautiful!

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I was so excited to see the finished product of a building project in Siem Reap centre that PROJECT FUTURES started earlier this year. It was sad to think that this brand new building could potentially lay un-used considering what has happened since the Newsweek article came to light, but I will do everything in my power to not let that happen. This project was generously donated by a fantastic corporate partner of PROJECT FUTURES whom we are working with to better understand the future plan of AFESIP and who wants to continue to support the women under AFESIP’s care.


Day 5:

Today was back to back meetings with four social enterprises in the Siem Reap community in various industries. These included Bambooshoot Foundation (further education and computer classes), Egbok (my favourite which was a training facility for front office and housekeeping in the hotel industry), Haven (number 1 restaurant on trip advisor), Sala Bai (hotel and hospitality school). It was amazing to be welcomed by these NGOs who wanted to help in some way. They understood where AFESIP was at and were all willing and open to supporting the women in expanding their opportunities for employment. I left each meeting feeling SO INSPIRED!! When I leave PROJECT FUTURES in someone else’s capable hands, I would love to go back to Cambodia for 12 months and set up a social enterprise also –this is a dream that I think isn’t far away from becoming a reality!

Oh an I got my hair did my Marlise!

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Day 6:

We fly back to Phnom Penh early today and then go straight to the hotel where we are greeted by a the freelance journalist from Al Jazeera who will be writing a story on the aftermath of the negative news and how it has affected Somaly and the work of AFESIP. This journalist and their team will be following AFESIP in the next week to see their day to day and get a better understanding of their work. They are hoping to have this story out in the early new year.

I am also contacted by the Cambodian Daily newspaper who printed a story the very next day from the emails that went back and forth between myself and them. You can read that here:


Remember the Cambodia Daily reporter Simon Marks was the journalist who has for years written negative and at times used misinformation regarding Somaly Mam. I’m sure the Cambodia Daily has more important issues to write about but they are incessant with their digging. While this above article paints PROJECT FUTURES is a great light, it doesn’t do that for AFESIP and Somaly – why am I not surprised? I took the liberty to write an email to the journalist after reading this article who I haven’t yet received a response from. You can read it here:

Hi Holly,

I read the media article about our emails today. Thank you for representing me correctly. 

Please understand that there is nothing concrete we can give you until Jan or most likely February – but when the plans are set I and I am sure AFESIP (although I cannot speak for them) would be willing to talk to the media. Saying that the Executive Director of AFESIP hung up on you – well you know how that looks. How do you expect them to trust the media especially the Cambodia Daily when all you have done is print negative news about them. I am in marketing and comms and have dealt with the media in my whole career – AFESIP has not. I am not asking you to not print what happened, I am simply asking you to wait as everything I have told you is what we know now. 

I hope you understand my position and I would have been happy to meet with you in Phnom Penh if I had the time, but I am most likely back in 3-4 months. 

Thank you.


We end the day visiting another amazing social enterprise actually started by an Australian NGO that we know called Connecting Hands, based in Melbourne. They opened a café in July this year and employ six women from the Tom Dy centre. What a beautiful end to another long day. These women were beaming with smiles- this is the first time Somaly has come to see them in their new jobs – we talked and laughed and they made us amazing smoothies – might I suggest next time you are there Mango Tango!


Day 7:

Today is International Human Rights Day in Cambodia – ironic I thought being here on this day – I do believe the country is moving forward in many aspects, but human rights, well yes if you look just at the country’s history to now, but no in comparison to the world – but I and I am sure many expat NGO workers have hope.

I am interviewed by Al Jazeera in the morning. They ask tough questions, but I’m ready –I am confident because I am informed and I was determined to do what I could in the last 6 months to get the facts and follow my own instincts.


It’s my last day in Cambodia and Al Jazeera crew leave to meet Somaly at her home – she and the Voices for Change women are cooking to get ready to bring an asian style banquet of food to the brothel areas that Somaly and her team often visit. Al Jazeera will capture that and the world will see what I witnessed on day 1 of this trip – I’m grateful for that. Their stories must be heard.