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Making a difference: Martens targets child slavery in Cambodia
Embarking on a 10-month journey away from home, all Sharon Martens knew about Cambodia was the country’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
Hit with a blast of humid air stepping off the plane, it would be the smallest of shocking things she would come across.
Martens flew into the unknown to volunteer as the manager of a Destiny Rescue house, an international organization that exists to end child sexual slavery.
“I had no idea what to expect when I got there,” said Martens, back home in Penticton for a short visit before returning to Cambodia later this month.
“We had little girls at the house that had been rape victims and court cases pending. We started getting girls out of the sex trade and some of their stories are very horrendous.
“I am able to take things as they are, but it still it is hard.”
Martens, a retired care aide, found the opportunity to volunteer through Victory Church which has a partnership with Destiny Rescue. This particular house is in Siem Reap, but there are others.
Martens said they are at capacity with 24 girls that live in the two houses she manages. The girls are between the ages of 14 and 18, but they have seen as young as seven years old.
They are given $100 a month, $25 of it going directly back to their families, a safe place to live, food, counselling, medical care, schooling and skills training.
“Some of these girls’ families are the ones encouraging them to go into the sex trade because they want the money. It is a survival mentality, so if the parents have a bunch of children they decided to let one go into the sex trade, or will sell one so they can feed the rest of the children,” said Martens.
“A lot of these perpetrators promise the parents all kinds of money which never materializes.”
The Destiny Rescue group runs undercover rescue operations that bring children out of the darkness of brothels and bars into a safe environment.
The safe house is entered into voluntarily by the girls to get them out of the sex trade with a goal to get them trained within a year and into jobs that pay $120 to $130 a month.
“That is a pretty good wage there,” said Martens. “We have girls going into sewing, beauty and baking. If they know English or can pick up some with us they can get even better jobs at the hotels because tourism is such a big driver there.”
Known around the house as “mom,” Martens has developed deep connections with the children.
“One little girl, 14 years old, wants to learn English so badly she practises it on everyone. She told me she wants to work in a hotel and then one day own it. She has such a vibrant outlook. It is that kind of passion for life and desire for a better life that keeps us going,” said Martens.
The girls often visit their families on the weekend and social workers are involved to inform children and the parents how to stay out of the sex-trade lifestyle, which often includes drug and alcohol abuse.
“These girls have never been loved by their families or by anybody. When you watch how they change because of love, it is phenomenal,” said Martens.
“A girl might slip through the cracks and we know this.
“We can’t help everybody, but the ones that we see become successful that is when we know we have done something good and we have to keep trying. We have helped change her life for the better.”
Being the house manager is a volunteer position, but Martens receives help through Victory Church which accepts donations to help her pay costs associated with being there.
Martens is also starting her own fundraising, creating art cards using paintings created by the children. She plans on selling them with the proceeds going towards the girls’ doctor and dentist bills. Any extra proceeds would be divided amongst the children.