06/03/2011 12:46 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2011

Human Rights Meet Rites of Passage: How Education Helped Sima Escape the Sex Trade

Commitment, sacrifice and personal growth are universal virtues celebrated every spring at graduation time. The significance of these words could not be greater for 65 of rural Cambodia's poorest teenage girls, who will receive their high school diplomas this August, thanks to the Girls' Access To Education (GATE) scholarship program operated by the nonprofit Lotus Outreach.

Last year GATE saw its first round of 62 girls finish high school, and their commencement ceremony was an unprecedented event in the rural countryside. A window to the possibilities that lie ahead for 2011's graduates can be seen in the progress of 19-year-old Man Sima, valedictorian of her class in 2010. A girl from one of the poorest families in Cambodia -- one of the world's most impoverished countries -- is on her way to becoming a lawyer, thanks to a $92 annual scholarship from GATE beginning in grade 10.

Today, Sima is studying law at Phnom Penh University, supported by Lotus Outreach's continuing education project, GATEways (GATE Women and Youth Scholarship Fund).

GATE literally changed Sima's life. Applying for a scholarship was a last desperate effort to remain in Cambodia; at her parent's urging, she was planning to follow several cousins who had migrated to Malaysia for work.

"If I had never gotten a scholarship, I would be in prison in Malaysia now," says Sima. "My cousins who have been working there went to prison where they were beaten with electrical wire because they didn't have visas. Now they are not only paying off the debt they incurred to travel there, but have to pay off the bail agent too."


Man Sima studying in her room. Photo courtesy of Lotus Outreach

The dangers of migration for young women in Southeast Asia go well beyond being arrested. In a region that incubates a thriving sex industry and which UNESCO estimates accounts for one-third of the global human trafficking trade, a teenage girl traveling abroad for work would be lucky to end up in prison, rather than enslaved in a brothel.

Yet many Cambodians, especially the poor and uneducated, have little notion of how perilous migrating can be. Because of GATE, today Sima is learning happier lessons, like managing her life away from her parents and taking greater responsibility for her own learning.

"In high school, students only learn what teachers teach, but at university we need to do research," she says. "We can't just wait for the teacher to explain everything."

Studying at the university level presents another challenge for Sima. "I have to run while others walk because I don't know much English," she says. "However, I enjoy it a lot and can keep up with the class."

This June, 65 GATE scholars are scheduled to carry on the fledgling tradition begun by Sima and her classmates. These students represent Cambodia's most marginalized young women, and were selected as GATE scholars due to their poverty, vulnerability to abuse and exploitation and dedication to improving their circumstances through education. In August, they join an echelon that remains sadly exclusive in Cambodian society: only two percent of Cambodian women have high school diplomas.

Those who do tend to live in city centers, making the GATE graduations even more remarkable. Last year's ceremony in rural Banteay Meanchey was the first anyone had ever seen in the region.

This achievement appears even more stunning in light of the myriad obstacles to female education. Gender inequality inherent at the societal level leaves Cambodian girls at a severe disadvantage; they are considered less valuable, less likely to succeed and are routinely the first children pulled out of school to supplement household income. With no skills or education, they are at higher risk of being trafficked or falling into the domestic sex trade. They are similarly vulnerable to domestic abuse and violence.

Education creates a powerful buffer to these threats, providing women with increased earning potential and therefore greater bargaining power in the household. This has profound results: women invest twice as much in their families than their male counterparts. When educated, they space pregnancies, have healthier and better-educated children and are less likely to tolerate domestic violence. For some of 2011's GATE graduates, education will lead to positions of respect and influence.

Sima, for example, hopes to pay her good fortune forward: "I want to get a good job as a lawyer so I can contribute to helping the younger generation financially and spiritually," she shares.

Be it in Banteay Meanchey or Boston, the attitude underpinning graduations across the globe is optimism. Millions of students claiming diplomas and posing for pictures with classmates believe in the power of education to transform their futures, and this year, 65 young Cambodian women beat the odds to share that vision.

Lotus Outreach is a California-based 501(c)(3) dedicated to ensuring the education, health and safety of vulnerable women and children in the developing world. GATE is one of several successful projects it operates in Cambodia.

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