I was sitting in the office at Human and Hope Association in early 2014 when I heard crying outside. We were located at a pagoda at that time, so the crying could have been coming from anywhere. Walking outside to investigate, I looked around the balcony, in the library and both downstairs classrooms. Nope, no crying child to be seen. I then walked upstairs and heard the crying get louder. Walking towards the sewing room, I saw one of our students standing outside the classroom, looking over at the pagoda.
“Sally,” she told me in Khmer. “Teacher Thai told us that isn’t good.”
What wasn’t good? I kept hearing the crying, but I had no idea what was going on. At that moment, the sewing teacher, Seyla, came out and told me that the crying was coming from the pagoda; there was a small boy there with his pants down, and some Monks and villagers were taking photos of his genitals.
“What?!” I exclaimed as I marched away from the sewing room, anger boiling inside of me, and a hunger for justice.
I ran down the stairs of our building and walked past the classrooms where S and C were standing outside, also looking over at the pagoda.
“What they are doing is wrong,” I told them in a raised voice.
“I am going to stop them! Will you come with me?” I asked.
C looked at me. “I can’t come. In our culture, we cannot say the bad words to Monks. And because I live at the pagoda, it will cause the big problem for me.”
I looked at S, and he shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. As it later turned out, one of his cousins was an offending Monk.
Determined not to waste any more time, I continued my march past our office, down the steps and across to the pagoda. Boy, did those Monks and villagers see me coming.
As I walked up the stairs of the colourful pagoda, I looked to my left and saw a small boy, his face wet and red, with his pants pulled down. He was a former student of ours, a gentle and sweet boy that I had always enjoyed playing with.
I turned back to the two Monks and villagers, and told them in my broken Khmer, “Stop. Stop it now. Give me your phones.”
One of the Monks, who had been identified as verbally harassing our students over the previous months, handed me his phone. I flicked through the photos but didn’t find the photos of the boy. Whilst I was doing that, I realised that Seyla was behind me. He had followed me on my march and had made his way to the boy and pulled up his pants.
I thrust the phone back at the Monk, then saw that one of the villagers had been going through his phone whilst I was looking at the Monk’s phone. He had been deleting the photos.
Having already used up all the words I knew in Khmer, I began speaking in English, with Seyla translating.
“What you have done is very bad. It is not okay to do this to anyone. If you ever do it again, I am calling the police,” I said to them, sternly, as they stared at me with part hate and part amusement in their faces.
As Seyla translated, he added some extra words to try and get the Monks and villagers to understand that this was classified as child pornography, and it was illegal. Not wanting to be near them a minute longer, I gently took the child by the shoulders, and speaking calming words to him, took him back to our office.
I sat him down and asked our Library Coordinator to look after him while I phoned Thai, our Community Manager, who had been out on a community visit, and requested that he return to Human and Hope Association. While the child eventually calmed down, I didn’t. Here we were, hosting hundreds of children at our school each day, and there were bad people, including the Monks, just a few feet away from us. How could we ensure they were thoroughly protected when they came into our care? How could we make sure this didn’t happen again?
My comment about calling the police had been a bluff. I knew they wouldn’t do anything about it, and I assumed the Monks and villagers knew that, too. I felt powerless.
Thai soon returned, and after explaining what had happened, he took the boy home. He encouraged the boy’s mother not to let him come to the pagoda unaccompanied, but it was just a few short weeks before I saw him back there again.
Thai went to the Head Monk and explained what happened and offered to hold a child protection workshop for the Monks so that they could understand what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. He just brushed it off and said there wasn’t an issue. The offending Monks steered clear of us after that day.
That incident was the push that we needed to move to our own land and build our own community centre. At first, I thought we couldn’t afford it. But after this incident, I knew we couldn’t afford not to. We were out of there eight months later.