Takeo Trust is a social enterprise selling products made by young women who’ve been rescued from sex trafficking, child sexual abuse and labor exploitation in the Takeo province of Cambodia. They also run a rehabilitation program from the Community Work Skills Center, built in 2010, where the girls are taught how to weave on traditional hand looms. This allows the girls to learn skills that are culturally respected and provides them with an opportunity to escape the poverty cycle.
Providing them with this safe environment and support network completely transforms their confidence and self-esteem. By creating a social enterprise, Takeo Trust has been able to open these girls up to the international market as micro producers and allowed themselves, their families and community to benefit immensely. Takeo Trust makes an amazing effort to focus on the girls in school as well, to make sure they are on the right path to perhaps go on to a university. If a girl decides to go to a university, Takeo Trust covers the cost of university tuition, university housing, school books and medical expenses.
In 2015 alone, they sent four of their eldest girls to a university to further their education- this was previously unthinkable given their circumstances. To help with the education of the girls, they consistently work with the Vulnerable Children’s Assistance Organisation (VCAO) School in Stung Meanchey, Cambodia. Last year alone they helped approximately 250 children up to grade six, teaching the poorest of the poor. The area where the school is and where they live, Stung Meanchey, was originally designated as landfill for the capital Phnom Penh.
The social enterprise model comes from their handmade scarves that the girls have learned how to create. The beautiful scarves and wraps/towels are all 100% handwoven. Making them not only very special, but more durable and colorfast compared with machine made products. Each product takes several hours to make. Takeo Trust will have a number of other exciting products on the way as well, including handwoven skirts! 100% of all sales are reinvested back into our women and children.
Below is an interview the amazing founder of Takeo Trust, Sarah Knight, who started working in Cambodia at 20 years old and has since built an amazing social enterprise impacting the lives of women everyday.
You began your work at the age of 20 in Cambodia. What originally brought you to the country at that age?
I was brought to the country to visit the Takeo Trust scarf weaving center which was built by someone close to me who tragically died before realizing his dream of the center. During the building of the center, I was asked to become involved as a project manager. I fell completely in love with Cambodia after seeing how people with so little materially had so much love and positivity. I realized that in Australia, many people have so much, but take it for granted and I wanted to adopt the Cambodian attitude of gratuity.
What is the process like of finding a victim of sex trafficking and then deciding they are a good fit for Takeo Trust? What goes into a decision like that? Or does everyone who wants to be involved in Takeo Trust get that opportunity?
We oversee what comes after experiences like sex trafficking and child labor. Our main concern is rehabilitation, to ensure vulnerable children don’t get stuck in a cycle of exploitation and abuse. Takeo Province lies close to the border of Vietnam which is where many pimps will go to take advantage of vulnerable children and families living in poverty. Taking a child over the border into a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t have the financial resources to return home gives their abusers complete control. Ex-military groups work all over SE Asia raiding illegal brothels and bringing child sexual abusers to justice.
However, once these children return home they face stigma, discrimination and have a sense of worthlessness. They are often considered ‘ruined girls’ and have no opportunity for reintegration into the community or education system. Sadly, many girls return to sex work believing it’s their only option.
We aim to stop this through our rehabilitation program. Since we started the program pimps and traffickers have stopped targeting this area, yet many children are still engaged in child labor which we also target. We are now hoping to expand the program to all women in the area, enabling them to become financially independent, and cutting the cycle of abuse at its roots.
Takeo Trust has already impacted many lives in the local community. What do you accredit its early success to?
I think the girls have been absolutely blown away and empowered by the incredible support of the Australian community. Knowing there are people on the other side of the world who believe in them and want to help them has made them feel worthy, loved and confident again. When the girls realized how much we wanted to help and enable them to become masters of their own futures, their whole outlook on life changed. They are absolutely driven by the fact people come from all over the world to visit the center and cheer them on. The whole community has gotten behind the center as they know the children there will become independent and self-determined, they see it as an incredible opportunity.
What is it about social enterprise that really fits what you want to do in Cambodia?
Our approach to social enterprise at Takeo Trust is to stop the cycle of inter generational poverty and subsequent abuse of human rights, that is so often the outcome for people living in vulnerable situations. We must empower these girls to be independent. Social enterprise for us is about helping these girls to eventually be completely independent. Weaving gives them a practical skill which they can use to exit the poverty cycle. By selling their goods overseas we are able to get them much needed funds for tertiary education or their own business. The reality is, people in Australia love the products they are making. This makes the girls feel meaningful, but also enables our consumers to feel good about their purchase, and give back.
How difficult was it to start your social enterprise in a foreign country? Did you work with the UN or other organizations to get the eco-system set up, so you could help these women get out of some dyer situations?
It’s not difficult at all to set something up, but it’s extremely difficult to make it successful. At the end of the day we hope to be able to make our center self-sustaining through social enterprise. You can’t just build a center and train girls in weaving then walk away.
They don’t have the skills or means to sell their products for the dollar amount we are able to. Scarves are produced in factories across Cambodia ensuring the price is kept low. But these scarves are unique in Australia, so it made sense to start selling them here and directing the funds back to the center.
We have faced many barriers, for example land ownership. In Cambodia a foreigner can only own up to 49% of Cambodian land, so it was essential for us to form a partnership with VCAO (Vulnerable Children’s Assistance Organisation) who owns 51% of the land our center is on. VCAO is endorsed by the UN and is established in Cambodia as a successful not-for-profit NGO, which has helped many Cambodians since its inception in 1994.
Currently, we are in the process of securing Takeo Trust as a registered Australia Charity with DGR status. This will enable us to overcome another barrier which is that we struggle to get corporate sponsors without tax-deductible status. Amazingly, Sydney based law firm Clayton Utz has been thrilled to work with us pro-bono to achieve this goal. We are so grateful to them. To have such an incredibly highly respected law firm and wide network of experts supporting us is a game changer.
What has been the reaction from the women and girls whose lives you have changed? Also, how has the community as a whole reacted to Takeo Trust being there in the community and teaching them skills and the proper opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty?
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and is a testament to the good work we do. The girls were initially wary that we were just another organisation coming to build infrastructure without staying around to equip them with the skills required for its success.
Over the years we have built trust and relationships with the girls, and they now run to greet us at the gates, and remember all the volunteers’ names. It’s truly heartwarming to see such a transformation in their outlook and confidence. The community in Takeo has really gotten behind us, especially the mothers of the girls we care for. They are often at the center, helping cook a meal for the girls or simply lending a hand. We can’t wait to expand our project and help them to become financially independent too.
The only way to really tackle poverty is to empower people to help themselves, it’s the long term solution.
The volunteer program looks pretty interesting, can you tell me more about that?
The volunteer program is something we are extremely proud of. It is vital to our success. As a social enterprise you aren’t just selling products, people are buying a STORY. When they buy a scarf they are changing a life for the better.
What better way to get our story out there than by encouraging people from all over the world to volunteer with us? Typically young people will volunteer with us for a short period of time, visiting the center, meeting the girls, learning to weave with them and enjoying a meal together. Volunteers walk away feeling extremely humbled, amazed and ready to share the story with the world.
We haven’t had a volunteer to date that can’t wait to go back. In the future, we hope to recruit volunteers with specific skills and training relevant to helping the community. Examples of this would be health care workers, social workers and teachers.