“I love staying at home. I feel safe here, there’s a good feeling of warmth and love.”
Long dark hair frames a smiling face. Rita is 13 years old. Sitting on the top floor of her family’s wooden stilt home in rural Cambodia, her 11 year old sister Nika sits shyly next to her.
Three years ago, both girls were sexually abused. One afternoon, Rita’s step-father told her to follow him into the forest. Deep in the jungle, he violently raped her. Emotionally broken, bloodied and scared, Rita didn’t know why her step-father was doing this to her. He told her that if she ever told anyone, he would kill her.
He returned home alone and claimed that Rita wasn’t far behind, Rita’s mother didn’t believe him and went looking for her. After a few hours, she found a terrified Rita, who out of fear claimed that she had fallen and hurt herself. But the mother could see blood running down her legs and the doctors confirmed she had been sexually abused. A few days after Rita’s abuse, her younger sister Nika revealed that she had also been sexually abused repeatedly by the step-father but was too frightened to tell anyone for fear of him killing family members.
The step-father ran away and remained at large for six months. After receiving advice and counselling from Hagar, the girls’ mother reported the crimes to the authorities. He was found and sentenced to prison.
When the girls were transferred to Hagar’s girls’ recovery shelter in Phnom Penh, both were suffering from anxiety, depression and trauma. Hagar counsellors and case managers spent a lot of time with them to begin the process of healing. It took them some time to adjust to their new surroundings but once they met other young clients at the Community Learning Centre, they came out of their shell.
“I remember the first day I arrived, I was very scared and stayed by my elder sister the whole day. But then I made some friends of my own. We really enjoyed our time in the school. We never talked about what happened to us, but then no one did. No one asked questions and it was good. We just focused on the present, on school, and on games during recess. It was very happy times” says Nika.
After spending one year at Hagar’s girl’s recovery shelter and Community Learning Centre in Phnom Penh, the sisters transitioned into a Hagar trained foster family. In March 2016, they came home to their mother and family and have now safely reintegrated into their community.
Rita dreams of becoming a doctor, to help people heal inside and out, while Nika wants to teach young children about morals and values, becoming a primary teacher. The sisters are doing well at school and are happy. With assistance from Hagar’s case manager and counsellor who visit them on a monthly basis, they are thriving.
“No-one at school has said anything to us about what happened. Of course there must have been some gossip that went around when we left, but we managed to go back to our classes without any problems, and we are happy in school” says Rita.
*Hagar pursues the highest degree of care and protection for its clients; names have been changed and images do not necessarily reflect the individual profiled.