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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fighting Brothels With Books

No investment in poor countries gets more bang for the buck than educating girls. Literate girls are in less danger of being trafficked, they have fewer children, care for their children better and are better able to earn a decent living.

By Nicholas D. Kristof
Posted on theday.com (Connecticut, USA)

Three years ago, I purchased two teenage girls from the Cambodian brothels that enslaved them and returned them to their families. Plenty of readers promptly wrote to say: “Buy one for me, too.

Those readers had honorable intentions (I think) and simply wanted to do something concrete to confront global poverty and sex trafficking. But buying enslaved girls isn't a general solution — partly because it raises the market price and increases the incentive to kidnap other girls and sell them to brothels.

I'm still in touch with the two girls and visited them on this trip (video of them is at nytimes.com/kristof); one is back in the brothel, and the other is now married and pregnant with her first child in her village. They are wonderful young women and powerful reminders of the need to do more to address human trafficking — but the conventional tools to do so are wrenchingly inadequate.

So, let me share the (happy!) story of a group of kids who have found a way — from Washington state, no less — to fight illiteracy and sex trafficking here in this remote and squalid town of Pailin in western Cambodia.

I stumbled across their effort by chance as I visited an elementary school here that bore an English sign with the name “Overlake School.” Rural Cambodian schools normally are dilapidated and bare, but astonishingly this one had an English teacher who ushered me into a classroom in which sixth-grade students were pecking away at computers connected to a satellite dish.

“Many of my students have e-mail addresses,” said the teacher, Tay Khy. “They e-mail students in America.”

This remarkable scene — barefoot students with Yahoo accounts — came to pass because Francisco Grijalva, principal of the Overlake School in Redmond, Wash., read about an aid group called American Assistance for Cambodia (www.cambodiaschools.com) that builds schools in rural Cambodia. He proposed that his 450 students, in grades five through 12, sponsor construction of an elementary school in Cambodia.

Enthusiastic fund-raising

The students responded enthusiastically. They held bake sales and talent shows and gathered the $15,500 necessary to build a school.

In 2003, Grijalva led a delegation of 19 from his school for the opening of the one in Cambodia. Overwhelmed by the experience, the American students then decided to sponsor an English teacher and an e-mail system for the school. This year, a dozen of the American students came to teach English to the Cambodian pupils.

Kun Sokkea, a sixth-grader at the Cambodian school, keeps a picture that the Americans gave her of their school and marvels at its otherworldly beauty. She inhabits a world that few American pupils could envision: Her father died of AIDS, her mother is now dying as well, she has never been to a dentist and she has just one shirt that she can wear to school.

She led me to her home, a rickety wooden shack with no electricity or plumbing. Kun Sokkea fetches drinking water from the local creek — where she also washes her clothes. When I asked if she ever drank milk, she said doubtfully that she used to — as a baby, from her mother.

Neither of her parents ever had even a year of schooling, and if it hadn't been for the American students, she wouldn't have had much either. That would have made her vulnerable to traffickers, who prey on illiterate girls from the villages.

Building schools doesn't solve the immediate problem of girls currently enslaved inside brothels — that requires more rigorous law enforcement, crackdowns on corruption and outspoken diplomacy (it would help if President Bush spotlighted the issue in his State of the Union address). But in the long run no investment in poor countries gets more bang for the buck than educating girls. Literate girls not only are in less danger of being trafficked, but later they have fewer children, care for their children better and are much better able to earn a decent living.

Meanwhile, the Americans insist that they have benefited just as much from the relationship. “After going to Cambodia, my plans for the future have changed,” said Natalie Hammerquist, a 17-year-old who regularly e-mails two Cambodian students. “This year I'm taking three foreign languages, and I plan on picking up more in college.”

As for Grijalva, he says, “This project is simply the most meaningful and worthwhile initiative I have undertaken in my 36 years in education.”

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

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