Journeys of Faith for Survivors of Sex Trafficking in Cambodia. By Glenn Miles, Vanntheary Lim, and Channtha Nhanh

“Though No-One Understands My Feelings, But There Is God”

The Butterfly Longitudinal Re/Integration Research project is a unique study of more than 100 survivors of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and abuse in Cambodia. The 10-year-long study is “one of the longest running trafficking survivor research projects in the world.” (Chab Dai Butterfly Project Website). It was launched by Chab Dai Coalition in 2010, with a variety of reports on the findings published between 2010 and 2020. Many of the reports relate to specific themes involved in residential aftercare and reintegration. This chapter presents certain research findings from one of those thematic reports: “Children of the Wood, Children of the Stone: The Journeys of Faith for Survivors of Trafficking” (2020). This chapter was written by the authors of that report and draws heavily from it. References to “the study” refer to the full report and/or the overall Butterfly Project.


This chapter presents the perspective and experiences of survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation regarding their spirituality/faith journey. The full study, “Children of the Wood, Children of the Stone”, addressed both Buddhist and Christian spirituality. However, the focus of this chapter is on the Christian faith that many (but not all) participants developed during their time in faith-based shelters and community programs.

The research questions of the study are:

  1. What is the participants’ understanding of faith/spirituality?
  2. How has their faith/spirituality impacted their life and personal restoration?
  3. How has their faith/spirituality impacted their relationships/impact on others//society?

At the time of writing, the Butterfly Longitudinal Re/Integration Research (BLR) project was in its tenth year. The project began in 2010 when members of the Chab Dai Coalition and practitioners working in anti-human trafficking in Cambodia desired to understand the long-term impact of their programs on survivors leaving their program. 15 members of Chab Dai agreed through a rigorous terms-of-agreement process to allow access to their clients. Recruitment of participants for the research took place in 2010-2011, with 128 child and adult survivors making up the participant pool. At that time 14 members of the Chab Dai coalition offered residential aftercare services, however, some of them no longer do so.

The research study was designed to be longitudinal, exploratory, broad, and descriptive with a mixed-methods approach.  Of the original 128 participants, 80% are female and 20% male. The original age range at the beginning of the study was between 6 and 30 years old. 72% of the cohort are ethnic Cambodians and 13% Vietnamese.

One of the biggest challenges to the project was the high potential for attrition as participants lives were often transitory, involving chaotic environments and frequent moves, sometimes to hard-to-locate locations. However, by 2019, despite distance and time difficulties, the research team had been able to maintain contact with more than 90 of 128 original participants; 52 of whom were present each and every time data was collected between 2011-2019.

Over the duration of the study, the associate partner organizations evolved and changed and the participants also needed to prepare for re/integration. This research has sought to listen to the voices of participants and understand both positive and negative aspects of the re/integration process to look at both vulnerabilities and resilience of the participants.

The long-term nature of the research enables reflections of their experiences to be better understood. The hope has been that this can inform programs, policy and wider debates, locally, regionally and globally. Over the years there has been dialogue with partners and stakeholders through round-table discussions, annual reports, and confidential feedback on issues of concern to individual organizations.

One of the major benefits of this approach has been an evolving trust and disclosure over the ten years. Frequent contact by caring researchers has led to deep friendships with the participants. As a result, researcher effect cannot be denied. However, the deep trust developed between participants and the researchers has meant that the information is rich and reflections thoughtful. In one sense, it also means that the research is more ethical, because it becomes something that is about a relationship rather than about being used as a tool to get information. Some of the participants have told the researchers that they are able to be open to them more than anyone else.


The National Ethics Committee, situated in the Royal Government of Cambodia Ministry of Health, approves the Butterfly Longitudinal Research project annually. The project also adheres to the United Nations UNIAP ethical standards for research with trafficking victims.

Abiding by research ethics and confidentiality protocols, the research project team are always mindful about participant and data confidentiality; no personal identification information has been revealed, either during participant interviews or in reports and publications. None of the names in this paper are the actual names of the participants.


The data in this chapter was gleaned from interviews conducted between 2011-2017, including interviews of 85 participants in 2017 that focused on their current beliefs and the impact on their lives. The information was sorted into different categories to determine patterns and similarities in the data analysis. The results section allows the reader to directly listen to the voices of survivors. We have not excluded comments that are negative towards different faiths.

One of the huge advantages of this longitudinal study is the way the research team have developed close relationships with the participants over the ten years. Although this level of relationship will likely have affected the results, the depth of responses reflects a degree of honesty that is impressive.


One’s spiritual journey changes all the time as one interacts with others and gains (or does not gain) a deeper understanding of a greater power beyond the everyday. It is not easy to articulate things about spirituality, especially for participants who are not aspiring to be religious leaders and who may have a limited spiritual/religious vocabulary.

Participants have been involved in a variety of Christian settings during their time in shelters or aftercare programs as well as in the churches they attended after leaving their programs. While all of the programs in the study had different denominational or non-denominational emphases, all of them were Christian NGOs with mainly Christian staff and therefore a Christian culture.

Had this been a one-off survey conducted shortly after participants left their aftercare programs we might be more cautious about positive comments about their experiences. However, most of the responses were made some time after participants left their programs. In addition, the ten-year time frame of the research study has made their relationships with the research staff stronger and the responses are therefore likely to be more honest. The long history of confidentiality has also reduced participants’ concern that someone is going to lose face if they are honest in their responses.

Due to the confidentiality concerns, we were not able to give more detailed descriptions of the lives of the participants beyond their own quotations.


Although the wider cultural-religious context in Cambodia is predominantly Buddhist (Delaney and Scharff 2010), over the past decade it has largely been Christian NGO groups that have taken a leading role in addressing prostitution and sexual exploitation. (Delaney and Scharff 2010; Jordanwood and Lim 2011)

In light of this, what does it mean and how does it matter to these survivors’ sense of understanding about their experiences of exploitation…

  • … that they are the second and third generation following the Khmer Rouge period when all religion was forbidden?
  • … that they have been raised in a post-conflict society?
  • … that following their negative experiences they encountered Christian influences largely through Christian Faith-Based Organizations (CFBOs)?
  • … that they live in a context of a wider dominant Buddhist milieu?
  • … that whilst they live in a neo-liberal culture that is ever modernizing and changing, still there are traditional cultural beliefs, values and practices such as marked gender differences, expectations and filial piety where children are expected to work for their parents?

Hierarchy, Respect for Elders, and Rules for Women

Cambodia has a strong hierarchical structure with the king, who has always been seen as a demigod, at the top. This hierarchy is also associated with kharma—a fatalistic attitude that means that those with power and money feel entitled to it and those who are poor may feel that it is their lot and that change is not possible. The cultural norm of respect for elders gives value to people in authority but it can also make children more vulnerable and voiceless. Children feel obligated to pay gratitude by obeying their parents and serving them (filial piety). This has positive aspects including sharing of tasks in the needs of the household and continuing care from children when parents (including participants) age. But it also has negative implications, for instance when some parents (intentionally and unintentionally) pressure their children to work in exploitative ways. The traditional rules for women (Chbab Srei) encourage women to be subservient and obedient to their partners and could be interpreted as making allowances for their partner’s misdeeds. Although there are also rules for men (Chbab Pros) they are not so well known and therefore not followed/adhered to.

Roots of Christianity in Cambodia

Christianity has a long but fractured history in Cambodia. The book The Cathedral in the Rice Paddy by Fr. Francois Ponchaud, SJ (1990) documents 450 years of the Catholic church in Cambodia. Though present since the 16th century it is now in a rebuilding stage, having been almost completely wiped out during the Khmer Rouge era and later anti-Vietnamese persecution. The history of the Protestant church is described in the book Killing Fields Living Fields by Don Cormack (2009) as more recent, being “first planted among rice farmers” in the mid-1920s. Christians make up a small fraction of the overall population, with Protestants around 2.5% and Catholics around 0.5% according to some estimates.

Christian NGO Impact

While the number of national Christians is small, the work of Christian NGOs has had an outsized role in Cambodia. Historically focused on health and social care, Christian Faith-Based Organizations were involved in refugee camps in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide and more recently have taken a prominent role in the anti-trafficking movement. Although several CFBOs had previously been caring for people in prostitution for years, in 2005, the issue of sexual exploitation of children was brought to international attention through a documentary by American news media entitled “Children for Sale.” Featuring covert video footage from the International Justice Mission, a Christian NGO headquartered in the United States, images from a brothel rescue were broadcast around the world and created deep concern among the public in the US,  Australasia and Europe. The US State Department took this issue to a new level and human trafficking became a major target for them.  In addition a number of Christians were inspired to do something. Since then, with support from Chab Dai Coalition, more than 50 Christian organizations committed themselves to address sex trafficking in Cambodia and provide support for survivors.

Christianity and Spiritual Abuse

Chab Dai have gone to some lengths to ensure that all organizations working with survivors have policies to protect children and vulnerable people from harm. This includes protection from spiritual abuse where children might be forced or pushed to believe something without fully understanding. Christians should be encouraged to understand where they stand in the debate and to be clear about their boundaries, for instance, when what Christians are doing is spiritual abuse and when it is simply holistic care that takes into consideration the spiritual needs of children. (Ennew 2015)

Christian Values on Dignity, Respect, and Love

 According to child-rights expert Judith Ennew (2015), “spiritual nurture rather than conversion must be the core of faith based activities…. One human right is not to have the existence of a spiritual dimension is regarded as a delusion or neurosis…. Spiritual lives of children must be neither abused nor distorted through power relationships.”

The Bible upholds values of dignity, respect, and love for all human beings because they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). (For more on this, see the chapter by Joni Middleton elsewhere in this volume.)

David Hay and Rebecca Nye (2006) identify 4 major responsibilities which can be applied to any faith:

  1. To help children keep an open mind
  2. To explore with children different ways of perceiving the world.
  3. To encourage children’s awareness of their own spirituality and that of others
  4. To become aware of social and political dimensions of spirituality

In this research all these aspects have been explored.


Participant’s Experience of Beliefs

In 2012, 80 of the participants said that they were primarily Christian in their faith compared to 26 primarily Buddhist. By 2017 just 43 said they were primarily Christian and the number who considered themselves to be primarily Buddhist were 33. It is noted that the identity recorded here is according to what the participant said; not by the degree of their faith practice in their daily life. Some who claimed themselves belong to either Christian or Buddhist do not necessarily practice it all the time.

These figures should be read with discernment, as the impact of faith appears to be much broader. In fact, some of the responses below do not provide definitive answers. Some participants have clearly been influenced by Christian faith but do not consider themselves to be Christian. More about this is included in the Discussion section.

 About the Quotes from Participants

These results have been organized into categories but in this results section they have been left without commentating so that the reader is able to be free from commentary of the researchers and immerse themselves solely in the voices of the participants. The authors’ interpretation is in the Discussion section and the reader can thus decide if they think it is a an acceptable interpretation or not.

Quotes about Reflections and Practice on Teachings of Beliefs of Christianity

God created everything and he loves everyone.

God created the plants and the birds and helps them to grow up and how much more does he love us as human beings. (Nary)

God teaches us not to discriminate or look down on others.

Jesus teaches us not to discriminate to anyone else. Even if we clean the bathroom or clean up dog shit we are doing it to serve God. God told me not to look down on the dirty person. Last night a man’s hand was bleeding and I got my olive oil to put on him. I didn’t feel bad. I think God won’t allow his disease to spread to me. Some people don’t like it and are scared of blood and they were afraid of getting the disease from him but I remember God’s word not to discriminate and I just helped them. I just follow God’s command. Even the garbage collectors or beggars I brought fruit salad for them.  I bought two bottles, keep one for myself and one for them. (Nary) 

God teaches us to help others and not expect return.

When I help someone, I don’t expect anything back from them. I support the family who need things. I help them with my heart. I do not take the interest from those who want a loan. Some people took advantage of poor people. (Champa)

God teaches us not to worry.

In the Bible God said not to worry about tomorrow so I don’t worry about tomorrow. I told my friends not to worry. God will never leave you. I encouraged them about God. I had arguments with some people but I don’t hate them. God wants us to love our enemies. I was always the one to start talking with them ahead with humble behavior. (Maly)

I sometimes feel discouraged but I encourage myself. Job had a very difficult life but he endured it. Just in a blink of an eye, ten of his children died and he had a lot of property and it was destroyed. I don’t have property and I don’t need to worry. (Kanya)

God teaches us to forgive and to love.

I learnt about love from God. I was taught about love from the Bible and that I need to forgive others. I think about this every day. I have more love than at that time when I did not believe in God. It is still difficult for me to forgive, including anger when we had the problem and then we just confess. I think that the wrong-doer needs to meet me first and then I can forgive. But God does not want me to be like this; God wants us to move ahead but even though I have tried, I can’t do it yet because I am still angry with the person. We only understand our feelings. You think you are right and they think they are right. I easily get angry and aggressive. It is my attitude and I need to reduce it. But I also have love in my feelings and I try to talk about good things. (Malis)

God teaches us not to be envious of others.

I told my partner that I don’t care if we make money or not. I said, “Honey I am happy with what God gives me.” Before I got so jealous even of my own siblings but now I never care about this. I never feel greedy anymore. Even though my sister got a car, I am not sad about this. (Kanya)

Walk the narrow path with God.

I will work with God seriously. I would not walk in the wide path as that is the world and goes to the lake of fire. I will walk on the narrow path which is with God and to heaven. (Suon)

God teaches us to confess our sins to him and He answers us.

God helps me to try the best. If I do the mistake then I need to make adjustments. I always confess my sins to God. When I am faced with difficulties God answers me. It is important for me in my daily life…I found my true God. (Suon) 

Jesus forgives our sins (but it is hard to love our enemy).

They told us that even though I have committed sins if I believe in Jesus these sins will be forgiven. God taught us to love our enemy. God told us that if someone is persecuting us then we should be happy with it but I think it is impossible for me. I could not do it. (Visal)

When I have a problem with stress or anger, I can talk to God by praying.

When I have a problem I can use my Bible knowledge to practice and I don’t feel stress in my heart. God teaches to not get angry with other people even if they speak badly against us and we need to forgive them. We don’t just think its difficult—we need to forgive them. If I obey God, I feel relaxed in my heart. (Danith)

God understands me and is with me.

I think that when I face the issues in my life, I could pray to God and ask for God’s help. He knows the problems in my life, even though no-one understands my feelings but there is God. He is near me. I think God helps me a lot. (Nimul)

Attitude changed, no longer gossips.

I decided myself. I wanted to learn about God. I changed my attitude a lot. I changed to do better. I did not gossip about other people like before. (Leng)

More calm and respectful and loving, less violent, aggressive and angry.

 I learned from the Bible that I shouldn’t speak impolitely and should respect others. Before I came to the shelter I was an aggressive person and didn’t listen to others. When I had an argument I didn’t talk with them easily and used violence instead. I was still young at the time. Later I spoke and communicated with others in a more tolerant way. (Chea)

Don’t react to meanness.  Better able to control my feelings. More patient. Don’t harm others.

I feel that my relationship is closer to God and my faith is much stronger than before. I don’t care what other people say and the most important thing is that I know how to control my feelings. I don’t think much or compare myself to other people or anything else. Before I used to compare myself and get jealous of those who got warmth from their families but now I don’t have that feeling anymore. I just think that if Jesus is true and God and the only one who loves me. (Phalin)

I never harm other people. In every situation in my life I always have God with me. I give all my burdens to God and can solve the situations for me. (Romdaul)

God never gives up on me. He helps me.

I had a weak faith before but now it is strong. I feel close to God. I want to go to church. I know God is great. God never gives up. God always helps me. (Maly)

I experience love from faith which helps me survive when I don’t experience it elsewhere.

Most people have love from four ways. Love from lover. Love from friends. Love from family and love from faith. If we lack these we cannot survive. I do not have love from family, lover or friends I have only from faith which makes me to survive right now.  I hope in faith a lot. (Phala)

Peace, safety and protection.

Recently, when I was walking home late at night 1-2am it was so quiet and there were only people who use drugs. I was scared but I prayed, “Jesus I am afraid the drug people might hurt me” When I said that the light turned on and an aunty came out. Then I was able to walk home with joy. Since then I am happy because I used to be the girl who was always afraid of ghosts. (Nary)

No more fear of death.

 I do not fear to die as I know that God does not give up on me.  If I die I will go to be with God. God always responds to me so I think God will not go away from me. (Champey)

God saved me from suicide.

When I faced difficulties I accused God who gave me the trouble but I still believe and respect Him. I then said sorry to God. I said I wanted to walk with God even if I faced persecution or difficulties. Even if some people give me lots of money to make me change my belief I would not change it. I sometimes think too much. Once I wanted to stab myself to death. I then thought again and I put the knife down though my hand was bleeding. I realized that if I killed myself I couldn’t go to heaven. Even though I have done many good things if I kill myself God will not forgive me. God has given me the body and life and my parents also gave me my body so I should not do that. I thought that if I died I would be out of sorrow as Buddhists think but those who live are full of sorrow so I did not want that. My faith helped me until now. If I did not have faith I would be sitting with the ghosts and not you [the interviewer] now. (Phala)

Quotes about Perceived Impact of Faith on Others 

God gives wisdom for our family to develop.

God helped me progress and gave me wisdom to advise my family. I was afraid to share the gospel with them, but through my actions I can show to them little by little. God helps my family to develop more. Through my action, my family feels happy. (Linda) 

Relationship with partner.

Before I got my partner, I also prayed to ask God for wisdom to know my partner’s personality; was he good enough, would he love and care for me? I prayed that God would prepare a man for me. I prayed I would not have a problem with him. But since I prayed my partner is always doing good to me. So I am so happy about that. I believe that he truly loves me and we decided to love each other until now. (Chan)

Serving others.

I sometimes do something good for other people and I think God helps me. (Mony)

I want to serve Him. I want to share my experience. I want to meet young people and share my experience. I want to achieve my dream since I was small. When I was in the centre they asked me what I wanted to do when I am big. I said I didn’t know. I only knew a little about cooking. If I learn more I think I love drawing and cooking. I have innovative ideas. I love singing and dancing. In the church we get love from them as they care about us. They try to encourage us. They support us with medical things when we have sickness.  When I went to the church I helped them in some work and I visited the elderly as well. (Phala)

Now I help in teaching to help the rescued kids who are hated by society. I work with them to be better people. (Champey)

I helped a lot of people, which is why I am so poor today. Before I had a friend in the Centre who I was closest to. She faced a lot of problems but she never left me alone. It doesn’t matter how angry she got, she always came back to me and do you know why? Because I gave a lot of support to her; I encouraged her and helped her but now she uses drugs. She worked in a nightclub close to my home and then lived with an older man who didn’t like her going out but she escaped and came to live with me so now the old man hates me. (Sokchea)

I helped my sister’s friend who was a garbage collector so she/he could finish early and come to the concert with us. She asked me, “Don’t you feel ashamed [to help a beggar].” But I said I didn’t feel shame. I helped to collect until the shack was full. I also brought bread and water for her so we could eat along the way.  I also helped a man who was in a car accident.  He broke his teeth and his legs were damaged as well. The other driver was really nasty. She said he was a gangster and wasn’t careful driving when she was the one who crushed him. She gave him only 30 USD when even one tooth repair would cost 50 USD. I gave him water and tissue to help clean him up and later when we saw him we gave him 15 USD as a love gift. We gave them our number and now they invite us as their friends as a normal friendship. (Nary)

There was a man near my house who used to drink alcohol every day. He said to me, “Sister I could see that your life seems to be really fresh in your heart.” I said, “How did you know about this, you are a teacher but how do you know about my heart?” He said he knew by the way I talk; he said he thought I was a Christian. Then I thanked him and it helped me to recognize that I am a Christian and people can see my identity through my speech. Normally when I talk to people around me they respect me. They said since I believe in Jesus I am so polite. Praise God. (Phana)

I told one man: “Don’t use the drugs anymore because it will make you lose your beauty. Before you were so handsome but not now.” I just told him this and I didn’t care if he got angry with me but he said “When you tell me I will listen to you.” I said “This way is not good for you to walk on because you already have a wife and children.” He said, “Sister, I want to cut down on using and when you told me I want to follow you.” Sometimes he wants to use it again but when he saw me sit nearby he is afraid to use it. He said he wants to minimize it because it is not giving benefit to him. So when I meet those who use drug I share with them and if they don’t listen then I don’t tell them anymore.” I am worried nowadays that my child might follow them too. (Soda)

Be a light to others.

If we want others to believe I need to do good things. If we want them to see good things we need to have those things in our life and family first. There is no Christian in the village so I must shine so that is why I stay in the village. To shine the light on them. I think that this is the plan of God. (Nimul)

Speak kindly.

I tell people to observe those who believe in Jesus. “Have you observed them express their anger?” No they don’t do that. Sometimes if you speak wrong to them they smile back. We all get angry but Christians know how to be more patient. For example, I will just walk away and not talk back to them; because I just leave it to God to solve it.” When I talk with people they say I am so polite. I don’t talk much and I am so kind. I said it is because I have God in my heart. (Soda)

Quotes about Anticipation of Faith in the Future

I have given my heart and life to the Lord. I can do it.  I could not go anywhere else. (Vanna)

I don’t think anything can change my love of God. I love God so much. (Nary)

There is no Christian in the village so I must shine so that is why I stay in the village. To shine the light on them. I think God wants me to shine the light in the village. When I am in trouble God helps. I am motivated and encouraged to do this. (Nimul)

I cannot go away from or forget God because He helps me so much. He has done great things in my life. Even if I am faced with problems. I was young and I didn’t forget God before. I think my faith will become stronger. I want God to help me have a stronger faith. I want my family and sister’s family to have children who believe in God too. I want God to do great things for me like that. (Ratanak)

I believe that in the future my faith will grow stronger because I have God to protect me and be near to me. When I have a problem, I call to God and he helps me. (Soriya)

My family are Buddhists. I can’t cut the tie with Jesus either. I still think about God. I sometimes pray to Him when I face trouble in my life. I don’t use the incense. I just close my eyes and talk to Him. God is always close to me. (Leng)

I do not think clearly yet about the way I should walk, I am now in the middle. My family is Buddhist. I am the Christian alone in the family and there are issues. It is difficult for me. I need to wait and see in the next two years. (Chivy)

In the future, I still feel that I will believe in God. If I get married I may change to their belief. Or when I visit my hometown when they celebrate ceremony, I may join them as I used to do. I am not sure about this yet. (Chea)


Spiritual Practices

The responses from the researchers’ questions appear to indicate that for the majority of participants faith was important in their lives. Spiritual practices, especially prayer, were an important part of their spirituality. Also asking the pastors to pray for them/bless them.

Prayer was an important part of worship for many participants. For Christians it is about a personal relationship with God of love and trust. When praying, some hoped that God would meet some or all of their needs. Sometimes this became unhelpful when they saw God as a “sugar daddy” of prosperity theology because when God did not appear to provide what they wanted they felt disappointed. But some Christians trusted that God would answer their prayers in the way that would be most helpful to them and in God’s will.

Some Christian participants indicated that praying for physical and spiritual protection and safety for themselves and others was an important aspect of their faith. Some understood that bad spirits come under the power of Jesus.

Christian participants often talked about the Bible and referred to Scripture even if they didn’t know the actual book or verse.

When Christian participants were unable to practice their faith practices due to lack of time or lack of accessibility to places of worship then they felt lacking. Those who identified more as Christians described being far away from God after re/integration. A number felt not as close to God as they had before in the after care programs, (even though the Christian faith emphasizes that God is always close to people e.g. Matthew 28:20 “I am with you to the ends of the earth”). They often looked back fondly on times when they did feel more connected to their source of spirituality.

For many, Christian faith involved being connected to others with the same faith, starting with their own family where possible and then with friends and members of the community. For those whose families, friends and community did not support them or who persecuted them for what they believed it was harder to maintain their faith, although not impossible.

For many, it was not helpful for them to have to say that they were one religion or another. Christianity had been helpful for some in the shelter but now they were home they didn’t see the need to continue. For others they felt loyal to their acquired religion for a while but then went back to the familiar, traditional beliefs.  For some, they maintained their faith even when all the odds seemed against it. When other support was lacking some felt that God’s presence was with them.

Surprisingly a significant number of participants maintained their acquired faith in Jesus/Christianity, even several years after being away from direct interaction with other Christians and churches.

Impact of Faith on Their Healing and Restoration

For those who identified more as Christians their relationship with God was of particular importance. They described feeling loved, being able to talk to God, feeling understood by God. They felt they could hear God speaking to them through the Bible, they felt that the burdens they had were taken from them, that God helped them when they or their family were sick. They felt God’s peace, safety and protection.

Some described specific ways in which their attitudes were changed, where they were less ashamed, less concerned about what others thought of them, where they were able to control their feelings more, where they could be more patient with others, less aggressive and violent. Some described how they didn’t feel the need to lie, where they were willing to accept that they had made a mistake, where they were more confident of themselves and more trusting of others. Some described they were no longer afraid of death.

Christian participants described how their faith led to loving and respecting others and not discriminating against them. This included partners, parents and children but participants also helped friends and the vulnerable including elderly, street kids and alcoholics. Where they could not reach out directly they described the importance of intercession. It seems likely that the example shown to them by the aftercare organizations contributed to their understanding of the importance of this.

For some, faith allowed them to overcome serious significant challenges in their personal lives, from relationship breakdowns to suicide. For others, they believed that an important part of their faith was reaching out compassionately to and praying for others in their community, especially the poor and needy. Others realized that suffering was a part of life and that having a faith did not exclude those hard realities. Christ has personal experience of suffering, making a point of relieving the suffering of others and later experiencing suffering on the cross

Figure 1 Shows how feeling connected to God, feeling connected in their beliefs to their natural family and feeling connected to their spiritual family/community can lead to experiencing positive emotions of self and towards others which can lead to empathy and reaching out to others. It can also lead to a sense of spiritual well-being and life satisfaction leading to resilience. It is possible to see the converse of this to be true when there is a perceived disconnect between the person and God, their own family and their spiritual family/community.

 Figure 1: Spiritual wellbeing as a result of connections leading to resilience and empathy.

 According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the adaptation in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or stress: family/relationship problems, health problems or workplace/money issues.”

The research also indicates that these factors are helped by a sense of spiritual wellbeing, a greater connection to understanding self, a connection with God, a connection with families spiritual beliefs and a connection with a spiritual community/family. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: Resilience and its connection to spirituality

The research also indicates that it is much harder when they are unable to pray and worship and therefore communicate with God, when their family are opposed to their beliefs and when they are unable to be part of a faith community that they feel connected to. This is especially difficult in the context of pleasing elders and in a communal rather than individual society. In the absence of one or more of these connections they can sometimes compensate but the more factors, then the harder it may become.

It is of importance that although very few participants indicated that they felt coerced to undertake faith activities in the aftercare programs, but in reality most had freedom to choose. However, some would say that the Christian culture of some organizations can be unhelpfully persuasive. Those who already had a faith usually continued in that faith. Some who had no serious faith beforehand were therefore able to weigh up whether the faith of the staff that was being offered to them could actually benefit them. Several tried it out and were not convinced. Others tried it out and took it on wholeheartedly.


Aftercare Centers and Community Programs

  • Programs working with children and vulnerable adults should continue to provide them with holistic care that includes spiritual aspects of care. This means providing them a choice of faith options where they can go to church services or the Buddhist temple if they prefer or none if they prefer. This research indicates that some who have experienced Christian spiritual input have experienced positive changes for themselves including feeling healed of traumatic events, forgiveness, reduction in anger and stress and also enabled them to pray and reach out to others. For some the spiritual path from survive to thrive is a real one.
  • Staff need to be screened and monitored to make sure that they are kind and patient towards survivors in their care, whether or not they have faith themselves. Survivors should have the opportunity to be able to complain about staff’s behaviour so that it can be confronted. No-one is perfect but rudeness or unkindness is unacceptable and should be followed by apologies if and when it occurs. All staff should be signatories of the child and vulnerable adult safeguarding policies. All 14 NGO partners of Chab Dai Coalition involved in this project have their own policies which often include and address spiritual abuse.  All Child Safeguarding policies should include the importance of prevention of spiritual as well as other kinds of abuse.
  • “Spiritual abuse is the denial or use of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to control and dominate a person. Spiritual abuse can have an impact on someone’s self-esteem and confidence, make them feel guilty, damage their spiritual experiences and isolate them.” (White Ribbon Australia) Spiritual abuse occurs when spirituality is used to manipulate or force someone into doing or thinking something rather than providing them with space to decide for themselves. Children and vulnerable people do not need further exploitation.
  • Therefore churches and faith-based organizations need to require accountability and transparency to ensure that leaders understand their role and how easily it can become negative.
  • It is important that CFBO staff do not develop a culture of intolerance against other faiths. Survivors need to be able to freely choose whether or not they want to change religions or continue in the religion they are used to. Although most of the participants said that they were able to choose whether they were involved in Christian activities or not, some may have felt that they would be at a disadvantage if they stayed Buddhist. If there is one thing this research shows it is that staff with integrity, hope and love inspire others to their faith, far more than words.
  • Christians should be confident enough in their own faith that they don’t use fear or doubt to make others question their own faith. Going to the temple to please their parents, lighting the incense, eating food dedicated to the temple, wearing strings on the wrist, all of these are not inherently bad and they will still be able to maintain their Christian faith if they choose to. For some, prevention from doing these can cause anxiety, isolation from community, judgement from and against others. One positive example was a survivor with limited job opportunity, skill, and extremely poor living conditions who sold flowers at the temple as the only option to make living. The survivor hoped that God would understand what the survivor saw as a compromise. In this they were able to maintain their faith in God, believing that God would understand that they needed to do this in order to survive.
  • Some of the survivors had legitimate but very challenging questions about what happened to them and about other issues, for example, the genocide. Why did not God appear to intervene in their suffering? There must be discussions about these things rather than survivors feeling they cannot ask them or are embarrassing the staff.  A theology of suffering must be explored with survivors where they understand that God may seem to be far away but that his grace and love is available for them always even in the darkest moments.
  • In assisting survivors to reintegrate with their families, reintegration and community programs should talk with the family about the importance of allowing them to practice their individual faith in their restoration and support them to pray, read and attend the place of worship if it is helpful to them and accessible. They should explain the importance of the right of freedom to believe, positive aspects of belief and dispel any misconceptions such as not being able to cry at funerals, lack of respect for parents, etc.
  • Programs working with survivors should consider the long-term spiritual care of their recipients. With permission from the recipients they should attempt to make contact with different options of churches and religious leaders so that when they return to their communities they are aware of where they can go to where they feel comfortable and welcome. These religious leaders may need help in understanding that the participants have been victims and did not choose to be exploited. With a deeper understanding of spirituality they can heal and become active and strong members of the spiritual community. For those who want and request it, especially those far away from or too busy to attend churches/temples, information on radio shows, scripture to read or listen to and worship songs on CDs and radio could/should be made available to them, as well as other forms of media such as podcasts, streaming services, etc.
  • It is gratifying to see that three of the participants said that their faith prevented them from suicide. One could find meaning and value to continue living in the hopeless situation through believing God’s presence and believing that her life has value. However, there is an understanding that suicide is not forgivable which can compound the grief of the families left behind. There appears to be nothing in the Bible that suggests that.
  • Respectfully, all Christians who come in contact with vulnerable people in programs or in the community should be reminded of their responsibilities to be kind and not be abusive in any way.

Christian Leadership in Cambodia

 Christian pastors, priests and teachers should continue to welcome all types of people into the church. They should provide a place where people feel loved and cared for whatever has happened to them in the past or is happening to them now.  They should have a strong emphasis on imago deie. that everyone is made in the image of God and avoid emphasizing teachings that focus on fear (e.g. “lake of fire”). They should encourage their entire congregation to seek the “fruits of the spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, long-suffering, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:23-25)) and reach out and pray for those who are in difficult situations. They should make the Bible and their sermons and worship songs available through radio, social media and television where possible.

  • They should also encourage all their congregation to behave in a moral way, treating everyone with dignity and reaching out to those who are more vulnerable. Men should be encouraged to treat all women with dignity and respect.
  • Many Christians who are fearful of the spirit world and ghosts need reassuring that they can pray and ask for protection at any time. Christian leadership needs to offer advice and ways to calm oneself/self-regulate fears and anxiety in healing through Christian prayers.
  • Church leaders should understand that sometimes those who are recovering from abuse and exploitation will need help and support immediately after discharge from an aftercare program but later they can become the supporters of others.
  • They should not discriminate against young people who have experienced abuse or treat them differently. Indeed, they should see the enormous leadership potential in survivors to care for other survivors in the future.
  • Christian pastors and teachers who come in contact with vulnerable people should be reminded of their responsibilities to be kind and not be abusive in any way. Any people working directly in churches should be screened beforehand and sign a child and vulnerable persons protection policy. The policy/guidelines should be developed for staff to align and adhere with while working with children and vulnerable adults. These policy/guidelines should encourage and foster an environment where each team staff can express their faith/core ethos into action (integrate their values into their work) with a Biblical foundation whilst still upholding child and human rights.


 Researchers need to understand and explore the impact of spirituality and faith as a key part of holistic research.

  • More research is needed in understanding how spirituality can help to heal trauma and help children become more resilient and how children and vulnerable people can move from survive to thrive.
  • More research is needed on the connection between spirituality and resiliency.
  • More research is needed on how spiritualty enables survivors to reach out to and empower their community.
  • More research is needed on spiritual abuse, including its nature, types, causes, and ways to avoid inflicting it and recovering from it.


  1. How can you understand and measure the impact of spirituality on survivors of sex

trafficking? What challenges exist?

  1. What can we learn from this chapter about how faith can be a positive or a negative part of aftercare programs? What more needs to be learned?
  2. How can we challenge secular NGOs who say that it is unhelpful indeed abusive to include faith in programs working with survivors? How can we better ensure that spiritual and other abuse does not occur?


Chab Dai Butterfly Project Website
Chab Dai (2020) Butterfly Longitudinal Research Project Informational Overview Packet (available through

Cormack, Don  (2009)‘Killing Fields Living Fields: Faith in Cambodia’ OMF Publishing. recently been updated.

Gray, Glori (2012) “Exploring resilience: strengths of trafficking survivors in Cambodia” Int J Adolesc Med Health. 2012;24(4):363-71. doi: 10.1515/ijamh.2012.053.

Ennew, Judith (2017) ‘What role does faith and spirituality have in caring for children at risk and other vulnerable people? How do we respond to those who say they were forcing children to believe things against their will?’ in  Crawford C and Miles GM(Eds) (2017) Finding Our Way through the Traffick: Navigating the Complexities of a Christian Response to Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking (Regnum 2017) Available from and Amazon

Hay, David and Rebecca Nye (2006) The Spirit of the Child (Jessica Kingsley Publications).

Hester, Tricia Sopheak Kong, Srey Oun Seng, Chamreun Seng, Srey Mey Seng, Sam Ol Neang  (2020) Experiences of Former Cambodian Entertainment and Sex Workers Integrating into Christian Churches (awaiting publication)

International Justice Mission

Miles, Glenn, Vanntheary Lim, Nhanh Channtha (2020) Children of the Wood, Children of the Stone: The Journeys of Faith for Survivors of Trafficking (available through (Chab Dai 2020)

Ponchaud, François & Ramousse, Yves Bishop & Etchegaray, Roger & Pignarre, Nancy, (translator) & Wilkinson, Sharon, (translator) et al. (2012). The cathedral in the rice paddy: the 450 year long history of the church in Cambodia (Second edition). Phnom Penh, Cambodia Catholic Catechetical Centre Cambodia

White Ribbon Australia Facebook Page


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