In 2007, a graduate research fellowship brought Diana Mao to Cambodia for the first time. But it was the spirit of a young girl she met there named Nomi who compelled Mao to have an enduring relationship with the Southeast Asian country.
On a trip to the village of Battambang for her studies, Mao met a father with seven children. After their interview, in which Mao learned that his family lived on the equivalent of a meal a day, the father offered one of his daughters to her male colleague for money.
“It was heartbreaking, because I could tell he didn’t want to do it—that it was out of desperation,” Mao says. “And that’s when I drew the correlation between poverty and sex trafficking.”
That experience, along with seeing other young women selling their bodies on the streets, prompted Mao to further research the depth of human trafficking in Cambodia, home to an estimated 57,000 sex workers according to Third World Network, a non-profit network of individuals and organizations focused on development issues in impoverished countries. Children as young as three are sold by their families to brothels, where they often work more than 12-hour days under abusive conditions.
When she returned to New York, Mao met Alissa Moore, who had also recently learned about human trafficking at a social justice conference. The two women returned together to Cambodia, where they decided to visit a rehabilitation center for human trafficking victims. Because the center was located in a remote part of the country, Mao anticipated that the girls would be withdrawn and shy. Instead, when she and Moore walked in, they were instantly embraced and welcomed by a young survivor named Nomi, who was only seven or eight at the time. While many victims leave the shelter after a couple of years, Nomi has had to remain for long-term care because her bipolar disorder was exacerbated so severely by her sexual exploitation.
Inspired by Nomi’s spirit and survival, Mao launched Nomi Network, based in New York City, to support both victims of human trafficking and those at high-risk to it. The non-profit partners with mass retailers in the US, such as Wal-Mart, as well as small boutiques across the country, to train women in entrepreneurial and technical skills—and place them in jobs in Cambodia and India—so they can become financially independent. To date, Nomi Network has worked with more than 200 women and created more than 500 jobs.
“Financial independence is a critical factor for these women, and it particularly resonated with me because of my perspective as someone with immigrant parents,” Mao says. “They came to this country for opportunity, which is what I see for these girls. It’s wonderful to see them transformed, and even take on leadership roles of their own.” Nominetwork.org