Economic Reintegration of Survivors of Sex Trafficking: Experiences and Expressions of Filial Piety and Financial Anxiety
Smith-Brake, Julia Marie; Lim, Vanntheary; Nhanh, Channtha (2016). 'Economic Reintegration of Survivors of Sex Trafficking: Experiences and Expressions of Filial Piety and Financial Anxiety' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
This thematic paper uses data from a 10-year study called The Butterfly Longitudinal Research Project: A Study on (Re-)Integration: Researching the Lifecycle of Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking in Cambodia. Currently in its seventh year, using a mixed methods approach, over 10 years with the same study subjects, the study seeks to learn about the (re-)integration of survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking in Cambodia.
The present assessment used a compilation of data from the first 5 years of the longitudinal study and analyzed it through the thematic lens of economic reintegration. Specifically, this paper addresses two major themes in the reintegration of survivors of sex trafficking in Cambodia: filial piety and financial anxiety.
Filial piety in Cambodia is found at an intersection of different cultural and religious values, including Theravada Buddhism, Confucianism, and the centuries-old gender codes, Chbab Srei and Chbab Proh. Research in Southeast Asia has shown the interconnections between filial piety and the economics of sex work. In the dual context of filial piety and economic hardship, agency becomes a function of the family’s needs and not the individual’s.
Martha Nussbaum (2005) argues violence against women affects many of their capabilities, including their control of environment. Therefore, issues of financial independence, increasing skills and knowledge for employment readiness, access to systems and structures, and concerns for safety are all important to the rehabilitation and reintegration processes of survivors of trafficking (Surtees, 2012).
One of the major vulnerability factors for survivors who are reintegrating is they are often going back to the same situation from which they were exploited or trafficked in the first place, often with the same expectations to provide for the family financially. A survivor’s ability to seek and secure sustainable employment is influenced by both internal (e.g. residual trauma and anxiety tied to trafficking, educational and employment background) and external (e.g. unstable economic environment) factors (Surtees, 2012, p. 12).
The major findings of the assessment included survivors of sex trafficking experience high levels of anxiety about their family's livelihood, feelings of responsbility to provide financially for their parents and siblings, ongoing and entrenched debt, responsibility pay their own and their parents' debts, uncertainty and worry about money and about their future. Some survivors also feel underprepared for the workforce after reintegration, and aftercare programs often does not prepare them adequately for economic reintegration. These experiences were often expressed multiple times over multiple years following a survivor's exit from exploitation and reintegration into the community.
Analysis of these findings drew the following conclusions: first, survivors view filial piety as an expression of gratitude, and see their obligations towards their parents as an honour rather than a debt. However, in practice, the filial responsibility is a huge burden and causes deep anxiety, stress, and sometimes other mental health issues. Survivors also continue supporting their parents and feeling an overwhelming responsibility to do so even if they have a negative relationship with their parents and even if their parents were complicit in their exploitation.
Second, survivors suffer from financial anxiety. Survivors report feeling worries, stressed, angry, and fearful about their financial situation and about their duty to provide for their families. Survivors also demonstrated unrealistic expectations for the future and an inability to plan.
Third, survivors are financially unstable and indebted. Many survivors state again and again they do not earn enough money to cover their daily living, let alone save for the future or for external shocks, leading to cyclical and entrenched debt, usually related to health shocks, funeral expenses, and housing and asset repair.
Fourth, survivors are sometimes unprepared for the workforce. Survivors are often reluctant to enroll in vocational training, and often the reason for quitting training early has to do with urgent financial need (with their own or their family's). A number of survivors in the study work for aftercare-affiliated social enterprises, and the express both satisfaction and dissatisfiaction with these types of employment, but it is unclear whether these assistance program jobs can or will lead to better jobs in the mainstream job market.
In conclusion, an overarching tension in the findings on filial piety and financial anxiety among reintegrated survivors of trafficking is the gap between direct statements related to these themes and indirect expressions of these themes.
It mat be very challenging to understand how deeply entrenched the value of filial piety is in the Southeast Asian, and particularly the Cambodian, context. The concept of the individual is incredibly different in a Western, neoliberal framework. The neoliberal understanding of the “individual” can take account of one’s sociological environment; however, in the Southeast Asian embodiment of filial piety, an individual does not exist apart from her community, which is, in Cambodia’s case, the family.
The assessment concludes that family is the central focus and influencer of a survivor’s economic reintegration process. It is therefore imperative to include family assessments, social work, and empowerment in reintegration services for survivors. The family environment, expectations, assets, debts, and challenges should be taken account of and included in each survivor’s reintegration plan.
A framework of financial capability is recommended for programs to improve their economic reintegration assistance to survivors. Family members and their capabilities should also play an important role in the financial capability plan of each survivor. Based on a model of financial capability among survivors of domestic violence in the United States, with an emphasis on empowerment and safety, the three facets of the model should be implemented together and in a larger context of ongoing social work, mentoring, and counselling. These three facets are financial education, experiential learning (job placement and work experience), and access to systems and resources.
Sanders (2007) and Sherraden (2010) sum up the financial capability model for survivors: “Safe provision of financial education helps women become more financially independent. However, while financial education is vital, it is not sufficient. Financial resources and access to financial services and supports make it possible for women to apply financial knowledge and skills and become financially capable” (cited in Sanders, 2013, p. 101).