Maly and her friend Choum peer anxiously around the huge, sugar-flower covered wedding cake, straining for glimpses of the expo attendees as the doors to the great hall open. Surely people will come to their table. They must come. The girls want so badly to show off their cakes and their company.
A couple steps up to the table, surveying the cakes, looking at the literature. Maly glances at Nuon, who gives her a reassuring nod. Smiling, she approaches the couple and asks a few questions. Yes, the man affirms: his only daughter is getting married, and he wants the best cake money can buy. This bakery is highly recommended, and he and his wife have come to see for themselves. Speaking with him, Maly is only a tiny bit nervous. Not long ago, the sight of any man made her quake in fear, but she has come a long way since then. Her nervousness today has everything to do with being at her first wedding expo. With Nuon’s help and a confidence she could not even have imagined a few years ago, Maly guides the couple through the selection process and closes her first sale. As the couple walks away, she looks at Nuon, who encloses her in a warm embrace as Choum and the others gather around. “You did well,” Nuon whispers.
Many hours later, the expo hall is silent except for the noise of exhibitors packing up their wares. Maly and her friends collapse in exhaustion, their day’s work almost done. Slumping against a wall, they sigh with happiness. “Look at us,” Maly whispers. “Bakers, decorators, and now salespeople. Sometimes I still can’t believe we have real jobs and a real life.”
A Key to Freedom
Maly will soon graduate from a vocational training program run by one of WAR, Int’l’s Southeast Asian partners. Once the property of brothel owners, she now lives safely and securely with other rescued girls and women, nurtured under the watchful eyes and loving hearts of their house parents and teachers. Along with counseling and education, she has received training in the art of baking and decorating cakes. This is meticulous work and it is not always easy—especially for a girl who had never even seen an oven, let alone made a cake—but she has persisted, knowing that the skills she is learning are the key to retaining her hard-earned freedom.
In Maly’s home country, ninety percent of women who are rescued but do not receive job training end up returning to the sex trade (IJM). Vocational training is crucial to ensure that a rescued woman can support herself. With that ability, girls like Maly become empowered to live free of fear and to break generational cycles of poverty and enslavement. With this understanding, their safehouse established a program to train residents in the highly-sought-after art of cake decorating.
Over the last five years, the program has grown from eight girls to nearly fifty. Like many similar programs supported by WAR, Int’l, it consists of a three-month intensive course covering hygiene and essential business skills, along with baking, decorating, and sugar artistry. While a few programs have an off-site training center, Maly’s classes take place right at her safehouse, in a kitchen renovated with donated funds. Her teachers are professionals who have devoted themselves to this ministry, nurturing the students’ hearts and spirits while teaching them skills. These teachers, who stay up on the latest decorating trends to give their students an edge in the market, often remind their charges that they are teaching to a “world-class standard.” Their drive to turn out graduates skilled in creativity and artistry both benefits the women and maintains the high standards of the program’s own professional bakery, where they are employed after graduation.
The bakery—which Maly and her classmates have been privileged to represent at the Wedding Expo—serves two purposes: it employs graduates of the program at a fair and generous wage, and it provides a profitable venture which helps to sustain the safehouse. Most of its patrons have no idea they are supporting a safehouse; they just know they are purchasing delectable treats and gorgeous cakes from a bakery regarded as one of the finest in the country. Even the Prime Minister has been among its customers.
Hopes, Dreams, and Dignity
The bakery’s stellar reputation enables many of its students-turned-staff to move on and gain employment at other bakeries. Maly, however, hopes to eventually use her experience to begin her own bakery. Perhaps a microloan from WAR, Int’l will allow her to do just that. Choum, on the other hand, longs to become a teacher in the program, teaching and nurturing students just as Nuon—a former student herself—has taught and nurtured her and her classmates. Whatever their ambitions, Maly, Choum, and their classmates know they are fortunate to even have hopes and dreams.
Like all the vocational programs WAR, Int’l supports, the bakery does more than provide crucial training and experience. It also provides a valuable sense of self-worth and dignity to the girls and women involved. As they grow in skills, they grow in confidence and begin to thrive emotionally. They take pride in their work and win the respect and admiration of others, including family members who once saw their value only in being sex workers. At her own graduation ceremony a few years ago, Nuon had spoken of “feeling new,” of moving from a dark and sad existence to one of light and happiness. Maly knows that feeling well.
Bakery programs are one way that WAR, Int’l helps to give happiness and hope to girls and women like Maly, Choum, and Nuon. WAR, Int’l supports bakery programs in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, the Dominican Republic, and the United States—just to name a few. These programs, in the words of one partner, “contribute to a life of hope and dignity for women who, for far too long, were robbed of both.”