Banteay Srei, Young Southeast Asian Women Empowering Themselves

In honor of Blog for Human Rights Day, I had the privilege of connecting with an amazing organization. Banteay Srei (pronounced Bahn-tea-ay Suh-ray) is a support and asset-building organization in East Oakland for young Southeast Asian women who are engaged in or at risk of sexual exploitation.  
According to non-profit NGO Polaris Project's National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline founded in 2007, in 2011 alone - sex trafficking was reported in 52% of cases.  Unfortunately due to the climate of fear, violence, and coercion surrounding this form of modern day slavery, sex trafficking data is not representative of the full range of sex trafficking that exists in the United States.  
Founded in 2004 by local service providers, health educators and social workers, Banteay Srei grew out of an Oakland Chinatown clinic Asian Health Services which began to experience increasing numbers of young women being checking for STDs and related issues.  Sex trafficking victims are often criminalized and blamed in the eyes of law enforcement officials and organizations like Banteay Srei are working to change the stigma and strengthen young women and their communities to gain political power and give voice to these human rights abuses.  
Southeast Asian women in particular are oftentimes the daughters of refugees, fleeing historic genocide and violence and in its traumatic wake, this can create emotionally distant households as American-born young women and their refugee parents and elders try to find their cultural identity while navigating a new and complex environment - all the while, struggling with poverty, a fear of law enforcement and lack of access to affordable resources.  The emotional repercussions of this alone make Southeast Asian women prone to being targeted by recruiters who coerce or kidnap young women outside their homes and schools and the recruiters are sometimes even family members, making leaving that much more difficult and psychologically entrenched. 
Banteay Srei responds to the need for community-based, culturally relevant specialized resources, support and counseling for these young women impacted by sexual exploitation.  Providing youth development, social support, healing arts, reproductive health education, life skills-building, and leadership development in a non-judgmental environment, Banteay Srei empowers young women and their communities to thrive and pave the way to healthy development.  Banteay Srei's Program Manager Nkauj lab Yang kindly allowed me to interview her to learn more about the organization's work.
How many staff work for Banteay Srei?
We have 3 part-time staff, 2 of whom are alums of the organization.
Why Banteay Srei?
We believe we need to meet young women where they are at, regardless of whether they were coerced or "chosen" sex work because of lack of options, or have been impacted by domestic abuse, violent relationships etc.  Banteay Srei provides a safe space for young women to honestly share their stories, seek support and find the skills they need to make healthy decisions that impacts themselves, their family and communities.
How do people find Banteay Srei?
We get referrals from community partners who refer girls and these girls in turn often inform and bring in their friends.
What is the age range of the young women who seek out Banteay Srei?
Our youngest girl is 12 and our oldest is 20 and we are currently working with 18 girls.
What drew you to this work?
For me it was personal - I am Southeast Asian myself, and like many of the girls out there, I thought I was alone.  I found myself developing ideas from social media of what love and relationships are supposed to be like and after becoming sexually active at a young age, I was seeking love in the wrong places.  As I learned more about myself, and my history, I began to value who I am, as well as my family and community even more. When I connected to Banteay Srei, I was inspired to support others  I could relate to who have encountered many of the same obstacles and challenges.
What kind of programs does Banteay Srei provide?
The SREI program (Self Reliant and Empowered Individual) is a weekly space to learn from each other.  We discuss unhealthy relationships, overcoming violence, women's health, reproductive justice, and self empowerment.  Our SAUCE program (Southeast Asian Unity through Cultural Exploration) is a weekly cooking class where young women and community elders can learn and bond over cooking and talk about their experiences.  
These programs can be very intense, heartbreaking and cathartic as mothers and daughters have honest conversations about the struggles they face separate and together -sharing their feelings and personal stories.  There is no pressure, no judgment.  We also have "older sister" mentorship programs, storytelling and photo documentary projects to help with self-expression as well as outdoor summer programs to foster leadership development and teamwork skills.
Does Banteay Srei address the young men who participate in sexual exploitation?
Yes - we do presentations for community partners like local high schools, giving classes and workshops on human trafficking.  We take a holistic approach to our advocacy work and recognize that anyone and everyone who is a part of the sexual exploitation cycle is affected and needs healing.  Teaching these young men how they can break the cycle and learn to respect women is a powerful and important tool in reducing the number of future victims as well as a vital piece in healing our communities.  
The California Endowment has been able to develop the Building Healthy Communities which, among other topics, addresses the trauma and issues of boys and young men.  We discuss topics such as masculinity, violence, guilt, depression.  Engaging both young women and men who know of and may be involved in sexual exploitation is critical to our holistic healing approach.
What work is Banteay Srei planning for the future?
We currently provide group and peer mentoring and in January 2013, we will be embarking on case management so that individuals needs can be addressed more fully.  Among other things, we are working on providing academic and career-building support.
Please visit Banteay Srei today and please consider supporting this organization so that they can continue doing this powerful and important work.  If you or someone you know is at risk of or involved in sex trafficking, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1.888.3737.888 - operating 24/7 every day of the year to provide toll-free confidential help and information.


Suzanne Vyborney is a proud Oakland resident who enjoys doing grassroots social justice organizing work whenever she's not doing yoga or cooking.