How often is it that you turn on the news and are faced with a terrifying report on children being entered into the sex trade in Australia? Chances are its highly unlikely you will hear about this being a common occurrence in Australia due to it being a more developed country than most, definitely more so than Cambodia where children being entered into sex trafficking is a common occurrence. It is this reason, which compelled 19-year-old Dominique Gaitt to travel to Cambodia and volunteer for My Gap Year’s Heart and Love Centre.

Cambodia is considered to be a major destination for child sex trafficking offenders due to the destruction of Cambodia’s religious, educational and social structures, which came as a result of the Khmer Rouge.[1] The issue has gotten so out of hand that according to ECPAT Cambodia’s 2011 study, roughly 75% of sex trafficking victims within Cambodia are actually children. The issue doesn’t stop there; the study also indicates that the age of the victims has actually decreased over time, with victims getting younger each year.[2] Cases of mothers selling their own children to sex traffickers in Cambodia are incredibly common, with one mother stating that she was forced to do so because of the debt she was in.[3]

During her time in Cambodia Dominique actually met a young girl who was almost another victim of sex trafficking due to the harsh poverty rates prevalent in Cambodia. She shares the story of a young girl named Srey Rua whose parents passed away at the age of two, and as a result her grandmother had to take her in. Unfortunately however, the young girls grandmother was incredibly poor, and had barely enough money to provide for herself let alone her granddaughter as well. Feeling as though she had no other option she tried to convince the orphanage to take Srey Rua in, and initially they said no as they had no room for her. It was only until her grandmother threatened and went through with her threat to sell her granddaughter to a brothel that the orphanage stepped in. Now while moments like these rarely, if ever, happen in Australia, they are common occurrences in Cambodia, especially with young girls and it’s moments like these that motivate Dominique to do everything she can to stop them from happening again.

Dominique playing with orphan Srey Rua, who was almost another victim of child sex trafficking.
Dominique playing with orphan Srey Rua, who was almost another victim of child sex trafficking.

For many teenagers, travelling and volunteering abroad is an idea that rarely becomes reality for one reason or another. Whether it’s a lack of funds, time, fear, willingness or a completely different reason, many young adults rarely consider volunteering overseas, and if they do, it’s common for them to ultimately back out of their plans.

Nineteen-year-old Dominique Gaitt however, is the exception. ‘I’ve never, ever sort of assumed that I would stay in the same place for all that long’, Dominique considers herself to be a traveller, someone who doesn’t belong to one particular place but is instead meant to float around and experience all that life has to offer. She attributes her parents moving her around from country to country from a young age as the reason behind her love for travelling. Despite being born in London, her and her parents moved over to New Zealand when she was an infant, where she grew up before moving to Australia at the age of seven, and she’s been there ever since, something that doesn’t sit all that well with her, ‘When we moved over to Australia, the deal my parents told me so that I would agree to go over in the first place was that we’d only be there 1-2 years, I’ve now been here 12 and getting out as much as possible is what I really like to do.’

It should come as no surprise then that when the opportunity arose for Dominique to travel to Cambodia and volunteer at The Heart and Love Centre through My Gap Year with her friends from high school, she wasted no time in saying yes, especially since she was originally told she couldn’t come because it had already been booked. A few months down the track fate stepped in, when one of the girls decided she didn’t want to go and a spot opened up and the first person called was Dominique, as it was no secret just how passionate she was about the cause, even choosing a degree she felt would help her make a real change in the world. ‘The reason I started studying International Studies was because I wanted to sort of help in some way I can because when you get older you start hearing about all the crap that’s happening in the world and it’s just like: ‘WHY?!’’

Breaking the news to her family that she’d be travelling to Cambodia for two weeks was no easy feat. Dominique shares her father was initially skeptical, but ultimately was incredibly supportive because he and her mother had done a similar trip when they were young travelling through Asia. This is yet another reason Dominique provides for her love of travelling, because all she ever heard as a child were the fantastic memories her parents now held because of their own adventures all around the world, and she dreamed that one day she would have some memories to rival theirs. Dominique’s mother on the other hand was a bit more unwilling to accept the idea at first, citing the poverty and violence rates in Cambodia as simply too high for her daughter to travel to and was worried about how she would cope being in a completely new environment without any family. Dominique states though that once she wants something there is no stopping her, a sentiment her mother agreed with wholeheartedly, ultimately giving in to her daughter’s request to volunteer in a foreign country. Thankfully her mother’s concerns didn’t become a reality, and Dominique actually adjusted incredibly well to the new place she found herself in, becoming the voice of reason to her friends who were beginning to feel the nerves of travelling to a foreign place.

The minute Dominique finally arrived in Cambodia her and her friends were sent straight to the orphanage they’d be volunteering at to meet the kids, and it’s a memory that is still fresh in her mind and continues to bring a smile to her face as she recounts it out loud. She explains how the orphanage splits the children into groups depending on their age and she was sent to work with the kids aged from two to six, who she laughingly recalls would never listen to anything anyone would say. She reminisces about the first time they played duck-duck-goose, and the chaos that ensued because of the children’s excitement of new people to play with. ‘Somehow, when we were playing they found these big blankets which they were running around in circles with the blankets over their face screaming at the top of their lungs and we were trying to control these kids we’d just met, didn’t even know half their names yet and that was fun…that was an experience.’

While this wasn’t initially the way she thought she’d spend her time doing volunteer work in another country, originally envisioning herself working with people of all ages rather than just children, once she arrived in Cambodia and met the orphans there everything changed. The stories she heard regarding how they came to be at the orphanage made her realize how lucky she truly was, and made her realize she had much more to be grateful for than these kids, yet they still always managed to have a smile throughout the day and have fun with the volunteers and each other despite their already difficult lives. Dominique realized helping these kids and others like them who had already experienced so much pain was what she needed to do, and her desire to help those in need all around the world only grew stronger as the trip continued.

By the end of the trip no one was happy to see Dominique and her friends leave, and the kids had as much of an impact on her as she had on them and you can see as much in the photo below. The wide grin on Dominique’s face perfectly encapsulates how her trip was as a whole, full of fun and children. If her smile doesn’t give away how much she enjoyed the trip, the child firmly wrapping their arms around her neck and resting their head on her shoulder should. Clearly, the bond she formed with those kids is something that will stay with her and them long after her return home to Australia.

Photo provided by Dominique
Dominique and a young orphan from the Heart and Love Centre

Once she arrived back home, Dominique decided it was time for her to make some real changes, starting with her University degree. She decided to change her double degree of Journalism and International Studies to a double degree of Media and Communications and International Studies, a decision she was already considering before her trip, but was solidified once she returned. Her trip and volunteer work in Cambodia allowed her to realize exactly what it was she wanted to do, which is travel and see the world, and help change it for the better as much as she can. Ultimately, she felt that in order to do that she needed to change her degree, a decision she’s found was the right one, ‘The subject I’m doing at the moment is called ‘Social Justice and Global Media’ so it’s all about how the West sort of affects little countries and things like that so it’s more like International Studies plus extra International Studies and I still get to do Journalism. So it’s all more up my alley, so yeah after coming back it helped me make the choice to change degrees.’

This wasn’t the biggest way her time in Cambodia changed Dominique however, instead the biggest difference she’s found in herself is how she looks at things in her everyday life now as opposed to how she did before she left. One of the biggest issues in Cambodia is it’s poverty rate, with many living off of less than $1 a day, it’s not uncommon to find people doing odd jobs, or having no jobs at all. The fact this was such a common thing in Cambodia jarred Dominique, making her realize that even though she hated her job back home it could be much worse considering there were people with Engineering degrees working as Tuk-Tuk drivers in Cambodia and if you are a Cambodian girl, there are even less chances for you to succeed. Dominique states, ‘It just really made me look at my life and I complain about my job and Uni but at the end of the day I’ve got so much more. Seriously, everyone says it and it’s such a cliché but you do not realize how we actually have it over here until you have a direct comparison of just something as bad as that.’

Even though she’s only just returned from her trip, Dominique cannot wait to return and visit all the children she connected with and is even hoping a career in volunteering is in her future once she graduates. In fact, she’s already committed to help My Gap Year with fundraising for Colour Run in July and is hoping to continue to provide more help even after, and is particularly hoping to raise awareness to people about the importance of volunteer work as she feels there’s much more we could and should be doing. She discussed how there are a lot of negative perceptions being put on volunteers, with many arguing that volunteers are only creating more work instead of doing work, but Dominique strongly disagrees, saying people are simply ‘spewing’ their own negativity instead of doing something to help. Her message to anyone considering volunteer work in another country, regardless of whether it is in Cambodia or somewhere completely different, you need to, ‘Definitely do it…it’s just…there is so much crap in the world and you can’t add to it. And volunteering definitely doesn’t add to it.’

All photos provided by Dominique Gaitt!