Activism in Prisons


Caritas Australia CEO Kirsty Robertson travelled to Cambodia early in 2020 and met some of the women most vulnerable to human trafficking because of poverty and lack of education.

As part of the UN 16 Days Campaign against gender-based violence, Kirsty, through a Q & A, talked about the risks faced by Cambodian women leaving prison. The 16 Days Campaign shines a spotlight on human trafficking, one of the greatest examples of violence against women and girls.

ACRATH: Can you talk about your visit to a Cambodian prison where CARITAS runs a prison education program?
Kirsty: Caritas Australia through its partner Caritas Cambodia runs programs in six prisons in Cambodia.

Many vulnerable Cambodians turn to migration in search of economic opportunities to survive. This puts them at increased risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, begging, or forced marriage. When women in Cambodian prisons are provided with livelihood training and education, they are supported to develop the skills necessary to find paid employment when they leave prison; this reduces their risk of human trafficking.

ACRATH: Are Cambodian women leaving prison more vulnerable to human trafficking?
Kirsty: The majority of women in Cambodian prisons come from disadvantaged communities, with poor literacy and numeracy skills.
The prison program supports vocational skill trainings such as Khmer literacy, computer skills, sewing skills, traditional music, handicrafts and other skills, which are keys to improved livelihoods for inmates after they leave the prison.

Inmates also learn about health, life skills, and the consequences of drug use, human trafficking and domestic violence. In the female section of the prison, women learn hairdressing and beauty skills that they can use to get jobs once they leave.

*Srey Oun (not her real name), a woman who I met in prison said: “I had never really experienced love or compassion until I went to prison. Inside the prison, officers gave me advice and direction, so I became more self-aware – and I learnt so many skills. I won’t make the same mistakes again.”

Around 4,500 inmates and 370 prison staff benefit from this program each year.

ACRATH: What form of human trafficking are the women most vulnerable to?
Kirsty: Cambodian women are most vulnerable to being trafficked to Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, and Taiwan, to work in brothels, factories or domestic labour.

ACRATH: Did your time in the prison reinforce for you the importance of telling the story of these women and advocating for them?Kirsty: ‘I was a prisoner and you visited me,’ Matthew 25:36.

I found myself with tears in my eyes at the end of the day when we were interviewing Srey Oun, who was being released that day. I wondered later if it was because her story in some ways mirrored mine- she is a mum of a little boy about the same age. Or perhaps it was because of all of the suffering that was compacted in that one prison. So many of the inmates said that this was the first time that they had ever experienced compassion or even love.

Regardless of the reason, I was left with the overwhelming feeling that it was places like this that Caritas was called to be; with people who have been forgotten; in the darkest parts of humanity. Our tag line “uphold dignity” is a much harder challenge in a place like this and yet the results are truly transformational.

People can support this program, and other Caritas Australia programs that support human dignity and hope, by going to

Photo: Kirsty with Chanthea Nou, Caritas Australia’s program coordinator for Cambodia and India.
Photo credit: Nicole Clements/Caritas Australia

For more 16 Days Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign information and resources click here.


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