When Sayaka Murata visited Cambodia while in university, she was shocked to see a little girl around 5 or 6 years old among those who had been rescued after being tortured by electric shock and forced into the sex trade.

Murata, 34, founder of a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization working to end human trafficking, said the encounter sparked her determination to protect young girls facing the same fate.

“In Japan, the problem of trafficking children for sex is not spoken of or widely covered by the media,” Murata lamented in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “Japanese tend to avoid speaking openly about children being subject to sexual abuse . . . but around 1.8 million children are still exploited worldwide,” Murata said.

Her group, Kamonohashi Project, helps protect exploitation victims and prevent children from being targeted in India and Cambodia. Murata believes that if people like herself speak out, they can make a difference.

Murata was born and raised in Tokyo, but grew up in an environment where intercultural exchanges took place naturally because her family often hosted exchange students from other parts of Asia.

In high school, Murata began to show a keen interest in Japan’s use of official development assistance and similar efforts by nongovernmental groups. This led her to question the effectiveness and nature of dispensing aid based on Japanese government interests that do not coincide with the true needs of impoverished nations.

In 2000, Murata entered Ferris University, a private women’s institution in Yokohama, to study international relations and developmental assistance. She became inspired to seek other ways to end inhumane acts in the developing world after attending a lecture by Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to ban land mines.

In 2001, during summer break, she traveled to Southeast Asia, where children fall easy prey to trafficking traps when their parents send them to large cities to take baby-sitting and other jobs for extra income.

Murata visited dozens of local groups and shelters for human trafficking victims where she saw young girls living with HIV, some inherited from mothers who had been sold to brothels, struggling to rebuild their shattered lives.

In her 2009 book “Ikutsumono Kabe ni Butsukarinagara” (“Facing Many Obstacles”), Murata describes her struggles to bring about change in impoverished countries.

As a student, she started lobbying to raise awareness about child trafficking and gave speeches in many parts of Japan.

She founded the Kamonohashi Project in 2002 with University of Tokyo students Kenta Aoki and Keisuke Motoki, who were inspired by her initiatives.

The group initially decided to help children learn new skills so they could find normal employment and support their families, offering computer training to more than 100 orphans.

But Murata was more interested in providing long-lasting support, especially for girls and young women in rural areas, who are at greater risk.

She believed that providing jobs at the local level would help eliminate exploitation and bring immediate economic benefits.

In early 2007, in a tie-up with a local nonprofit group, the Kamonohashi Project established a so-called Community Factory in Siem Reap Province in Cambodia. The first factory closed after a few years, but the group established a second one in the province in 2008 to provide manufacturing skills.

The factory, equipped with tables and sewing machines, show the women how to make traditional handicrafts using rush, which in Japan is used to make tatami. Selling the products allows the women to earn enough money to raise their children at home and school them.

The employees earn the equivalent of about $90 a month, and their products — ranging from bags to book covers and pencil cases — are sold at numerous stores and hotels in Cambodia and even at Narita airport.

Along with the Community Factory, Kamonohashi also introduced a literacy program to help workers handle the orders and avoid being duped by customers.

The initiative now has the community’s trust and is helping to change the lives of many Cambodian women.

For one, the factory represented the first opportunity to earn income from her work after living in misery as the youngest of seven orphaned children. Her oldest sister committed suicide after their disabled brother was murdered by people from their own village.

The factory has since trained about 200 women, and about 70 still work there. Some who completed the two-year training course pursued careers at other businesses or started their own.

The Community Factory expects to log ¥37.57 million in revenue for the year ending in March.

Although Cambodia’s sex trafficking problem has recently improved and its laws for protecting victims were strengthened in 2008, Murata’s group has been organizing training sessions for the police since 2009 to help them detect sex trafficking and improve their response.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed.

In 2011, the group was awarded one of the Japan Foundation Prizes for Global Citizenship for its work.

The following year, the Kamonohashi Project, with more than 50 employees, entered India, where sexual exploitation remains rife.

“About 70 percent of the victims in India are sold by people who know the victim, including family members,” Murata said.

Kamonohashi established a network in the two largest areas where young females are trafficked: Maharashtra state in the west, and West Bengal state in the east. Most are sold in and around Mumbai, also in the west.

The network engages in efforts to rescue victims from brothels and provide them legal and psychological support to deal with the stress and testify in court.

But trafficking cases are hard to both detect and prosecute because the victims’ testimony is often the only evidence, Murata said, noting that the statistics can be discouraging but vary from area to area.

Murata noted that in India, many sex exploitation victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder and also end up being stigmatized as dirty or worthless.

“They risk being subject to discrimination as if they were criminals,” if they decide to speak out, Murata said. “They’re often forced to leave their hometowns or stop attending school. They can’t think about their future.”

In 2013 alone, the group helped rescue 163 Indian victims, of which 24 received psychosocial rehabilitative support. In 2014, 87 victims received legal and psychological support.

Among those who received Kamonohashi’s support was a young woman who as a 15-year-old was sold by her cousin to a brothel, where she was repeatedly raped and forced into years of prostitution.

“She was offered a glass of water and woke up on her way to the brothel,” Murata said.

Although this person later managed to escape, her perpetrators tried to silence her by threatening to harm her and her family.

Kamonohashi Project helped the victim open a store in her village, where she sells accessories and cosmetics. With the group’s help, she is now seeking justice in court.

“Regardless of the ruling, this woman hopes to help other victims stand up for their rights and to raise awareness of risks associated with offers of well-paying jobs,” Murata said.

She believes that a greater change in society is needed to address sexual exploitation.

“I hope (our efforts) eventually halt trafficking of children for sex exploitation, especially in those areas where such cases are the most prevalent,” Murata said.

Key events in Murata’s life

April 2000 — Enters Ferris University in Yokohama; meets 1997 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams.
August 2001 — Participates in study tour to Thailand and Cambodia, meets with young sex trafficking victims.
July 2002 — Cofounds Kamonohashi Project and starts IT literacy program in Cambodia.
December 2005 — Wins Nikkei Woman Magazine’s “Women of the Year 2006” award for leadership.
January 2007 — Launches Cambodia’s first Community Factory in Siem Reap Province.
November 2007 — Recognized as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World for humanitarian and voluntary leadership by international nonprofit group Junior Chamber International.
June 2008 — Opens second Community Factory in Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province.
April 2009 — Receives 2008-2009 Making a Difference for Women Award from the Soroptimist Japan Foundation.
March 2011 — Receives Japan Foundation Prize for Global Citizenship.
November 2012 — Launches program for sex trafficking victims in India, receives Women’s Entrepreneur Award from Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry Aid Association.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.