From Victims to Leaders: the Groundbreaking Work of Banteay Srei - Women's Foundation California
Elizabeth Sy, photo by Kent Lacin

By Ruwani Ekanayake, Research Intern, Women’s Foundation of California

When you hear the phrase “sexually exploited minor” (SEM), what comes to your mind? International human trafficking? Helpless victims? Those aren’t the views of the women of Banteay Srei.

Founder Elizabeth Sy explains: “Please don’t approach every young woman that we work with as this horrified, terrible victim that is useless and can’t do anything for herself. The young women that we work with are incredibly adept, incredibly powerful people.”

Based in Oakland, California, Banteay Srei provides youth development programs, health education, and social service resources for young Southeast Asian women who have been recruited into Oakland’s underground sex trade. I spoke with Elizabeth and Program Coordinator Nhuanh Ly about the work that they do and why they’re fighting to redefine it.

Banteay Srei was founded in 2004 when health counselors and case managers at the East Bay Asian Youth Center and Asian Health Services realized that the Southeast Asian youth they served “were, in their words, ‘working on the street’.” The staff tried to locate resources for these young women, only to discover that all services for young women in the sex trade were only accessible through Juvenile Hall. The founding sisters of Banteay Srei realized that they needed to create a space and a resource for young women in the sex trade that didn’t require incarceration and that specialized in their unique cultural and legal needs.

“What we’re really trying to do is acknowledge the fact that they’re young women that have just as many options as any other young woman,” says Elizabeth. This passion underlies the founders’ belief that a young woman’s whole identity not revolve around the fact that she’s been sexually exploited.

Whether a reproductive health and life skills workshop, a leadership development program for older girls in the group, or a cultural cooking class, all of their programs reflect Elizabeth’s belief that “it’s really in our best interest to make sure that [our girls] grow into as incredibly powerful women as they can be.”

If Banteay Srei’s programs seem a little different from other organizations working with at-risk youth, it’s because they are—not only because of their refusal to criminalize their girls, but also because of the girls themselves. The majority of program participants are second generation Southeast Asian immigrants, so cultural competence is key. Families in which the parents do not speak English are given access to translation services, which are invaluable when dealing with the legal system. The cultural cooking program, which invites participants’ female relatives to give cooking lessons and tell stories, gives the girls a chance to understand the lives and challenges of their mothers and grandmothers, while learning more about their cultures in a comfortable community environment.

Family engagement is very important to Banteay Srei.  “Unlike other populations being sexually exploited, when girls [from the Southeast Asian population] are placed in group homes and they’ve run away, they’re not running away to go wherever—they’re running away to go back home to their parents,” Elizabeth explains.

Changing minds about the structure of their work wasn’t easy, however. Most relevant funding sources, especially in the juvenile justice field, are very deliverable-units oriented, and shy away from funding programs that provide long-term youth development. “It’s hard for us to do deliverable units of services because that takes away from the organic processes that make Banteay Srei really special,” Elizabeth explained. Enter the Women’s Foundation of California, which to date is Banteay Srei’s longest continuous funder. The fact that the Foundation is committed to the development of women and girls was tremendously appealing to the staff of Banteay Srei, which had struggles in the past with providing deliverable units for a City of Oakland- funded project. “The Foundation allows us to do the work that we know that we’re good at.”

Over time, other community members began to recognize Banteay Srei’s potential. Many of the schools, criminal justice agencies, and other youth development organizations in Oakland now turn to Banteay Srei for help. Elizabeth cites Oakland High School, where guidance counselors are quick to call on Nhuanh for assistance if they suspect that one of their students is being sexually exploited.

As Banteay Srei moves through its sixth year of operation, they continue to be adamant about educating families and communities that SEM work is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. As Elizabeth says, “There’s something really wrong with the fact that young women who are sexually exploited are so criminalized in this state and this country… and so that’s why we’ve worked really hard to establish ourselves as more of a youth development organization that works specifically with this population, but that isn’t defined by the fact that they’ve been sexually exploited.”

The Women’s Foundation of California is proud to have supported Banteay Srei with capacity building and grant support totaling $102,150 since 2005.

Learn more:

  • “In Oakland, Redefining Sex Trade Workers as Abuse Victims”, New York Times, May 23, 2011


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