Walking the Dark Road
Joanna Delfunt’s summer helping trafficked girls in Cambodia
Published in 2022 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine on February 14, 2022
On one of her last days in Cambodia in 2010, Joanna Delfunt practiced yoga on a rooftop alongside girls she’d spent the summer with—rescued survivors of sex trafficking now living in the center where Delfunt worked.
“I was bawling,” Delfunt says. “I’m thanking them for letting me into their world and being open with me that summer. And they asked, ‘When are you coming back?’”
Delfunt’s journey to Cambodia began a year earlier. At a women’s conference at a local Virginia church, she heard Christine Caine, the founder of the A21 campaign to abolish slavery, speak about human trafficking. “It just wrecked me,” Delfunt says. “You can’t hear this and not do something about it. You just can’t.”
One of Delfunt’s law professors then started a course on human trafficking; after completing it, Delfunt received a grant to work with an organization abroad. She chose the Transitions Global organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which ran a center for rescued girls who had nowhere else to go. About 20 or 30 girls lived in the center at a time.
That summer, living in a hotel in Phnom Penh, Delfunt traveled each day to the center to work or to the library to research local laws. Though parts of the city were affluent, she saw plenty of poverty, and she learned of the desperation of families who couldn’t afford to feed their children. The traffickers, Delfunt says, “lie to the parents. They say, ‘I have a job for them. She can be a hairdresser. She can do this or that.’ And then these kids are just sold for nothing.”
Many of these girls wind up in the red-light district. “They called it ‘The Dark Road,’ but it was known to everyone,” Delfunt says. “That’s where you could go and sleep with young girls and pay literally quarters.”
One night, accompanied by two men from the center, Delfunt visited several Dark Road bars. She saw young girls hanging on customers in the bar while a man brokered deals to take them upstairs. Some places had armed guards.
“One of the most traumatizing nights of my entire life,” Delfunt says. “You can’t do anything. I can’t stand up in the bar and say, ‘This is outrageous. Everyone, you’re coming back to the United States with me!’” Instead Delfunt had to play dumb—pretending she was a tourist who stumbled into the bar by accident. “I had to sit there and see it and act like I had no idea.”
From her research, Delfunt compiled what few trafficking laws Cambodia had for the organization’s reference. Corruption was common, she says, with police earning so little they could be easily bribed, while judges literally paid for their positions. “It’s hard to get girls rescued, it’s hard to make any arrest, it’s hard to make any difference,” she says.
She wasn’t the same person when she returned home.
“You come back from living with these little girls that are trafficked and you’re not going to think most movies are funny,” she says. “You realize that so much of what we put out as a society is the whole system of over-sexualizing women. And that it’s this over-sexualized culture that causes this.”
In 2012, Delfunt moved to Georgia, passed the Bar and struggled to figure out how to make a difference. She found a path in immigration law—particularly in the T visa for trafficking victims.
“If you work on a case like that, it will be one of the best days of your life,” she says. “It’s just so meaningful to know that your skill set can help someone that has suffered that kind of abuse, and that level of torture, get legal status.”
On her desk, she keeps a picture of a dilapidated brothel in Cambodia.
“So much of Cambodia made me more of a compassionate person,” she says, “and so much more aware of the privilege and the beauty of being in the United States. And to fight for people to get to stay here.”
Trafficking by the Numbers
- 24.9 million: estimated number of victims of forced labor trafficking
- 4.8 million: estimated number of victims of sexual trafficking
- 71: percent of trafficking victims that are women and girls
Sources: Safe Horizon, A21, and the 2020 United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.