Opening her purse in the foyer of Kanya’s Massage parlor in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district, Som Sompsoas removes a picture of herself taken at a relative’s wedding.
In the picture, she stands tall against a backdrop of the party, wearing an elegant, floor-length yellow dress and clutching a golden purse. She stares confidently at the camera and looks simply beautiful.
The photograph was taken six years ago, before the 24-year-old was attacked with acid by the man she thought loved her and the wife he hadn’t mentioned.
The photograph is a visual aid to Som Sompsoas’ story of the attack that left her blind in both eyes and with a terrain of scars on her face.
The Som Sompsoas of six years ago might have visited Kanya’s Massage as a customer, but today she is the latest addition to the five-person staff where she is training to be a foot masseuse.
Offering professional massage and high-quality beauty treatments provided by a trained staff of acid-burn survivors, Kanya’s was started by Thai national Kanyapak Reinvetch, chief executive officer of Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, which falls under the umbrella of the Phnom Penh-based Children’s Surgical Center.
At Kanya’s, staff such as Som Sompsoas are given the opportunity to earn an income, rebuild their confidence and learn massage—a method of therapy that is crucial to their own recovery.
Massage plays a key role in treatment for acid attack victims because the skin in burn injuries contracts very easily.
A visitor to Kanya’s can opt for a traditional Thai massage at $4 an hour or choose from various other beauty treatments that range from $2 to $15.
After being attacked, Som Sompsoas spent a lot of time at home in Kompong Cham province with nothing to do. Tears escaped from a slit in the scars where she once had eyes when she admitted that she did not want to venture out of her home following the attack.
But now, she says she is “excited to have the opportunity to make a little money and help out her mother” with the monthly rent.
In addition to the severe physical and psychological trauma acid-attack victims suffer, there are long-lasting social and economic side effects.
According to a 2003 report entitled “Living in the Shadows: Acid Attacks in Cambodia,” released by local rights group Licadho, discrimination and disability makes it extremely difficult for many acid-attack survivors to venture out in public—let alone find jobs.
In the few weeks that Kanya’s has been open, one American man has visited four times, though Kanyapak Reinvetch knows that it will be harder to attract local Cambodian customers. “Foreigners are more willing to help out in this way,” she said.
Given the stigma acid-burn survivors experience in Cambodian society, she expects that local Cambodians will have a harder time “getting over the fact that the masseuses are acid-burn victims” and in many cases covered in visible scars.
With time, though, she feels that the business will speak for itself and people will understand that by availing of their services, customers are contributing to the employees’ occupational therapy.
“Once [local patrons] see that we have good prices, clean facilities, an excellently trained staff and a range of services, they will come,” she said.
Staff and clientele must also grapple with the added irony of physically disfigured people working to improve the beauty and relaxation of others.
When asked if she reflects on her own wounds while working on her clients, 23-year-old Man Sol, whose face was left badly scarred by an acid attack, said she would rather not think about it right now and was happy to have a job.
“For now,” she said, “it is enough to just be making a little money.”