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The Tauranga lawyer helping to save Cambodian kids from human trafficking

Learning is a two-way street for Arnold, pictured here practising her Khmer  with grade six girls at Ang Ponarey Primary School.

Softies don’t save lives. Denise Arnold has a heart the size of a house, but it’s her steely determination and drive that’s rescuing thousands of Cambodian children from poverty and exploitation. Sue Hoffart reports.

It would be a mistake to confuse Denise Arnold’s colossal compassion with any kind of simpering, misguided sympathy. The Tauranga lawyer can’t abide hanky wringers or people who sell offshore volunteer packages to well-meaning, ill-equipped tourists.

When working in Cambodia, she resists the urge to play alongside the children she aims to shield from sex traffickers. These young people are not looking for a friend, she says. They need her to haul them out of poverty and illiteracy by continuing to revamp their nation’s education system.

And Arnold refuses to shed any tears while travelling in her beloved, beleaguered Third World second home, where the need is as endless as the heat and dust, the violent stomach bugs and the laboriously translated meetings with government officials.

“They don’t want a crybaby,” the 52-year-old says of the children who benefit from the Cambodia Charitable Trust (CCTNZ) she launched a decade ago. “They want strength. They want someone who can sort it out.”

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Arnold is convinced the key to shutting down the child sex trade is educating and empowering its vulnerable targets. So, for 10 years she’s been finding funding and placing textbooks and teaching resources into once-bare classrooms, building toilet blocks and playgrounds, connecting running water and working alongside the local education ministry to train teachers. Along the way, she incorporates health programmes in schools and finds sponsors to help keep students clothed and in class.

“I’m surrounded by thousands of little tragedies. One of our sponsored girls is the product of rape. One has been raped and we believe she has Aids. One…” Her voice catches and she stops herself. These are exactly the kind of heartbreaking details on which she tries not to focus. Years ago, an encounter with a terminally ill baby almost derailed her, but it taught her to bite her lip and move forward, to concentrate on the bigger picture.

In practice, that means pulling herself in an unreasonable number of directions at once. Back in Tauranga, fundraising efforts and screeds of paperwork constantly yank her away from family life and the law firm where she is a partner, practising commercial law. The social entrepreneur has travelled to Cambodia 11 times in the past three years, always paying her own airfares and travel costs, to ensure every donated cent goes to the intended recipients. So, when exhaustion or another post-Cambodian stomach bug or yet another damn rejected funding application threatens to engulf this diminutive, over-achieving mother of two, she gives herself a mental shake.

“Suck it up, buttercup,” she tells herself.

Children in a first grade classroom at Ang Seyma Primary School eagerly learn their alphabet.

Without this mix of steel and pragmatism, ferocious intelligence and determination to find solutions, Denise Arnold might have been just another educated, middle-class woman who felt a pang of pity for those unfortunate children overseas. Instead, she heads an organisation that already supports 23 primary schools populated by almost 10,000 children, 442 of whom are sponsored by Kiwis. What really excites her, though, is the fact CCTNZ is now on the verge of significantly influencing every primary teacher and student in Cambodia.

Her already rapid speech gathers pace as she rattles off the numbers. This year, the education programme she helped to design will be used to train every primary teacher in every Cambodian teacher’s college. What began by funding two schools will soon help 64,000 children receive a higher-quality education.

An educated child, she explains, can lead his or her family out of poverty. “The children that are trafficked are from poor families who are uneducated and illiterate and have no choices. They are sent to the cities and [many] end up in brothels.”

Arnold has calculated that, in the next 10 years, the teachers trained under her carefully researched programme – Waikato University has contributed, along with other New Zealand experts – will deliver a better-quality education to 5.5 million Cambodian primary school children.

Then she pauses and there is a flash of doubt in her blue eyes. “I’m not a teacher. I’m not a diplomat. It freaks me out totally when I think I’m not the right person for this. Then I think, if not me, who? Nobody else is lining up behind me right now.”

Her own daughters, Emily and Tegan, were in primary school, and she was already a law-firm partner alongside husband Doug Lyon when a horrified Arnold read about the Cambodian sex trade. Brothels were hiring out young girls by the week, she learned. She tracked down an Auckland-based charity, offered her legal services and spent several years battling the dark world of pornography and sex tourism. After a failed attempt to prosecute a known sex offender who was heading to Thailand, she changed tack.

In 2007, Arnold travelled to Cambodia on her own to find out how she might be of use. It was quickly obvious that simply rescuing children from traffickers would create more demand in a nation where plenty of men believe sex with a virgin will cure Aids. Having witnessed the legacy of dictator Pol Pot’s reign, when teachers and medics were slaughtered in the 1970s, she returned to New Zealand determined to effect change. But not before handing her shoes, leftover cash and all the clothes she wasn’t wearing to a needy family.

Children in rural Cambodia often travel long distances to get to school, so a bike makes all the difference.
Arnold comes by her fierce principles honestly. The middle daughter of teacher Brian Arnold and public nurse Fiona Arnold, she and her sisters were raised in the Tauranga suburb of Ōtūmoetai, reluctantly listening to mum’s gory tales of community deprivation. Denise Arnold learned more than she wanted to about starving babies and gang-member fathers, as well as the practicalities of advocating for health and children’s rights. Her father’s commitment to education saw him move from Tauranga Boys College to work as a founding tutor at then-Bay of Plenty Technical Institute.

Naturally bright and athletic, an avid debater and reader, young Denise cruised easily through her schooling, ticking off good grades in science and math subjects and dreaming of a veterinary career. However, after watching a vet conduct an autopsy in a piggery, law became suddenly appealing.

She emerged from the University of Auckland’s law school confident and determined to cut it with the best in a male-dominated profession. Education never lost its lustre, either.

In 2012, Arnold enrolled at Massey University to complete a post-graduate diploma, then a master’s degree, in international development. She immersed herself in the economic and political theory behind the work she was already undertaking and brushed away a little more self-doubt regarding her moral right to lead others along her chosen path.

The trust employs nine Cambodian teacher trainers, nurses and other staff, and has the backing of education ministry officials who are incredulous this foreign woman can operate such a lean, effective aid agency. High-profile New Zealand businesswoman Theresa Gattung was roped in as the charity’s patron seven years ago, followed by culinary entrepreneur Nadia Lim as ambassador. Both have visited Cambodia, and Lim’s mother Julie has schooled herself on Cambodian sanitation in order to provide practical help building toilet blocks. Other carefully chosen volunteers, including a Hawke’s Bay crown prosecutor, a senior teacher trainer and an occupational therapist, frequently accompany Arnold on gruelling two-week expeditions.

Fiona and Brian Arnold participate, too. At age 78, Arnold’s mother is proving an invaluable nurse trainer while her father, also in his 70s, wowed local elders when he clambered onto a school playground to conduct repairs. Arnold’s sisters and daughters have pitched in to raise funds or sponsor a child, while her nephews donated pocket money for sports equipment.

According to Arnold’s daughters, Cambodia has long been the third child at the table in their family home. And it has always been an especially needy being, Arnold jokes. With colic. This metaphoric child swallows evenings and weekends and at least 40% of her working week. It has taken its toll on her personal finances, her health and her sleep. She hasn’t sewn a quilt in years and her bedside reading pile seems to have been hijacked by weighty tomes on solving poverty. Numerous wedding anniversaries and birthdays, school balls, moments of family anguish or celebration have been spent travelling rough rural roads in another country.

And while she allows herself a decent haircut and her favourite skincare products, Arnold continually walks a line most people don’t see. “It took me eight years to decide to fix my steadily failing and broken kitchen because I couldn’t face the fact it cost so much for a kitchen when people are starving. I ask for donations to CCT rather than receive birthday and Christmas gifts. But I can’t live my life wearing a hair-shirt. I still need to live and laugh and take a bottle of wine to my friend’s house when we go to dinner.”

Meanwhile, in a small Southeast Asian nation, nine young women with previously grim prospects have started university in the past 12 months because of Denise Arnold. Next year, another 50 or 60 will enrol.

In another decade, the CCTNZ founder is determined she will have made significant inroads into maternal and child health, if only she can find more funding. Look what has been achieved on the smell of an oily rag, she says. Imagine what could happen with real money. For now, she must keep watching that horizon and celebrating the small victories.

Doug Lyon learned this lesson the first time he accompanied his wife to Cambodia. They were standing in a school, handing out books and resources to ragged, hungry children when he pulled her aside, tears in his eyes. These children have nothing, he pointed out. Their desks are broken, they are clad in rags.

“They don’t know why you’re upset,” she told him. “So you need to smile and keep smiling. And look. Now, they have stationery.”

Visit cctnz.org.nz to find out more about the Cambodia Charitable Trust.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.