The image of a child sex-trafficking victim that most of us carry in our minds is probably something like the blurry, black-and-white shot taken in 2003 of a 5-year-old girl in a shanty settlement called Svay Pak, just outside Phnom Penh. The girl’s name is Taevy. My organization, International Justice Mission, obtained the undercover footage while investigating the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia and collaborated with “Dateline NBC” to tell the story.
According to a recent broadcast from CNN’s “Freedom Project,” Cambodia is still ground zero for the child sex trade. The report described Svay Pak’s “big business” of selling prepubescent girls to foreign pedophiles for thousands of dollars.
This disturbing narrative was all too real a dozen years ago, but it’s not anymore. The truth is that the Cambodian police dropped the hammer on the criminals who buy and sell little girls and have virtually obliterated the crime from the kingdom. There’s now a much better story to tell: how a poor country came to protect its children and how U.S. diplomacy and assistance helped it do it.
In the early 2000s, the Cambodian government estimated that 30 percent of those in the country’s sex industry were children. But news coverage of Western men negotiating the purchase of first- and second-grade girls in Svay Pak embarrassed Cambodia and revolted its principal international donor, the United States. When then-U.S. Ambassador Charles Ray warned the interior minister that Cambodia would lose U.S. aid if it didn’t clean up its act, the government responded with alacrity. It sacked corrupt officers from the anti-trafficking police unit and installed new leadership. A strong anti-trafficking law was adopted, and hundreds of pimps, brothel owners and foreign pedophiles were arrested, charged, convicted and jailed.
Over the next decade, International Justice Mission trained and mentored 500 officers in the anti-trafficking police unit and collaborated on hundreds of child sex slavery cases. With every case, police investigations, witness protection and evidence collection improved. Child-friendly processes were adopted by the courts, and the government welcomed nongovernmental organizations providing shelter and aid to rescued girls.
To gauge the impact of these measures, we conducted assessments of child sexual exploitation throughout Cambodia in 2012 and again this past March. In the three years between the studies, the proportion of minors in commercial sex establishments declined by nearly three-quarters, from 8.2 percent to 2.2 percent. The proportion of those age 15 or younger declined even more, to just 0.1 percent.
Is it possible to buy a Cambodian child for sexual exploitation? Yes, and unfortunately it does occasionally occur. But someone wishing to do so would have to overcome extreme obstacles and even then face a high risk of apprehension and a stiff prison sentence.
Meanwhile, the strong law enforcement platform that has put sex traffickers to flight provides a sturdy foundation for addressing labor trafficking. Cambodia is a source of labor for neighboring countries, where exploitation and slavery are distressingly common. Cambodian diplomats are pursuing cross-border agreements to enhance apprehension of perpetrators and safe repatriation.
The U.S. government itself played a considerable role in Cambodia’s transformation. The U.S. Agency for International Development provided millions of dollars to professionalize the anti-trafficking police and improve care for victims. Vigorous diplomacy was crucial: The prospect of being demoted to Tier III pariah status in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report strengthened Cambodian reformers and marginalized corrupt holdouts.
Ironically, however, the State Department has been reluctant to acknowledge Cambodia’s extraordinary progress. The annual trafficking report still includes references to young-child exploitation that haven’t been true for many years. And Cambodia has been held on the Tier II Watch List since 2013. Some anti-trafficking officials are pushing for Cambodia to stay on that list for another year — an indignity that is inappropriate given the progress that has been made, a tour de force unequaled in the region.
In the past 12 years, more than 1,000 girls have been rescued from sexual exploitation in Cambodia. One of them is little Taevy, whose future is bright. The future has also brightened for all of Cambodia’s girls, who today are vastly less likely to be preyed upon and sold. It’s time to celebrate that story, to replicate it and to stay committed to Cambodia so that these gains are sustained.
Holly Burkhalter is vice president of government relations and advocacy for International Justice Mission.