When I was doing my research for my latest novel, Out of the Ruins, I walked along some pretty frightening streets in the part of Siem Reap that the tourists usually don’t see. I saw some upsetting scenes which I won’t describe now, but a few did land inside the narrative of my book. In general, I saw first hand the local sex trade in action, and some of the females on sale were not women at all. Not even close. We all know the horror of how pre-pubescent girls are sold for sex and I won’t pretend that it doesn’t happen in Cambodia. But, as recently reported in The Washington Post by Holly Burkhalter of International Justice Mission (IJM), there is indeed some good news.
The article is called A Safer Home for Cambodia’s Girls and as it explains, although Cambodia is still being called ‘ground zero’ for the child sex trade by sources such as CNN, that fact is no longer true. As they explain:
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.
I personally know this to be true. You hear it on the streets. When I first started going to Cambodia, the problem of the child sex trade was talked about by aid workers and NGO’s constantly. But last year, I spoke with the Director of IJM in Phnom Penh and she told me stories about the Cambodians working within the Ministries and police departments to wipe out the problem. Brave men made it their own mission to hunt down the buyers and imprison them. The word got out and now the paedophilia problem is no longer cause one. We who work in social programs there certainly have plenty of issues still to tackle, but this is no longer top of the list. And what an amazingly important achievement that is!
The article explains that much of this was accomplished with the help, and threats, of the United States. If Cambodia didn’t clean up its act, it risked losing all US aid.
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.
Yet for some reason, the US has not given Cambodia the credit it deserves for taking action. Again, to quote from the article:
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.
We will have to wait and see how that issue plays itself out. But in a country known more for corruption than human rights, this is a huge step forward which deserves to be acknowledged and applauded.
There’s too little good news nowadays. I’m happy to pass it along whenever I see it. If you’d like to read the entire article, which I urge you to do, you’ll find it here.
And congratulations to IJM for their excellent work in making Cambodia a safer home for its girls.
photo courtesy of motherjones.com