As Abigail Hayworth reports in this weekend’s ‘Guardian’, the most common form of sex trafficking in Cambodia isn’t counted by the UN studies or Cambodian law. The poorest families in the city, and those who move to Phnom Penh, will be offered enormous sums for their teenage daughters’ virginity. Some of them will accept the money. This is not, technically, trafficking. So when you hear that the problem of girls being sold is exaggerated, or that Somaly Mam’s lies must be covering up a scam because sex trafficking isn’t common, this is the context: As long as selling your own child to one customer, locally, isn’t trafficking…there’s no problem.
Is it really so common that teens are sold for sex, though? One of the victims, who was sold at 12, told a reporter that it happens to nearly everyone. I can tell you that it’s known to be an issue by Cambodians.
A few years ago, I was walking with my Cambodian daughter in a beach town, Kep, that few foreigners visit. As we passed a group of men working on a roof, they froze, glaring at us silently. Two of them followed us toward our hotel, suspicious. The only framework they had to interpret our presence was that my child had been sold for sex. I explained that my daughter wasn’t answering their questions because she speaks no Khmer, and invited them to verify this with the hotel’s yard man. They did, and apologized; I tried to tell them that their vigilance was nothing to be sorry for. Not in their town, was the message–we’re not going to ignore one of our girls being taken to a hotel by a Western man. Because, apparently, everyone knows that a young teen in that setting is going to be abused by the guy who paid off her parents.
That sounds pretty awful, and it is, but it’s not hopeless. It’s just going to be harder, slower and less glamorous than a raid on a brothel that frees 9-year-olds from daily assaults. The good news is, that was the low-hanging fruit: Everyone, in Cambodia and outside it, agreed that buying or kidnapping children in order to sell the right to rape them is just a bridge too far. The men who once bought those children are being prosecuted by their home countries, and the girls’ home villages are filled with people who want those perverts run out of Cambodia. That’s a good start.
But the virgin trade, the sale of teens by their own mothers, is far more complex. There are strands of expectations that bind the victims: Good girls support their families, good girls don’t have sex outside marriage, virginity is virtue. Unbraiding those expectations requires offering alternatives to the girls and their parents before the transaction is ever offered. Families need realistic options that promote education and training for the poorest children, giving them value beyond their bodies’ sale price to a powerful, rich man who believes that sex with a virgin will make him healthier.
It’s not hopeless. These are organizations that I’ve visited, donated to and can vouch for. They are really doing it, saving children and families from sex trafficking, one hard case at a time. They do not need fuel for their SUVs, or bribes for the police to overlook a paramilitary raid on a brothel. They need regular, dependable small sums to support big changes.
–PIO runs centers to reach vulnerable children where they are: In Phnom Penh’s slums. These children need education, job skills and regular meals. Here, Phymean Noun tells her story, about how she decided to make a difference for children at risk, and…it’s true.
–Riverkids was launched to solve a particular crisis: Dale and Jimmy talked to their newly adopted Cambodian children, and learned that they were not exactly orphans. The girls had been sold by their parents, who had other children to support. Read about what Riverkids does, and how they balance their kids’ privacy and security with donors’ desire to see where our money is going, and you’ll have a fresh view of Somaly Mam’s errors and mistakes.
-Sustainable Schools International provides full-scope support, financial and technical, to some of the rural villages in Cambodia with a school building. As you know, a school isn’t just a building–it’s the center of a community. Schools need teachers, students and a village that understands why and how they can help their children break the cycle of destitution. SSI works with local people to develop the capacity needed to run a learning community that works. SSI can take small regular donations and accomplish great things, one child at a time.
If 100 Cambodian men with high status–politicians, businessmen, military officers–took the same attitude of the roofing crew we stumbled past in Kep, this problem would be eradicated in a few years. Meanwhile, small steps…to support families, show that girls have value, and restore victims to their places in their home communities.