The dimpled smile of CK, a 17-year-old boy who lives on the streets of Phnom Penh, disappeared when he recalled what happened to him a few months ago, after he was approached by a wealthy Cambodian man as he sat on a bench at Wat Phnom.
“I was just wandering, sleeping on benches or in gardens,” he said in a recent interview. “I followed a man. He took me to his house in his luxurious car. He cooked for me and then told me to sleep in his room, upstairs. After he had sex with me, he slept, but I hurt.”
One of more than 20,000 children living and working in the streets of Cambodia’s urban centers, CK, whose name is being withheld to protect his identity, ran away from his home in Kampong Cham province because he was angry with the stepmother.
In coming to Phnom Penh, he put himself at risk to predation by Cambodian and foreign adult men who ply the streets in search of the young and vulnerable. Authorities now say they are paying more attention to the abuse of young boys as they continue to root out pedophiles.
Aid workers say the majority of Cambodia’s sexually abused boys come from the provinces. In the city, they live hand-to-mouth on menial tasks, scavenging trash piles, selling candy or cakes and begging on the streets. This poverty makes them open to exploitation.
“Pedophiles or human traffickers for sexual exploitation lure the children with money,” said Sann Udom, a program coordinator for Mith Samlanh/Friends, which helps street children. “They buy things for the children or take them out for a walk. They tell the children that they will go to tourist sites but go to a guesthouse or hotel room instead.”
Some of these men even pay for the education of the children, he said.
Cambodian boys are most vulnerable in heavy tourist areas of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. The organization World Vision estimates that 15 percent of boys living on the streets will be sexually abused before they are 10 years old.
Pe Vannak, a senior researcher for the rights group Licadho, said he received 108 sexual abuse cases against boys between January and September this year, a rise of about 4 percent compared to the year before. One boy was raped by a woman, he said.
“However, these are just the cases we have received and worked on,” he said. There are many cases that go unreported to police or courts.
“They may see that the current courts cannot provide justice for them,” Pe Vannak said. “In addition, they are too poor and live too far away from the city to file complaints.”
Protection will require commitment from the government and the public to strengthen law enforcement and eliminate impunity within the judiciary, he said.
Sexual abuse of a child can include physical abuse, as well as mental anguish, said psychiatrist Mony Sothara, head of the mental health section of Phnom Penh’s Preah Kosamak hospital.
“Because of the abuse, a boy may get confused over his own identity,” Mony Sothara said. “As a long-term effect, he may have a personality disorder.”
Cambodia has long been viewed as a safe haven for pedophiles, foreign and local. Authorities made 109 arrests of suspected pedophiles from January to September, including the arrests of seven foreigners. Four of them were arrested on suspicion of abusing boys.
However, authorities have traditionally overlooked the abuse of boys, said Lt. Gen. Bit Kim Hong, head of the Ministry of Interiors anti-trafficking department.
“Before we just focused on girls,” he said. “If we saw a foreigner walking hand-in-hand with a boy, we thought it was normal. But now we the authorities have focused on the protection of both boys and girls.”