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How Cambodia Is Fighting Sexual Exploitation of Children

A Cambodian sex worker, center, holds a banner read "Closing Brothels" in a conference room in Phnom Penh, file photo.
A Cambodian sex worker, center, holds a banner read "Closing Brothels" in a conference room in Phnom Penh, file photo.

[Editor’s note: A new report by the International Justice Mission says the number of minors working in Cambodia’s sex industry is on the decline. But while Cambodia may no longer be the world’s No. 1 destination for underage sex, sexual exploitation of children remains a concern. VOA Khmer's Ten Soksreinith recently sat down with Holly Burkhalter, vice president for advocacy at IJM, to discuss the report’s findings.]

VOA Khmer: Your recent op-ed in the Washington Post was called, “A safer home for Cambodia’s girls.” What do you mean by that?

Holly Burkhalter: The reason I say that Cambodia is much, much safer for children is that what was once common place, the sale of young children, is now almost impossible to find. And the very common crime of commercial exploitation of older minor girls, 15, 16, 17 years old, which was also very common, that too, has diminished considerably. So Cambodia, it’s fair to say, is no longer the world’s No. 1 destination to buy a child. Quite the contrary, the police are vigilant, as are many NGO groups, including IJM and many others.

Now having said that, it does not mean that this crime never occurs. That is not true. We know from our own prevalence data that there are certain numbers of girls still in the sex industry. We found 2.2 percent, those are real life girls, and they need to be rescued. And people that are exploiting them need to go to jail. But it is very different than the estimated 15 to 30 percent of those in the sex industry back in the beginning of the decade who were estimated to be minors. You go from 30 percent to 2.2 percent. That is a big, big change. That means a lot fewer girls are being exploited, and a lot fewer are at risk of exploitation.

VOA Khmer: Child sex trafficking has changed its nature from an open to being more hidden. Are you aware of this changing nature?

Holly Burkhalter: Yes. It is because of effective law enforcement over this 12-, 13-, 14-year period. What was once a very open crime, where anybody could get off the plane and get into a motor taxi or a scooter, and go buy a child at 10 o’clock in the morning—as the police began cracking down on the visible open kind of crime that was very common, it became much more likely that those people who were selling children were going to get picked up.

Now does that means that every child that was once openly available is now secretly available? No it does not mean that. What does underground mean? Underground means it’s not visible. What underground means is that the people that are trying to sell a child have to be very, secretive about it. They have to be very careful. They have to have many layers of security for themselves because they never know when there might be an under-cover cop, or an NGO under cover, and informants posing as buyers.

Holly J. Burkhalter serves as IJM’s Vice President of Government Relations & Advocacy.
Holly J. Burkhalter serves as IJM’s Vice President of Government Relations & Advocacy.

VOA Khmer: Corruption among government officials is common in Cambodia. How does IJM approach this issue when working with the government to combat child sex trafficking?

Holly Burkhalter: It’s a great question. In almost all the countries where IJM works and in many, many developing countries, and occasionally in our own country here in the United States, police getting kickbacks or payoffs is an issue. The wonderful thing about our case work model, in which partner, with the government, is that when you are working side by side with the authorities on specific cases, you can tell exactly when corruption happens, when your case gets tipped off, when you go to a place where we had located a victim, and you go back to the police 24 hours later, and she’s gone. This happens not just in Cambodia, but in a lot of places where we work. In those early days, this happened frequently. But the more involved we and our NGO partners are with the local authorities, the more trust has developed, the more capacity has developed; the more we can get buy-in, particularly at the top, then the more likely it is that we will be able to get the top-ranking authority themselves to put a thumb on corruption.

VOA Khmer: IJM has been in this field for more than a decade. Can you tell us how the girls commonly become victims of sexual exploitation?

Holly Burkhalter: The common stories were with girls, many of whom came in to the cities from rural areas, who were promised a job, so they came willingly with the traffickers. This is certainly the case of other countries as well. It’s the most common story. Or they were offered a job in a noodle shop or the hotels, or salon, and they were exploited. But in those early days, the little children that we don’t see in the market anymore, the little kids were sold by their parents, and would sometimes go home at night, take their earnings home at night.

VOA Khmer: How about the cases where parents selling their kids into commercial sex? How has that situation changed in Cambodia?

Holly Burkhalter: I think the biggest change is that the demand is down, and thus, when the demand goes down, the supply goes down. The reason the demand is down is because the police are going after the buyers. The police are intercepting, investigating reports of children for sale. To my knowledge, the most frequent point of intervention is when the child is brought to a location for exploitation. So people are not doing that anymore. We have not only the information from our prevalence study in 2012 and 2015, but also our investigators and our IJM staff, and the staff from many other organizations, who are constantly on the alert. So Cambodia is not a good place to go to buy a child, and thus there are fewer children for sale. The supply and demand issue has, I think, really played out that way in Cambodia.

VOA Khmer: To what extent has US diplomacy and assistance helped the Cambodian government get rid of child sex trafficking, and moving forward, how much is the US committed to this issue?

Holly Burkhalter: I think the Cambodian government was really pushed hard by the US government way back in 2003. It’s quite visible, something that had been going on for a long time really burst onto the consciousness and was so terrible that the US, and other important donors, (such as the Australians who have been very helpful as well), really just pressured the Cambodians to do something about this very young child exploitation, and they did.

Like I said, it wasn’t perfect. It was certainly not perfect at the very beginning, but they did take that action. I want to give the US credit for strong diplomacy, but the victory really does go to the good people in the Cambodian government who were in the minority in those early days, but who did the right thing, and cared about their country, and their country’s children. When the US, the Australians, and others pressed the Cambodian government, it helped the reformers inside, gave them more authority. An important part of strengthening reformers in Cambodia was the annual State Department Trafficking in Persons Report. It really put pressure on the Cambodians, as well as the other countries in the world. But Cambodians actually care. Because if they were on Tier 3, which is the failing grade in that report, based on the international standard, it meant that they would potentially lose some of the US foreign assistance. That matters to Cambodia.

VOA Khmer: How different is it of child sex trafficking in the US from Cambodia?

Holly Burkhalter: It’s interesting to contrast in the United States where girls and boys that are found to be in the commercial sex industry are very frequently thrown in jail because they were thought to be breaking the law. That’s outrageous about my country, the United States. And in countries where we have really successful prosecution of customers and sellers and buyers of children, the care of the victims is absolutely crucial. It’s crucial for a moral reason, because it’s a wounded child who needs physical and mental trauma care, education and a home. Our after-care partners in Cambodia, there are many, did all of that wonderfully. And when the kids are cared for well, , and provided with such assistance, they are usually eager to testify, and it’s quite helpful to their healing, to have a court of law affirm that they have had a crime committed against them, in the eyes of the law.