There are few things more horrifying than the sexual exploitation of a child. Perhaps it is made even worse to think that those who are meant to protect the child (parents, police, court officials) are complicit in the harm of that child. No place on Earth was worse than Cambodia.
But that has changed. According to International Justice Mission (IJM), Cambodian officials have said, “No more,” and they meant 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.
IJM then worked with hundreds of Cambodian police, educating them on all aspects of child sex-trafficking. As legal improvements were made, charitable organizations stepped in to help children who were rescued. The courts no longer meted out harsh penalties to children, but learned that they were victims in need of care. IJM has measurable results from this effort:
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.
IJM’s work and the efforts of the Cambodian government attest to the fact that human trafficking can be stopped. It is not easy or glamorous work, but it is work that saves many, many lives.