Transformation:
Cambodia

LOOKING BACK

Cambodia was once viewed by many as “ground zero” for child sex trafficking. In the early 2000s, very young children were often bought and sold for sex right on the streets, simply because there was no one to protect them.

“Abusers once trumpeted Cambodia as the place to purchase young children for sex with impunity, a place where the justice system was so dysfunctional—so absent—that people could exploit the vulnerable without fear or shame.”

Christa Sharpe, Field Office Director, IJM Cambodia

Thankfully, this heartbreaking picture no longer reflects Cambodia today. Starting in the early 2000s, IJM partnered with the Cambodian authorities to rescue victims of trafficking, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors and help strengthen the justice system to better protect the poor long-term. Years of collaboration between the government, police, courts, social services, NGOs and the public have dramatically reduced the crisis of sex trafficking and made a powerful change for Cambodia’s children. The changes in Cambodia have been remarkable.

Here we highlight 10 of the leaders contributing to the country’s ongoing transformation—women and men whose personal stories and fierce effort are proving to the world that change is possible.

“Passionate government officials are working hard, and their consistent action—in collaboration with civil society—over the past 10 years has led to an astounding decrease in the number of minors being trafficked and sold.

Thousands of girls and women have been rescued and hundreds of traffickers have been held accountable. The trajectory in Cambodia changed. What seemed impossible years ago has become possible.”

Christa Sharpe, Field Office Director, IJM Cambodia

H.E. Chou Bun Eng

Secretary of State, Ministry of the Interior
Vice Chair, National Committee for Counter Trafficking

Transformation in Cambodia would never have been possible without strong government ownership over counter-trafficking efforts. Her Excellency Chou Bun Eng’s passionate and persistent leadership is helping to unite Cambodian government ministries, rural community leaders and NGOs to tackle this crisis as a unified front.

“In the early 2000s, we found that 20 or 30 percent of sex workers were teenagers or underage…At that time, the government and police tried to conduct raids and put pressure on the brothels. Even though we were willing, our response didn’t seem to be enough.

Only strong collaboration—straight to the same goal together—has helped us move towards solving the problem. We are very proud because we have made a big change from the high child sex trafficking prevalence rate 14 years ago to now. I am so happy the government has a strong willingness to combat trafficking in persons and put children as our priority.”

Lim Tith

National Project Coordinator, UN-ACT

“The justice system has seen a lot of improvement. If the situation had continued like before, I think it would be so sad for Cambodia and for the world. A lot of money and a lot of resources have been invested, and if things continued the same we would be very disappointed. But we should be proud. Sex trafficking—particularly child sex trafficking—has decreased. There is some work we still need to do, but this is a big success for Cambodia.”

Lim Tith and United Nations leaders have tackled the trafficking crisis by spearheading policy change, encouraging government ownership, and leading stakeholder collaboration. Cambodia reformed its main trafficking law in 2008, and now has clearer definitions for the crime and serious sentences for offenders. The Cambodian government has taken ownership over the fight against sex trafficking, and now brings UN agencies and local NGOs into their vision for the fight.

General Pol Phie They

Director of Cambodia’s National Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police

Reducing a crime like child sex trafficking requires bold moves to hold violent criminals accountable. General Pol Phie They accepted each new challenge as it’s come and is strategically raising the standard of his police units. They’ve successfully shut down abusive brothels, rescued thousands of victims, and stopped hundreds of traffickers and pimps from hurting children.

“We have a heart to protect the country—to make sure there is security and social order—by ensuring rights and freedom for all citizens, and by ensuring citizens have understanding and are free from trafficking, exploitation and suppression.

Perpetrators may keep coming up with more trickery—but what we have is our will and our responsibility to fight against them.”

Helen Sworn

Founder and International Director, Chab Dai Coalition

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, NGOs in Cambodia were struggling to keep up with the child sex trafficking crisis and the growing pool of survivors in need of help.

Chab Dai Coalition, headed by Helen Sworn, united these stakeholders at just the right time. They’ve helped to rally and equip the NGO community, and partner with government leaders for an effective and sophisticated counter-trafficking response, particularly in prevention and survivor aftercare.

“For many years, this felt like a long, dark tunnel. I do see that hope, that light, coming through.

When I see police and the government standing up and saying sex trafficking is not acceptable, it brings me hope not just on this particular issue, but it brings me much greater hope for Cambodia. It doesn’t mean Cambodia doesn’t still have challenges—we have a long way to go—but look how far we’ve come in the last 15 years.”

Captain Keo Rattana

Deputy Chief of Section, Phnom Penh Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police

Years ago, Cambodia’s police were seen uniformly as ineffective, untrained and corrupt. But today, a new generation of anti-trafficking police officers like Captain Keo Rattana has taken hold of their training and made serious strides in combating trafficking in their country.

They take pride in the law enforcement profession and have a vision for enforcing the law to protect people from trafficking and other violent crimes.

“I hope all people across the country will become aware of the law and enforce the law together. Whenever we understand the law together, we are able to prevent and suppress trafficking…We must all work as a team, because even though we the police have skills and tools, we will not be able to succeed alone.”

Oeun Sienglai

Pastor and Community Educator

“People here in the rural areas might not know what the dangers of trafficking and child abuse are. Before IJM trainings, I never knew there was this kind of abuse—I didn’t think human beings could do that to children. I was touched and changed first. Now I want other adults to change...It’s like the influence of the rain: one drop of water, and the waves go outward.”

Equipped by IJM and other organizations, grassroots leaders like Oeun Sienglai are teaching families about exploitation and child abuse all across the country. As a pastor and community mobilizer, she helps hundreds of parents protect their children—like 8-year-old Dany—from the lies and lures of traffickers and rapists.

You Sopheak

Director, Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth

“Back in 2011-2012, in this park by Wat Phnom, there were many children being prostituted and sexually abused. Most of them were street children lured by foreigners. But now that number has decreased because of our work. We have been preventing and rescuing these victims and referring them to shelters for rehabilitation. As you can see, it’s totally different than before.”

In the early 2000s, Cambodia’s social services struggled to identify and help children trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Today, rescued children meet caring government social workers like You Sopheak and a robust private aftercare system.

These leaders are improving their skills, advocating for more resources to do their job, and working hard to ensure children can grow up safely, heal from their trauma, and thrive in freedom once again.

Kor Vandy

Vice President, Phnom Penh First Instance Court

Cambodia’s courts once struggled to uphold anti-trafficking law with meaningful trials, leaving criminals to abuse the poor with impunity. But today the country’s courts, judges and prosecutors are more responsive, well-trained and child-friendly than 10 years ago—and traffickers are finally being held accountable.

“The number of child trafficking offenders has drastically decreased because of tough sentences. The anti-trafficking law of Cambodia is now comprehensive, and the police and prosecutors leading the investigation procedures are now more sophisticated.

I want to send the message to criminals who want to commit crimes in Cambodia: it’s not as easy as they may think.”

Sek Saroeun

Director of Legal, IJM Cambodia

Cambodia’s transformation reflects thousands of individual stories of change over the last 20 years. Sek Saroeun once worked as a DJ in Martini Pub, a popular bar where girls were abused and sold for sex. He saw the plight these women faced and knew he needed to take action. Today he’s a leading attorney with International Justice Mission, helping hundreds of survivors find justice and ensuring traffickers are jailed for their crimes.

“When I walk around Phnom Penh, I can see there is more development in the buildings, the streets, the restaurants and all the people. And I can also see changes in the red-light districts. It is extremely difficult to find minors in those places now, compared to 10 years ago. I can see that it is safer for our children…I feel very privileged to be part of this change.”

Lyna

Perhaps the greatest testaments to Cambodia’s transformation are the survivors of trafficking themselves. Many of these young women have overcome years of trauma and bravely stood up for justice.

At 12 years old, Lyna* pushed past her fear to bravely testify in court and eventually saw her trafficker sentenced to 11 years in prison.

“I’m proud of myself for speaking up, because I know it will help other children be safe. I have a dream that I will become somebody, and my testimony can help change people’s lives.”

“To the people who are helping to stop trafficking, I really thank them for having the heart to help all of the victims. Because of their love, we can be changed.”

*A pseudonym has been used to protect the security of this survivor.

In the fight to end slavery around the world, Cambodia gives us a model for change.

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Interviews were conducted in September 2015 and have been edited for clarity, coherence and length.