“The picture of very young girls being removed from horrific brothels…is seared in minds of the global community as an example of the horrors of sex trafficking worldwide, but this picture is no longer reality.” – Sharon Cohn Wu, IJM Senior Vice President of Justice System Transformation
A Crisis for Cambodia's Children
Cambodia was once viewed by many as “ground zero” for the commercial exploitation of children, especially of minors under 15 years old. In the early 2000s, the Cambodian government estimated that the prevalence of minors being exploited in Phnom Penh’s sex industry was as high as 15–30%.
The abuse was as disturbing as it was widespread. A 2003 investigation by NBC’s Dateline, in partnership with IJM, found children as young as 6 being openly marketed to sex tourists in one impoverished community near Phnom Penh, the capital city. Local pimps boasted about what sex acts these young children would do, at prices as low as $30 per child.
“We have seen many situations of forced prostitution and sex slavery, all horrific—but none as terribly brutal and gut-wrenching as this.” – IJM President & CEO Gary Haugen, writing in 2003
This brazen trafficking and abuse flourished in large part because the public justice system was ill-equipped to combat it, leaving pimps and traffickers unafraid of the law. Police were not active in investigating cases or holding perpetrators accountable. Anti-trafficking laws were unclear, and judges rarely gave meaningful sentences.
In this broken system, victims of trafficking were often treated as criminals themselves. When they were helped, they found few adequate aftercare resources to address their specific needs for healing and recovery.
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
Thankfully, the heartbreaking picture of very young girls being sold openly is no longer an accurate reflection of Cambodia today. There are still improvements to be made, but 15 years of collaboration between Cambodian leaders, police, courts, social services and the NGO community has made a dramatic change for Cambodia’s children.
Government leadership now guides national counter-trafficking efforts—including a robust National Plan of Action and improved counter-trafficking laws. Anti-trafficking police are well-trained and abide by victim-friendly procedures. And today, survivors of trafficking can access a plethora of public and private aftercare services, leading to better victim recovery.
“Hundreds of girls and women have been rescued, and hundreds of traffickers have been held accountable for their crimes in local courts. Passionate government officials are working hard, and their consistent action has held to an astounding decrease in the number of minors being trafficked and sold.” – Christa Sharpe, IJM Cambodia Field Office Director
A 2015 prevalence study conducted by IJM found the prevalence of minors in the three largest commercial sex markets in the country—Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville—has dropped to 2.2%, with minors 15 years and younger making up just 0.1%. Learn more.
With support from international governments and dozens of respected organizations, including IJM, the Cambodian justice system is focused on combating the remaining prevalence of child sex trafficking. They are building on the current progress to ensure an even more effective justice system response in every province across the nation.
Improvement is still needed in many areas, including:
- Addressing other forms of trafficking, like forced labor and online child exploitation
- Expanding law enforcement training and accountability to remote provinces
- Obtaining undercover investigative authority for anti-trafficking police
- Issuing comprehensive rules of evidence and standardized procedures
- Ensuring robust victim and witness support services
- Releasing mandatory deportation protocol for foreign convicted sex offenders
- Ensuring sufficient operational budgets for anti-trafficking police and social services
Their ownership of the counter-trafficking movement stands as a promising example for other countries beginning the fight, and demonstrates to the world that—even in places that seem broken—justice for the poor is possible.
Julie Eckert Kilcur, Sr. Media Relations Manager
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Mindy Mizell, Global Public Relations Director
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