Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem

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Svay Pak is an internationally known district for child sex in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, where foreign men come to seek sex with young girls.

According to a 2011 study by ECPAT Cambodia, around 75 percent of the victims of sex trafficking within Cambodia were children. The study also shows that the age of the victims has decreased over the years.

Svay Pak was officially shut down in 2005, following pressure from international organizations. However, this only forced the sex trade underground.

Victims of sex trafficking are often girls from poor families, who are tricked into working as prostitutes. Many girls are also sold to brothels by their own parents, often to pay off debts. A majority of the children taken into prostitution were students at the time, although children are vulnerable regardless of their school attendance. Girls who are forced to work in brothels endure regular rape and abuse, and may be tortured if caught attempting to escape. Some of the girls in the brothels are just 5 years old. Trade in virgins is also a big market, with buyers paying from $500 – $4000 to purchase a young girl’s virginity.

This shocking trade can be linked at least in part to Cambodia’s tragic history. The genocide during the Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979 killed approximately two million people. The educated and religious communities of mainly Buddhists were nearly wiped out, along with social institutions, leaving behind a fractured society after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. Although the country has shown signs of development, there is a large wealth gap, and Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.

Cambodia ranked 160 out of 175 in terms of police corruption according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Since wages for police officers are so low, police officers are targeted for bribes by brothel owners to avoid arrest.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that many young girls are not forced into the trade by criminals, but by family members. Children, especially daughters, are seen as property of the family, toward which they must contribute.

There are around 200 organizations in Cambodia seeking an end to the sex trade, but communication between the rescue teams is poor, and each team is following its own standards. This result is confusion over how to approach the problem.

The U.S. State Department has upgraded Cambodia’s status regarding its anti-trafficking efforts to tier two on its watch list, which denotes that the country is “making significant efforts.” And while the sex trade has improved since before 2005, when girls would approach tourists, the market is still being sustained by Cambodia’s endemic poverty and gender inequality. Women in Cambodia earn an average of 27 cents for every dollar a man makes. Young women, who sometimes get involved in the sex industry voluntarily, often see it as their best option. When caught by authorities, these women become susceptible to official abuse under the new anti-trafficking laws.

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