Battling Sexual Exploitation
Dara was 9 years old when her mother died, and neighbors in her small Cambodian village wanted to take her to live with her mother’s relatives in the capital city, Phnom Penh. But one neighbor, a woman named Rhong (like many Cambodians, she uses just one name), declared she was the little girl’s godmother and would raise Dara herself.
Rhong didn’t let Dara go to school any longer; instead Rhong employed her in full-time household chores. After five years, Rhong told 14-year-old Dara that it was time she begin to pay back the food she had been receiving.
Rhong took Dara by bus to Poipet, a town along the country’s border with Thailand. They went into a small business, and Rhong disappeared into the back, leaving Dara to wait.
All day she waited, until she finally ventured into the back and asked a man where her godmother was. “She left you here. I paid her 10,000 Baht [more than $250] for you to work for me,” the man told her, explaining that she now worked in a brothel.
“I was scared and frightened, and said I wanted to go home,” Dara told response. “But the man said I couldn’t leave until I had earned back what he’d paid my godmother.”
Dara was one of seven young women in the brothel and attended an average of nine customers a day. She says the owners — a husband and wife — wanted her to service even more men, but she would resist.
“I couldn’t bargain with them, however. If I complained, the woman would swear at me and the man would beat me with a rubber hose,” she said.
If any of the young women needed to go anywhere, the owners sent along a minder. One older worker managed to escape, but the owners recaptured her and beat her.
Rhong would come every month or so and collect more money from the brothel owners, effectively extending Dara’s indebtedness. The customers paid the owners for Dara’s services; so she managed to obtain very little money of her own. “Some customers felt pity for me and would give me a little bit of money,” she said.
She saved those little bits over the months and once when her godmother came Dara gave her entire savings, the equivalent of about $50, to her godmother in exchange for leaving with her.
They weren’t home for long, however, when Rhong started pressuring Dara to start working as a prostitute once again. Frustrated, Rhong hit Dara in the head with a knife. Neighbors took a bloodied Dara to the hospital. After being discharged, she walked to a poor area of the city where she lived on the streets, scavenging recyclable items and selling her body when needed to survive.
After a few weeks, her godmother found her on the streets and took her to Svay Pak, a village on the fringes of Phnom Penh with a long history as a prostitution center. A brothel owner there got Dara hooked on drugs, but after six months she escaped back to the streets of the capital.
There she eventually met a woman who encouraged her to get out. She took her to White Lotus, a small Christian organization run by two women from the United States. It offers women who’ve been exploited as commercial sex workers a fresh start.
Dara has lived at White Lotus for more than a year now. It’s been a slow process, and the painful memories don’t heal quickly, if at all. When Dara recounted her history to response, it was the first time she’d been interviewed by a journalist. She started weeping before uttering a single word.
“We’re talking about torture”
Dara, who is about 20 (she doesn’t know her exact age), is today learning to read and write, as well as how to make candles and greeting cards. “In a year I’ve changed a lot,” she said. “Before, when I was on the streets, I had no safe place to sleep, and at times I had to eat garbage. Now I’m safe, and I want to share what I learn here with other women, so they can have better lives. One day I hope I can help women living in situations like where I was.”
Dara isn’t the woman’s real name, and White Lotus wouldn’t allow her to be photographed. That’s common in Cambodia, where a variety of nongovernmental organizations have formed to fight the region’s booming sex trade. Activists are very protective of the survivors. Meeting with Dara required days of negotiations.
“When a girl is rescued from a brothel, the bad guys will try in any way they can to get their property back. If they can get her, any court case against them collapses,” said Greg Burgess, a U.S. missionary who has worked with several anti-trafficking groups in Cambodia.
The culture of corruption in Cambodia has slowed efforts to reform the legal system and motivate police to enforce laws against child abuse. In their quest to stop exploitation, Mr. Burgess says activists fail more often than they succeed.
Just identifying cases of child trafficking isn’t enough. “In one case, the police won’t go after a powerful family. Or if they do, when they send the case to court, the judge won’t sign off on it,” he said. “Or maybe the judge will sign an arrest warrant but then call to alert the owners that the police are on the way.”
As a result, Mr. Burgess claimed, “The trafficking of children for sexual exploitation is off the map. And it’s not just men having fun with little girls who make extra money for the girls’ families. We’re talking about brothel owners beating girls. We’re talking about torture.”
Debbie Tetsch says the situation has improved since she helped found White Lotus 10 years ago. “There’s a law against trafficking,” she said. “Girls can go to court and testify against the perpetrators. There’s an anti-trafficking unit in the police. None of this existed when we started.”
Activists have also succeeded in changing the international environment. The 2003 approval of the Protect Act by the U.S. Congress established harsh penalties at home for U.S. pedophiles who travel abroad to sexually abuse children.
Trafficking foes say the U.S. government is now aggressively investigating and prosecuting American sex tourists arrested abroad. Last August, three men were brought back from Cambodia to stand trial in the United States as part of “Operation Twisted Traveler.” If convicted, the men face possible life sentences.
Shery Lile, the other founder of White Lotus, says that although international awareness has grown, traffickers have also grown more sophisticated. “As the infrastructure of Cambodia and the Mekong region develops, so too is the infrastructure of exploitation expanding, allowing girls to be trafficked more easily, rotated easily from one place to another and kept hidden,” she said.
“Just like it was takeout food”
If Cambodia is today the hub of Southeast Asia’s billion-dollar a year sex trade, then the village of Svay Pak is ground zero. One of the stops on Dara’s tortured itinerary through hell, the ethnically Vietnamese community at the fringes of Phnom Penh’s urban sprawl was once the destination for sex tourists looking for young children.
The town’s acute poverty contributed to families selling their daughters’ bodies for money. Pressured internationally, the government closed the town’s most visible brothels in 2003, but others remained operating behind closed doors.
Several freelance pimps still operate here. “A phone call gets whatever you want delivered. A boy or a girl, just like it was takeout food being sent to your house,” said Chantha Hem, a Cambodian pastor who began a storefront church in Svay Pak in early 2009.
He’d worked for an organization providing aftercare for survivors of sexual abuse for several years and decided he wanted to get ahead of the curve of exploitation. He and his wife moved to Svay Pak and started a variety of ministries with children, including an after-school program where kids learn English.
Some of the children he works with are survivors of commercial sexual exploitation; in one case the child was just 7 years old. He also opened a gym to reach out to men in the community, many of whom he characterizes as gangsters.
Mr. Hem says Svay Pak hasn’t been an easy place to live or work as an opponent of trafficking. “This has always been the place to come to have sex with little girls,” he said, noting that publicized brothel closings notwithstanding, not much has changed. The local police, he says, do nothing in exchange for a cut of the profits.
Yet he has begun to make inroads. One village woman who once profited from trafficking now secretly alerts him to business deals in progress.
“Yesterday she told me an American man was coming to have sex with a 9- year-old girl, so I was watching all day, and when he came in the afternoon I called the anti-trafficking police. But they took 90 minutes to show up, and by then he was gone. What could I do? I couldn’t arrest him myself.”
The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and response senior correspondent. Photos by Mr. Jeffrey.