As we traveled around Cambodia, we heard mention here and there about the problem of human trafficking inside the country–as well as across its borders–but in Phnom Penh we learned much more about the issue. We visited two international NGOs working in the country, one that rescues victims of human trafficking and sexual violence and also mobilizes and facilitates the prosecution of traffickers and abusers, and another that provides aftercare services to girls who have been victims of trafficking and rape.
Sex tourism and prostitution remain significant challenges for Cambodia. Starting in the early 1990s, when the country opened up to foreigners for the first time in twenty years (following the end of the Cold War and the ouster of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, who had ruled the country since they invaded in the 1970s to overthrow the Khmer Rouge), Cambodia gained a “reputation” as a place where pedophiles could abuse children without repercussions. Over the last couple of decades, responding to pressure from the international community, the Cambodian government has cracked down on pedophilia, but children continue to be trafficked and sold by organized pedophile rings. Women and teenage girls are also commonly trafficked into prostitution–after they have been tricked into leaving their homes for the promise of better economic opportunities in urban areas, where they might expect they’ll work in textile or garment factories, they are sold into sexual slavery.
With rampant corruption in the police force and extensive poverty, the NGOs fighting human trafficking and sexual abuse and violence in Cambodia face many challenges. They also must confront cultural and religious traditions that often lead victims to believe they have deserved their lot in life. Still, we were greatly inspired by the dedication that the NGO workers showed in taking on these challenges, and we hope to continue to support their efforts and raise awareness about their work once we’re back home.