A new study by the International Justice Mission (IJM) has asserted that Cambodia’s child sex trade – long a hot-button issue that has for years drawn international attention – has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its previous size.
A statement from IJM that accompanied the executive summary of the study went on to detail the organisation’s activities in Cambodia in 2003, when it worked on Cambodia’s “out of control epidemic” of child sex trafficking. Thousands of children were reportedly openly bought and sold in brothels at the time.
IJM partnered with the Kingdom’s anti-human trafficking police to crack down on the practice, resulting in 500 girls being saved from the sex trade.
By 2012, the statement said, the overall percentage of people in the sex trade under the age of 18 was at 8.16 per cent in the cities of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. This year, it has reportedly dropped to just 2.2 per cent, with minors 15 years or younger comprising 0.1 per cent of the industry. In a May 8 Washington Post editorial, an IJM official declared that Cambodian authorities had “virtually obliterated” child sex trafficking in the Kingdom.
“Cambodia has progressed, and we need to tell the updated story of children rescued and restored, perpetrators apprehended and punished, anti-trafficking police being trained and equipped, and effective deterrence established,” Sharon Cohn Wu, senior vice president of Justice System Transformation for IJM, was quoted as saying in a statement released on Monday. “This evidence-based model of change is an example that other struggling nations can learn from.”
“Cambodia’s example of progress shows the world that justice for the poor is possible,” the statement added.
However, others paint a more complicated picture of the industry. Donald Brewster, chief executive of anti-trafficking organisation Agape International Missions, said such figures need to be quantified in order to be truly trusted.
“I don’t think the numbers are accurate,” he said. “Our experience would say that they’re off.”
Brewster questioned IJM’s methodology in their study yesterday, as well as in a rebuttal to their previous editorial, also published in the Washington Post.
Rather than having been “obliterated”, the trade has simply moved more underground, Brewster maintained. His organisation, he added, has become aware of more than a dozen brothels selling underage sex since the beginning of 2015.
“It’s considerably changed. It’s evolved and become more covert,” he said. “Right now we [know] 15 sex establishments in Cambodia with underage girls. And we’re waiting for permission to conduct the raids.”
Still, he admitted, IJM has done an “outstanding job” of combating the trade.
Sek Sophal, of the Cambodian Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights, also said yesterday that while the situation had improved, it was still far from ideal.
“Compared to before, there has been a decreased [amount of] children in the sex industry,” he said. He admitted, however, that it’s hard to quantify, given that it’s impossible to tell if children working in places such as beer gardens or massage parlours are being sexually exploited.
“It’s been driven to the black market.”