Have you ever heard or seen something that altered your direction in life? A marker that you can look back on as a catalyst for change? Learning about the existence of child sex tourism was one of those points in my life. Twenty years ago I learned that teenage girls, like me, were routinely "purchased” by men who would fly from other nations to abuse them. This revelation launched me on a justice journey that years later would take me to a country that was once known as an epicentre for child sex tourism.
Cambodia is not always the first place that comes to mind when you hear the term "tourist destination”. But as someone who lived in the shadow of its main tourist attraction I can assure you that, only a few years ago, the industry was bustling. In 2011, I served as a Social Work Advisor with IJM Cambodia in Siem Reap. Our work focused on the commercial sexual exploitation of children (sex trafficking). Unfortunately, among the hundreds of thousands of tourists that arrive in the town each year eager to experience Angkor Wat , others came to abuse children.
Because of the influx of tourists, some children sell bracelets and souvenirs on the streets of Siem Reap. Occasionally travellers will offer to buy these children ice cream or candy and sit and chat with them. This well-meaning gesture actually makes the child more vulnerable, as abusers frequently use gifts and favours to groom potential victims. This was the case with Kanya*, a young girl who epitomizes what it means to be brave.
IJM first met Kanya and her grandfather a little over four years ago. They lived in an impoverished community in a northwestern province of Cambodia. A middle-aged Australian man had moved into their neighbourhood and became a "grandfather figure” to many children, sharing candy and inviting them into his home. One day, Kanya saw this man abusing her young friend, Chenda*, and bravely told her grandfather. Although Chenda’s family initially did not believe her, Kanya persisted in sharing the truth. IJM Cambodia assisted with the investigation and prosecution of the abuser, and our social workers and aftercare partners walked with Chenda and Kanya as they healed from their experiences. Today, Kanya attends school and enjoys reading and writing. (Read more of Kanya’s story here).
Kanya bravely used her voice to help stop the abuse of her young friend. By sharing what she had seen she helped to protect not only Chenda, but other children who this abuser could have harmed in the future.
In fact, today more children than ever before are safe from sexual abuse in Cambodia. In the early 2000s, research reported by the Cambodian government estimated the prevalence of minors being exploited in the commercial sex industry was as high as 30% in the city of Phnom Penh. Globally, Cambodia was viewed as the poster child for the commercial exploitation of children, especially minors under 15 years-old. But that heartbreaking picture of a broken public justice system allowing very young girls to be openly sold for sex in a rampant sex trade is no longer an accurate reflection of Cambodia today.
A 2015 prevalence study conducted by IJM finds that the prevalence of minors in the commercial sex trade 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% of the sex industry. This represents a 73% reduction in the presence of minors in just three years since IJM conducted its last prevalence study in 2012.
Though there are still serious improvements to be made, through the collaborative efforts of numerous organizations, individuals and key international and Cambodian government leaders, significant progress has been made in the past decade to considerably decrease the epidemic of child sex trafficking that once plagued the nation.
This blog post is part one of a series to inform readers about Travel Brave, an initiative created by IJM Canada to help raise awareness about child sex tourism, empower Canadians to report the crime, increase citizen reporting of suspected child sex tourists, and better protect children everywhere.