PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Cambodia has cracked down on the use of children in the commercial sex industry, nearly eliminating the practice, according to a new report by the International Justice Mission.
The American NGO has been working with Cambodia’s government since 2003 to eradicate the involvement of children in commercial sex here. Cambodia’s progress has been so marked it should serve as a model for other countries struggling to eradicate the crime, said the Washington-based group which works against human trafficking.
The group based its positive assessment on results of an investigation it conducted in March of 287 randomly selected commercial sex venues in three cities: Phnom Penh, Siam Reap and Sihanoukville. These included: karaoke clubs, beer gardens, hostess bars, massage parlors and brothels fronting as coffee shops.
Of the 2,104 people working in these businesses, only 38 were under 18 years, or 2.2 percent. This was 73 percent below the level of the Mission’s previous study, in 2012. That study found that 8.16 percent of surveyed commercial sex workers were under 18 years of age.
The March study also found only a handful of children under 16 working in sex-related venues – 0.1 percent. Three years ago, it was 0.76 percent.
Perception of Cambodia Out of Date
The International Justice Mission said their data indicates that the perception of Cambodia as “ground zero” for the commercial exploitation of children for sex is out of date.
“Cambodia has progressed – we need to tell the updated story,” said Sharon Cohn Wu, a senior vice president at the NGO.
Children are being rescued, perpetrators punished, and anti-trafficking police are being trained and equipped, she said.
Cambodia provides a “model of change,” said the group, which has field offices in 18 countries, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
“Cambodia’s example of progress shows the world that justice for the poor is possible,” the Mission said in a press release. “A country that once had virtually no appropriate aftercare services for children rescued from prostitution has now become an incubator for best practices in care and restoration.”
“The changing tide in Cambodia is evidence that justice system transformation is possible even in the most broken places,” said the group, which maintains a team of lawyers and investigators in its Phnom Penh field office.
Local NGOs More Cautious
However, representatives of two local NGOs were more cautious in their assessments.
Seila Samreang, country director of child-protection NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) agreed that the number of children working in illegal brothels had fallen, but he said it was nowhere near zero.
“Kids are still falling victim to traffickers, but the methods are more secretive and more difficult to quantify than before,” he told Khmer Times. He said the Mission study excluded the most vulnerable children in the country, such as those living on the street, in poor communities and in orphanages.
Eve Saosarin, director of Sihanoukville-based child-protection NGO M’lop Tapang, agreed there had been a decrease of children working in commercial sex venues. But she disputed the IJM study which found not a single sex worker under 16 in her city. She said: “The number has not dropped to zero.”
Pol Pithey, Head of Interior Ministry’s Anti-human Trafficking Department, agreed with the report, saying the number of children used for commercial sex has decreased.
He said the government now is cracking down on trafficking of those aged 17 and 18. It is intensifying efforts to identify fake documents with false ages used by brokers at employment agencies, he said.
The American NGO also urged the U.S. State Department to raise Cambodia’s ranking on its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report by removing it from the so-called “Tier 2 watch list.”
This watch list comprises countries whose governments are failing to reduce the number of people being trafficked. Cambodia has been at the second-lowest level on the list since 2013.
“IJM urges the TIP office to recognize the new reality in Cambodia,” the International Justice Mission said, adding that Cambodia should be removed from the watch list this year. The TIP report is used by Washington and NGOs to lobby governments worldwide to reduce human trafficking.