Open any history textbook and you are bound to find at least one chapter dedicated to the abolition of slavery in America. We are taught from early on that slavery is a relict of the past and that, at least in America, it ended with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. Yet the U.S. State Department presents findings much more worrying than what we would expect—600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually, of which 80% are female and half are children[1]. What’s more, human trafficking is the world’s third largest criminal enterprise after illegal drugs and arms trafficking, reportedly generating a profit of $32 billion a year, $15.5 billion in industrialized countries[2]. The scale of this issue is so large and, as it now appears, so close to home it seems obvious the topic should be a core part of the school curriculum. And yet I haven’t even had a full 40-minute lesson dedicated to the issue… It begs the question—do we not have a duty to the victims? Should we not at least be aware of their plight?

In 2003 Nelson Mandela made a speech at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg South Africa during which he famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”. Having discovered the heartbreaking statistics of modern day slavery, I was determined to dig deeper into the causes, educate myself on this topic and discover the stories of real individuals who experienced this terrible fate. I turned towards the CNN Freedom Project and found “Every Day in Cambodia” (2013), a riveting documentary featuring Mira Sorvino, the UNODC Goodwill Ambassador against Human Trafficking. It depicts the life of a few children whose struggles embody those of a nation of young girls only a few years younger than me.

The documentary features Don Brewster, the founder and director of Agape International Missions (AIM)—a non-governmental organisation that feeds, shelters and rehabilitates sex trafficking survivors in Cambodia. Brewster now lives in Svay Pak, a village just 11 km outside the capitol city of Phnom Penh, so he can fully devote his time to the rehabilitation of young female sex slavery victims. Near the beginning of the documentary, he describes this dire scene: “Three years ago (…) 100% of the [girls] between eight and 12 were being sexually trafficked”. Every single female child was the victim of this inhuman, cruel practice…

With the continuous in-flow of distressing news of a similar nature to this, it has perhaps become challenging to truly comprehend the meaning of those words. But one must try. So I hope that readers of this article understand that it could have been them; it could have been their sibling or their child. As an eight-year-old girl living in Svay Pak, you were guaranteed to be sex trafficked. Thanks to the work of Agape International Missions this is most likely no longer the case. But with various obstacles standing in the way of true progress, I fear improvements to the system will come too late for many of the girls.

So why exactly is this problem so hard to solve? Why are there still an estimated 100 brothels along a single street in Svay Pak despite the continuous efforts of organisations like AIM to close them down? Though the problem is undoubtedly multifaceted, one can simplify it to two key reasons:

First, Cambodian law does not allow the police to carry out undercover surveillance for the purpose of gathering evidence against sex slavery. Consequently, the police have no way to effectively charge brothel owners with a crime. The only other way to prosecute brothel owners is for a victim to testify against the owner, revealing often difficult and intimate details of their experience. To do this, not only does a girl have to be a survivor of human trafficking, she also needs to have the mental strength and bravery to seek justice, even though inside she may feel broken. Moreover, as in many developing countries, there are high levels of corruption such that, even if organisations like AIM inform the police of a brothel’s location the information will almost certainly leak to the brothel owners and they will consequently quickly relocate. So, once the police arrive at the reported site there is no one to arrest.

Toha’s story perfectly illustrates the second reason why it is so hard to tackle child trafficking in developing countries. Most families in Svay Pak, including Toha’s, scrape by on less than $1 a day. Toha’s parents, unregistered Vietnamese fish farmers, make their living by selling small fish. They cultivate these fish below their home—a small shack built on stilts over water. Toha has many siblings, so when a storm broke the net below their home and their fish escaped, her parents were forced to take out a loan to feed their family. The interest rates were high and the debt grew at an alarming rate (adults like Toha’s parents are perfect targets for unscrupulous lending practices because of their desperate situation and low levels of education). Once the debt reached $5,000 Toha’s mother says she “felt trapped”, so when a woman offered to give her money in exchange for her daughter spending a night with a man in his hotel room, she accepted it.

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Toha was just 14 years old. When she returned home her family did not receive the promised sum, but a mere $500. It was not even close to the thousands needed to pay back the debt. Unsurprisingly, it was not long before Toha was sent to a brothel again. This time she stayed there for 22 days (during which she was raped 198 times, as she stated in her court hearings), until she managed to get her hands on a phone and call Brewster, who came to rescue her. In this sense, she was lucky. Though many of us will find this story distressing, I feel it is of primary importance to include it. This subject must no longer be a taboo. For those girls, it is everything. Toha was brave enough to report her story in court during a trial against the brothel owners; the bravery we need to address this issue is doubtless incomparable to hers.

This vicious cycle is one that many families in Svay Pak encounter. Sephak, trafficked for the first time at only 13, has a similar story to tell. If not a storm, it is the inability to sell enough fish… There is always a reason that poor families have to take out a loan, which inevitably leads to them falling further and further in debt. Though mothers feel regret, many still believe “[they] didn’t have a choice”.

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In my view, solving the issue of sex slavery in Cambodia involves first deciphering the causes of the problem. Action must be defined from the bottom up. Rather than targeting brothel owners, I believe loans and the type of employment available in the region (i.e. fish farming) are at the core of the problem. The unfortunate truth is that even if one brothel is taken down, another will soon take its place. And for each one to be eliminated, several girls have to endure the horrors of exploitation. So even if strict legal procedures and high police surveillance are put in place, there will always be an underground network of human trafficking. Only when children are no longer available will the problem truly be diminished. These mothers don’t send away their daughters until they really feel they have to. Providing sustainable and low-risk jobs, as well as offering better loan programs (ones that don’t take advantage of the borrower!) are, in my opinion, the best way non-profit organisations and the Cambodian government can make a positive long-term difference to the lives of many girls.

Moreover, the position of women in many developing countries, including Cambodia, allows situations like these to happen. In a society where women are considered equal to men, and where they have equal rights, such exploitation would simply not take place. Many of the girls feel unworthy of happinness after being sexually abused, so they remain in brothels and seek neither help nor justice. As a result, brothel owners and pedophiles rarely pay the price for their wrongdoings. Without voices fighting for the rights of women to equal freedom there is little hope for any shift in the cultural landscape. It’s girls like Toha that make all the difference.

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Though the issue of sex slavery is a complex one, change begins with the smallest of actions. You can help girls like Sephak and Toha by making a purchase from http://www.agape-international-missions.myshopify.com (the Agape International Missions online store) or http://www.3strandsshop.com (use code “AIM” at checkout). The products sold are made by human trafficking victims in Cambodia, in factories built by AIM to give the survivors jobs and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of purpose and honour—something they have lost in the eyes of their culture. The clothes and bracelets may be more expensive, but in exchange girls are paid proper wages and receive health care, insurance and education, to name just a few.

While writing this I stumbled upon another film titled “The Pink Room”, also featuring Agape International Missions, which focuses on the story of Mien, a girl symbolic of the much larger issue of child sex slavery. It reveals the tremendous horrors and torture young girls suffer; they are sexually abused in ways far beyond our imagination (hence the title of the documentary). The trailer of this eye-opening movie ends with a short yet thought-provoking scene: A member of the anti-trafficking team sits at a table in one of the brothels. Opposite him, calmly sipping some coffee, is another man (whose face is blurred so as not to reveal his identity) who is a child exploiter. The first man asks the free criminal: “So what are you going to do when you’re done with your coffee?” No answer. He repeats the question more forcefully, “So what are you going to do when you’re done with your coffee?” Again there is no response. The trailer comes to an abrupt end. This finale begs two crucial questions. First, what is that man going to do once he drinks his coffee? Is he going to break the soul of yet another young girl, who will, if she’s lucky enough to be a survivor, spend the following years repairing the damage made in a matter of minutes? Second, and probably most importantly, what are you going to do once you finish reading this? Will you forget? Or will you pass on the word? Will you educate yourself further, maybe watch the full documentary? Or will you fall under the pressure of unfathomable statistics where the struggles of real people remain unnoticed? Will you support a survivor with your purchase? I leave you to ponder these questions.

Globally, the price of freedom is $90[3]. We live in a society where a mobile phone costs more than the liberty of ten people[4]. What is freedom worth to you?

Klara Spark

Watch the full documentary here (scroll to bottom of page).

[1] Data taken from “11 Facts About Human Trafficking”. Accessed June 2, 2017, https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking.

Original source: “TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS REPORT.” United States Department. Accessed February 25, 2014, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/34158.pdf.

[2] Data taken from “11 Facts About Human Trafficking”. Accessed June 2, 2017, https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking.

Original source: CNN. “The CNN Freedom Project.” Accessed March 4, 2015.

[3] Data taken from “11 Facts About Human Trafficking”. Accessed June 2, 2017, https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking.

Original source: “Modern Slavery.” Free the Slaves. Accessed February 25, 2014, https://www.freetheslaves.net/sslpage.aspx?pid=301.

[4] Based on iPhone 7 Plus 5.5-inch display 256GB. Apple.com. Accessed June 2, 2017.

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