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The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking | The Nation

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The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking

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IJM was prepared to stake it all on its first major intervention in Cambodia. On March 29, 2003, it staged an ambitious and massively publicized raid. Haugen had agreed to embed a crew from Dateline, hoping that the TV segment would create enough public outrage to force Cambodian authorities to shut down the village, should the raid fail.

The second part of Noy Thrupkaew's report appears in the October 26 issue. The November 16 issue features a letters exchange about these articles.

About the Author

Noy Thrupkaew
Noy Thrupkaew is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Also by the Author

The campaign against forced prostitution works when it addresses victims' needs.

Posing as prospective clients, IJM investigators had amassed videotaped evidence that around forty girls, some as young as 8 or 9, were being offered for sexual services. After the raid, IJM was able to count thirty-seven girls among the rescued; the ensuing court case resulted in six convictions. I was unable to meet the girls rescued in the raid or any from subsequent interventions; shelter managers said they wanted to protect the girls from too much media exposure. But in August 2008 Dateline ran a follow-up story with the girls, who appeared healthy and happy, and had dreams of becoming doctors and dance teachers.

The Svay Pak raids seemed to close on that triumphant note--but the story after the redemptive ending is far darker, according to Peter Sainsbury, a consultant who worked with Cambodian human rights group LICADHO to review the IJM raid. A number of bystanders had been caught up in the intervention, including a noodle seller suffering from high blood pressure. Although Sainsbury notified IJM staff of her condition, little was done to earn her release or provide her with medical care, and she died in custody. Her body was returned to her family with teeth missing--prison guards had used pliers to wrench out any with gold fillings.

As for the children, a number of them were addicted to ketamine and injectable drugs, according to Sainsbury, and cut deals with police in the safe house in order to procure them. At least twelve of the victims ran away, some of them later reappearing at Svay Pak to continue prostitution, according to local sources. A police raid a year later netted a number of the rescuees from the high-profile March 2003 IJM raid. Within days of the later raid, all the girls had fled the shelter.

A USAID-funded "census" of sex workers in Cambodia uncovered the fact that the number of underage children offered for prostitution actually increased after the raid, from forty-six before to twelve directly after to fifty-five by May 7 of that year.

"We were a little surprised at the increase after the raid," said researcher Thomas Steinfatt by phone. "But a lot of the girls have a debt contract. If [a girl] winds up in a shelter after a raid, she wants to get out because her family will be pressured to pay back the debt. They won't be able to do that, so the 15-year-old [sister] may get sent. Then the 13-year-old may get sent as well. That's one way the larger number could be accounted for. I argue that the contracts should be null and void, but the girls and women are not going to see it that way."

Those who remained or returned to Svay Pak faced an additional challenge: according to Sainsbury, pimps believed that local HIV-education and social work NGOs had aided IJM and the police, and after the raids cut off the groups' access to the women and barred them from providing care.

In an effort to put a definitive end to child prostitution in Svay Pak, IJM raided the village multiple times after its initial intervention, and the Cambodian police also conducted 100-day saturation/surveillance operations. In his report on the impact of these initiatives, however, French economist Frederic Thomas discovered that the raids had merely dispersed the problem. The women and girls of Svay Pak who hadn't returned to Vietnam had been relocated to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the town just outside the famous Angkor Wat ruins.

By 2007 business in Svay Pak had recovered and reappeared more covertly. Pimps would search clients for cameras, according to Interior Ministry and IJM sources, or use intermediaries like hotel staff and motorcycle-taxi drivers to help deliver children from the village directly to clients' hotel rooms.

Shortly after its first Svay Pak raid, IJM launched a police-training initiative in Cambodia that brought its own controversy. USAID awarded a nearly $1 million grant to the organization to train police in countertrafficking techniques--a decision that fueled criticism from human rights advocates concerned about corruption. Cambodian police are notorious for their involvement in trafficking, through extorting protection money from brothel owners, or through assault and rape of sex workers and trafficking victims.

According to a 2006 USAID-funded study that drew on interviews with 1,000 sex workers and sixty police officers, approximately a third of the freelance sex workers surveyed had been raped by a policeman in the past year; a third had been gang-raped by police. As for sex workers who worked in brothels but also accepted clients outside, 57 percent had been raped by a lone policeman; nearly half had been gang-raped by law enforcement. Fifty percent of freelancers and nearly 75 percent of the brothel group had been beaten by police in the past year.

The police themselves testified to their behavior:

Frankly speaking, I did not like sex workers in the past. I have recently abused many hardheaded women who were working in the parks at nighttime. I beat them when they refused sex with me.... I can't remember the number of beatings. Because I thought that sex workers needed extreme sex from men [laughs]. People in my area called sex workers pradap (meaning "equipment that people can use for doing something," a public vagina for men). Sometimes I asked for some money from them to buy beer or wine.... Sometimes I f***ed them on the stone bench. I never paid them for sex.... There were many policemen who used to work in this park and they did the same.... Now I realized that women become sex workers because they have no job and no money to do business. I know that sex workers have suffered a lot from men, especially men who have guns and power like policemen. I am so sorry for what I have done to those sex workers. Maybe at that time I was too young to know everything in this society. About five years ago, I arrested one woman who was walking on the street late at night. I threatened her to give me some money. I needed money for buying beer and cigarettes. That woman told me that she had no money. I beat and forced her to find money for me. She took off her earring and sold it for money to buy wine for me. I raped her on the ground near Wat Phnom. I used a condom and I raped her three times. I beat her when she was crying for my mercy. [Respondent silent for a while.] I will never do it again. I did many wrong things in my life. I want POLICY [the project that performed the study] to train police about women's rights.... I want to be a good man and take care of my family.

Such stories, according to a US government official who works on anti-trafficking, speaking on condition of anonymity, raise serious questions about "whether or not working with police as allies on this issue was a good [policy] in Cambodia."

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