I sat in a tuk tuk on my way to the airport with the little boy’s eyes and words burning in my body. I met him at the seafront in Phnom Penh during my last night in the city. He showed up from nowhere. He was six to seven years old. He lived on the street. “Why don’t you buy me?” said the boy. His words hit me like a ton of bricks. He gazed at me with a look that was inscrutable. Eyes that have seen everything. I know this look, I have seen it in my work as a child psychologist in Sweden. It is universal.
Earlier this year, ECPAT Sweden’s Program Manager Maria Schillaci visited Cambodia together with the Swedish Police, the Stockholm County Administrative Board and the World Childhood Foundation to cooperate and raise issues regarding sexual exploitation of children, with a special focus on online sexual abuse, Swedish travelling child sex offenders and orphanage tourism.
This text is an excerpt from a blog trilogy written by Maria, first published on ECPAT Sweden’s website in March 2017. A journey into how poverty, corruption and cynicism affect children’s upbringing conditions and constitute a foundation for sexual exploitation of children.
Cambodia is one of the world’s 20 most corrupt countries according to Transparency International. “Pockets are deep and cars are shiny,” said a wise person in Cambodia. Children and children’s bodies are business. Money before children. Always.
The sexual exploitation of children has moved underground in Cambodia, says Seila Samleang from the organisation APLE. Just like ECPAT Sweden, APLE has a hotline where the public anonymously can report sexual exploitation of children. Seila says that the sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia used to be street-based, but that the exploitation today is becoming more and more institution-based (orphanage) and family or community-based (grooming). The offenders settle in the countryside, become friends with the residents, live with the families, teach the children English, give the children toys and thus have free access to the children. But the access to children is also increasing through orphanages. Did you know that about 50,000 children live in orphanages in Cambodia? The problem is that 80 percent of the parents of these children are fooled to believe that by giving away their child, the child can have a better future. There are orphanages where you can book children. For a couple of hours, couple of days or months – perfect for people seeking children for sexual purposes.
I receive information about a US citizen convicted of sexual offenses against children in the United States who opened an orphanage in Cambodia. To this orphanage he also brought a group of other child sex offenders, people he met in prison. The nightmare is complete. Fortunately, this case was discovered. But the cynicism is systematic.
The orphanages are also visited by foreign tourists who have good intentions and want to do good. However, the problem is that these tourists contribute to a chain that exploits children and keep them away from their parents with all the trauma that implies. To learn more, visit the ChildSafeMovement and read ECPAT International’s Brief on Volun-tourism.
I also receive information about young patients with gonorrhea. It took a while before I understood what this was about. Gonorrhea is not a common childhood disease. This is a sexually transmitted disease. Just there and then I wanted to cry. But I want to mention Angkor Hospital for Children. An oasis of high quality hospital care for children providing everything from eye care to psychosocial support for exploited children.
APLE (Action Pour Les Enfants) is a voluntary organisation launched in 2003 in Cambodia. APLE operates in a secret place, behind tall walls with barbed wire. The organisation is constantly forced to move because of threats that the employees receive. Why? Because trafficking is the world’s third largest illegal trade. Next to weapons and drugs. If you are trying to save children from this ruthless business, you are living dangerously. APLE is looking for offenders every day in several places in Cambodia. They talk to children and witnesses and collect information about the offenders. In a poor country like Cambodia, with a weak judicial system and high corruption, it is extremely difficult to access those who exploit children. Nevertheless, in cooperation with the Cambodian police, APLE has contributed to a large number of convictions.
I have met heroes! People who save children while risking their own lives. People who scout and collect evidence so that the police can identify children and arrest offenders. People who give children clothes to shed their bodies when they are found in guesthouses naked and exploited in the hands of foreign and domestic offenders. People who save children from living on the street, not just by bringing them to orphanages, but by reuniting them with parents when possible. By bringing them to school, educating them and by helping them to create a future. By providing medical care and psychosocial support for sexually exploited children. People that treat babies with sexually transmitted diseases. Babies with sexually transmitted diseases. Let it sink in.
So, what happened to the little boy Maria met in Phnom Penh?
He was dirty and tired. I told him to wait there. I bought something for him to eat and drink. He sat down. I walked away to a bar to buy a Coca-Cola, wondering who I should contact for help. I formulated a plan but when I came back he was gone. I sat down and waited for a long time but he did not come back. What happened to him when he disappeared into that hot night? Did he mean that I should buy the stuff he sold? Or did he mean what he said? I will never know the answer.
I am leaving Cambodia now. It has been important for me to share my thoughts with you. It has been a way for me to process my impressions. Many of the people I have met on this journey testify that all efforts to raise awareness about sexual exploitation of children are getting through. You can also make a difference. Here are three quick tips when travelling: choose travel companies, airlines and hotels that have taken a stand against sexual exploitation. Go on excursions organised by responsible actors. And above all, do not look away, always report. You can save a child.
Read more about travelling child sex offenders in Cambodia.