As a child, life in Cambodia was very hard for Ka*. "My parents were so poor. When I was young, we didn’t even have a house," she recalls. While many children were going to school, Ka helped her siblings scavenge for cans and beg for money on the streets.
But even amid these desperate circumstances, never did she imagine that one day she would become a victim of sexual trafficking.
Because of poverty
"I left home when I was 16 because of the poverty," Ka explains. On the advice of a friend, she headed for the Thai border in search of a higher paying job.
For her first job, Ka worked at a karaoke club. However, these clubs are often used as fronts for brothels.
"I worked as the girl who sold the beer," she explains, adding that some men at the club would make sexual advances and force her to drink. After just two weeks, she ended up unconscious in the hospital. She decided to look for another job.
Very few options
On the street with very few options, Ka continued to find herself working in different clubs or brothels.
In one instance, she was indebted to her employer for $6 — an amount that kept her captive for two years, forced into prostitution, serving between five and 10 men each night. Eventually, a police raid on the brothel set her free, only to put her on the street alone, yet again.
In her desperate state, she was forced to work in another brothel. To attempt another escape, she and another girl secretly phoned the police. Finally, two days later, the police came. "We felt like we have a new day," remembers Ka.
A massive problem
No one knows exactly how many children are involved in prostitution in Cambodia, but data indicate that the problem is significant.
"It is often said that there are 100,000 [prostitutes], just in Cambodia," says Joshua Pepall, technical advisor to World Vision’s Trauma Recovery Project. "Anywhere from 30,000-60,000 children [are] possibly involved in the sex trade."
The sex industry is especially harmful to children, who are in high demand. Pepall says that children are seen as cleaner, more complacent, and easier to control and manipulate. "Their families are poor," says Pepall. "They come from the provinces and they get into this cycle of debt, and actually all they want to do is help their family."
The Child Protection Compact Act
Unfortunately, Cambodia is not the only country known to be a hotspot for sex trafficking and other forms of child exploitation. But trafficking practices can be prevented and squelched. And the United States can use its influence and resources to continue to battle trafficking around the world.
A bill before Congress, the Child Protection Compact Act (HR 2737 and S 3184), is one such resource. This bill would create a strategic partnership with countries that have shown the political will to combat trafficking, but lack the knowledge and resources to enforce the law. It helps build the capacity of countries to protect victims and prosecute traffickers.
"Helping to equip governments abroad to tackle problems within their own borders is a good investment and the right thing to do," says Jesse Eaves, child protection policy advisor for World Vision.
A new day
Upon Ka’s release, instead of simply being put out on the street again, she was taken to World Vision’s Trauma Recovery Project.
Ka is one of more than 800 girls and women who have gone through this program. She received physical, psychological, and spiritual counseling, as well as skills training to prepare her for a proper occupation.
"I can see light coming into my life and I can think about the future," says Ka, now 20. "I am sure I will work in sewing things. I could even teach the other [girls] in the community how to sew," she says with a confident smile.
Unfortunately, there are still many girls who are not so fortunate. "We are only touching the tip of the iceberg," says Pepall.
*Not her real name.