Cambodia Culture

Many people, when they think of sex trafficking, have a limited view of what this form of exploitation entails. One common image that may come to mind is of a small child, kidnapped from her parents or purchased from a rural village in Vietnam, transported over the border to Cambodia and sold to foreign men in a dirty brothel along with hundreds of other girls. While this perception is not wrong, the truth is that it is only one of many examples of sex trafficking in Cambodia.

Today, you will read briefly about some of the most common forms of sex trafficking in Cambodia, but it is important first that you deal with one very common but displaced stigma on women and children in prostitution. Prostitution, in Cambodia and in the rest of the world, goes hand-in-hand with sex trafficking. Sex trafficking, as a crime, exists where a person who is underage 64 or by force, fraud or coercion, has been purchased and sold for sex—there is no requirement that the person be transported.

This means that not only are kidnapping victims who are bought and sold for sex considered victims of trafficking, but also any person in prostitution who is being controlled by a pimp or brothel owner should be considered a trafficking victim as well. Furthermore, coercion takes many forms—any person who is in prostitution because of poverty, economic coercion, racism, a lack of alternatives because of other stigmas or limitations placed upon her (she is the child of prostitution, a minority, a non-citizen, an orphan, a victim of sexual abuse, etc.) is trafficked. What may appear to be “choice” by a woman or child to sell sex is actually coercion by the circumstances of their lives and depravity of their society.

It is crucial that we avoid placing stigma or judgment on any person we see in systems of prostitution or trafficking because these are the very women and children you are going to Cambodia to serve. Some of them will be easier to love than others, but it is important that you remember the circumstances in their lives that have led them to where they are today.

Trafficking in Cambodia, as elsewhere in the world, takes many forms. The following are typical examples of a few:

  • Child trafficking: Svay Pak, where AIM operates Rahab’s House I and II, the AIM Employment Center, Lord’s Gym, and the Rahab’s House School, was known as the epicenter of child sex trafficking in Cambodia. Tourists from all over the world would travel to Svay Pak, about eleven kilometers outside of Phnom Penh,65 to purchase the youngest and most vulnerable for sex. Most of the children being bought and sold in Svay Pak came from Vietnam, rural Cambodia, or Svay Pak itself. Most were typically taken through fraud or coercion from their families, though some families may well know what is happening and are complicit in the exploitation. Until about 2005, children were sold out of brothels to pedophiles, but after many of these brothels were raided by police, traffickers developed new tactics. Svay Pak is no longer the epicenter it once was, but trafficking still persists, albeit more covertly. Now, when pedophiles would come into town, a trafficker negotiates meeting places and prices for the child to be exploited elsewhere.
  • Massage Parlor Trafficking: Many young women and children are also exploited in massage parlors. Most of the young women in massage parlors are older than the children exploited in Svay Pak, and their coercion takes a different form. When customers, both foreign and domestic, come to the massage parlor, prices and terms are negotiated. While the massage parlor may offer massages, other forms of sexual conduct may also be available for customers to request. The women who work at these massage parlors are typically expected to meet customers’ requests, regardless of whether they want to or not, because it helps to earn the massage parlor more revenue than basic massage services.
  • Karaoke bars are now one of the most common forms of entertainment and exploitation in Cambodia. Karaoke bars employ young women to keep customers entertained while they sing karaoke. In most bars, sex doesn’t occur on the premises, but customers negotiate meeting places and times with bar managers or the young women. Women are expected to make and keep these appointments, and they have to pay fees to the karaoke bar, their drivers, and often the hotels where the meetings occur. Holding these appointments off-premises allows bar owners to claim that they are not brothels, but in most cases, women are forced by their employers, at times with physical violence, to make and take “dates,” even with customers who appear very dangerous. Many women and girls working at karaoke bars appear to be able to come and go as they please, but they often have pressure from their families to work there in order to send money home. While it may appear that it is their choice to be there, it is important to understand that family pressure keeps them there as well as cultural stigma if they try to leave and seek employment elsewhere.
  • Beer gardens are essentially bars or clubs where customers come to socialize, drink and party. Similar to karaoke bars, young women are employed to serve customers in beer gardens, and customers often make arrangements with the women or managers to meet off-premises. Like in karaoke bars, the women have little say in refusing customers, and while they have the freedom to quit their work at the beer garden, because of the social stigma placed on them for having engaged in that work, they are often left with few other opportunities. Furthermore, like the girls working at karaoke bars, most of them are there because of family pressure to make money to send home.

AIM does outreach to and works with young women and children who have been subjected to trafficking in each of these different forms. Even where it may appear to be a young woman’s choice to remain where she is, it is important that you understand that the coercion and circumstances for why she is there vary. Rahab’s House-Siem Reap is located within walking distance of a karaoke bar and was started specifically to reach out to girls in these bars throughout the city. The center holds medical clinics, runs a beauty salon, offers ESL and other types of classes, and provides opportunities for the girls to leave the karaoke bars if they do not want to return (see page 32 of the Appendix for more information about Rahab’s House-Siem Reap). The volunteers and staff in Siem Reap are dedicated to demonstrating consistent and ongoing love for the girls trafficked in the karaoke bars, and it has been through this type of consistent presence and outreach that they have begun to make an impact in the community and have seen many girls begin to transition out of the bars.

Read John 8:3-11. It is not your place to pass judgment, nor is it your place to think of yourself as higher than you ought. Remember from earlier days in this devotional that you are not going to Cambodia to rescue, to pity, or to look down upon those you have come to serve, but rather that you are going in order to serve and to glorify God.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What are my preconceived notions about sex trafficking in Cambodia?
  • What are my preconceived notions about the people to whom we will be ministering?
  • How do I serve and love without judgment or bias and with a humble heart?

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64 The term “underage” means under the age of consent, or the age at which an individual can legally consent to sex. This age varies from state to state and is set by law. For the purposes of this devotional, it is enough to consider at what age you might think your daughters, sisters, friends, etc. are old enough to understand what it means to engage in sexual relations and, in particular, to sell their bodies to others for sex.
65 Svay Pak is also known as “K11” or Kilometer 11 because of its distance from Phnom Penh.

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