Children Less Visible in Sex Industry, Yet Abuse Persists

Exploitation of children in Cambodia’s commercial sex industry has reduced significantly compared to the early 2000s due to improved law enforcement, but the targeting of minors for sex remains a serious issue, and predators are changing tactics to prey on the young, according to a new report.

The report by the International Justice Mission (IJM), a U.S.-based organization, was based on visits by undercover investigators to 235 commercial sex establishments in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville in No­vem­ber 2012.

The investigators found that there are an estimated 147 minors—children below the age of 18—currently in the commercial sex industry in the three cities. Less than 20 were observed to be aged 15 or younger, according to IJM.

The IJM figures indicate that minors now account for some 7.59 percent of the commercial sex industry’s population in the three cities.

Ten years ago, minors comprised between 15.5 percent and 30 percent of the commercial sex industry in Cambodia, IJM said.

“[O]ver the last ten years the public justice system’s response to commercial sexual exploitation of children has improved significantly, contributing to a decrease of commercial sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia,” IJM stated in the report, which was released last month.

“The decrease has been noted most within the group of young minors. Interviewees perceived that the reasons for the decrease are largely due to improved law enforcement and awareness of the public,” the report continues.

Still, IJM concluded, after conducting interviews with 58 staff members of non-governmental groups and 24 government officials, that the exploitation of mi-nors in the sex industry remains a serious issue in Cambodia.

“While commercial sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia has diminished, certainly among younger minors (15 years and younger), it remains an ongoing issue. Many interviewees pointed out tactical displacement of the exploitation of minors,” the report says.

“Instead of going to a certain area or to a brothel, perpetrators depend on intermediates or networks and traffickers operate from indirect establishments such as karaoke bars, night clubs, etc. As a way of avoiding police intervention, sex rooms are not available on premises and young minors are much less likely to be openly available at these places.

“Because sex rooms are not available on premises and young minors are more carefully guarded, the growing trend in exploitation seems to be more of an ‘escort service’ operation with girls being taken to guesthouses or other locations.”

The report also highlights that because the age of consent in Cambodia is 15 years, the prostituting of minors at the borderline ages of 16 and 17 years is targeted less by police.

Interviews conducted by IJM indicate that the police in Cambodia are now “significantly better resourced and equipped, better trained on investigative and interview techniques…and are substantially more responsive to sex trafficking cases reported by Cambodian citizens.”

However, it notes that even though the legal framework has improved on paper, the work of prosecutors and judges investigating cases of child prostitution and trafficking has not improved at the same pace.

There is still a “lack of integrity and ongoing impunity issues for the rich and powerful. A lack of mutual respect and understanding exists between police, prosecutors and investigating judges hampering a fruitful cooperation,” the report states.

Lisa Slavovsky, director of aftercare for IJM in Cambodia, said that while the findings of the survey do highlight a major shift in the dynamics of children in the sex industry, efforts to eradicate child prostitution and trafficking are still needed.

“IJM had seen these shifts for the past couple of years within our casework, so it was interesting for us to see the research data and stakeholder perspective also supporting the view that sexual exploitation is greatly shifting, with the trafficking and exploitation of young minors greatly decreasing and much harder to find, and the efforts of law enforcement vastly improving,” Ms. Slavovsky said.

“[W]hile we are profoundly encouraged by the significant progress that has been made in combating trafficking in this country, the fight is not over yet. Minors can still be found being exploited in entertainment establishments,” she added.

For example, an estimated 6.6 percent of sex workers in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville were estimated to be between 16 and 17 year old, or young adults of 18 years or older.

As a result, IJM is recommending a more comprehensive ap­proach to address the issue of 16- and 17-year-olds being exploited through establishments where sex is not happening on site, and where the criminal link to exploitation cannot be as easily proven due to the age of consent being 15 in Cambodia.

Sarah Bearup, country director of Hagar, which supports both male and female victims of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual exploitation, said the research showed the need for organizations working in the area to think more seriously about how they are going to help victims of sexual exploitation in a post-brothel era.

“From Hagar’s perspective, it’s a helpful piece of research in terms of understanding the shift from brothel-based prostitution to street and more underground forms of sexual exploitation,” she said. “The question for all of us in this sector is how do we address the fact that there are major risks at an underground and street-based level. It’s less obvious, subtle forms of transaction” that are now taking place.

She also said that due to the growing debate on what is considered sexual exploitation, and what is voluntary sex work, NGOs need to consider who ex­actly they are helping and why.

“I know there are discussions taking place in Australia and the United States on reviewing the requirements and reviewing the definition of sexual exploitation,” she said.

Chin Chanveasna, executive director of the NGO End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking, said identifying children in the sex industry has become an arduous task as there are next to no brothels openly selling child sex left in Cambodia.

But like IJM, he said children are still in danger of being exploited for sex through more hidden channels.

“I believe they are exploited in a more invisible way. I still believe that the number does not drop, but the way they operate is a bit different from the last decade,” he said. “They are operating in different locations like coffee shops and barber shops. When the customer approaches, you can negotiate. It is very hard to identify those that behave that way.”

He added that there were also difficulties in identifying the true age of some of the girls working in the sex industry.

“In the transition age [between a minor and an adult], sometimes we cannot find the exact age. I believe sometimes they are below 15, but they claim they are over 15,” he said.

The IJM report also notes the huge disparity in donor funding for projects dealing with child victims of the sex industry, which receives the most attention, while there is a serious lack of funding for child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation outside the narrow confines of the country’s brothels, massage and karaoke parlors.

“NGOs have received a lot of financial support to provide aftercare services to female child sex trafficking victims. However, funding is lacking for aftercare of victims of crimes that fall outside the narrow, donor-defined definitions, such as rape, domestic violence or when the victim does not fall within the target group, for example boys,” the IJM report states.

“Cases of rape and violence against children should be linked with sex trafficking and with the broader child protection system or gender equity efforts in Cambodia,” the report adds.

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