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Cambodia is in Southeastern Asia bordering the coast of Thailand between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The Capital is Phnom Penh and it’s estimated population is 13,607,069. Cambodia’s Government is a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The religions are majority Buddhists followed by Cham Muslims and Catholics.

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia. The King placed the country under French protection in 1863. Cambodia became part of French Indochina in 1887. Following Japanese occupation in World War II, Cambodia gained full independence from France in 1953. In April 1975, after a five-year struggle Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh and evacuated all cities and towns. At least 2 million Cambodians died from brutal execution, forced hardships, or starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot, the ruler of the Khmer Rouge.

A December 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside, began a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, and touched off almost 13 years of civil war. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, which was not fully respected by the Khmer Rouge. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some stability under a coalition government.

The remaining members of the Khmer Rouge surrendered in early 1999. And some of the remaining leaders are still awaiting trial by a UN-sponsored tribunal for crimes against humanity. Elections in July 2003 were relatively peaceful, but it took one year of negotiations between contending political parties before a coalition government was formed. Nation-wide local elections are scheduled for 2007 and national elections for 2008.

Life expectancy at birth: (2005 est.)
Total population: 58.87 years
Male: 55.92 years
Female: 61.96 years

Definition: age 15 and over can read and write
Total population: 69.4%
Male: 80.8%
Female: 59.3% (2002)

Theravada Buddhist 95% (other 5%)

Khmer (official) 95%, French, English

Age structure: (2005 est.)
0-14 years: 37.3%
15-64 years: 59.7%
65 years and over: 3.1%

HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS:
Adult prevalence rate: 2.6% (2003 est.)
People living with HIV/AIDS: 170,000 (2003 est.)
Deaths: 15,000 (2003 est.)

GNP per capita: (2004 est.)

What was the story I was covering?
In August of 2006 I took my first trip to Cambodia. Plan USA ( asked me to document the child trafficking situation and give them an update on Plan’s involvement. in helping those who are being trafficked. The challenge was far greater than I ever imagined. However learning more about this tragic issue educated me on an ongoing problem that exists around the world.

There is no specific program in Plan Cambodia on this issue however they are trying to partner with a local NGO (non-government organization) so they can get more involved. Plan used to work with AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) but ended the partnership when they felt that it was not the best match for them. They are meeting with other local NGO’s and have expressed interest in another NGO called LICADHO. (see below)

As you can only imagine, child trafficking is an extremely sensitive issue. It involves all layers of corruption as well as the stigma around the issue and that is very hard to forget. Families are shamed after their daughters are trafficked. Sometime the whole village is shamed. Then there is the issue of how the actual “trafficking” happens. Sometimes it may be the innocence of a girl who takes a “short-term” labor job outside of the country only to be traded in as a sex slave never knowing if and when she will be able to go home. Sadly it can also be the parent or a close friend that “sends” the girl to this job for a payment. Government officials in Cambodia violate the law many times making it hard to know whom to truly trust.

Prum Thary, Plan Cambodia’s Child Right’s Advisor tells me there are 88,000 women and girls are trafficked to Thailand for commercial exploitation and other purposes. The children are trafficked to all neighboring countries like: Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. To date there are records that the trafficked children are 30-35% sex workers between 12-17years old. And remember no one really knows how accurate these records are. As I have mentioned the majority of trafficking is under multiple disguises and betrayals. Many brothels are disguised as restaurants or massage parlors. There are stories of brothel owners coming “in disguise” to families and asking the father of the house if his daughter will come work for him to welcome people into the “house”. He will pay her $200-$400 for one year’s work. What ends up happening is that she is not a “welcoming committee” but a sex slave daily to many men under extremely unsafe and unhealthy conditions. She also has no idea if she will ever make it home alive.

Later on that day Sakina (Plan Cambodia’s Communications Manager) was able to make a last minute appointment with the Director of LICADHO. LICADHO is a local NGO that works with child trafficking issues and Plan is thinking of partnering with them. The Director and Assistant, Yie Vaorack and Chao Leak Vanna told me about their ongoing program. They started in 1992. Their main focus is to monitor ongoing investigations, follow up with prisoner research (they do a lot of advocacy on human rights violations in prison) as well as securing abuse against children. One issue that the Director said was more common than child trafficking was LAND GRABBING. This is when higher officials come in and take your land from you. Sometimes they pay a small fee, sometimes they pay nothing. If someone looses their land they loose everything. They loose their source of income and food supply, as well as loosing “face” in the community.

Many times there will be child trafficking because of the results of loosing their land. The mother or father will feel like they have no option but to sell their daughter in order to make some money to survive. Many times they will meet with families to help find the missing girls. Most the trafficked children are girls from the age of 14-17years old. It is very easy to cross the border in Cambodia. The laws have not really been enforced. Many of the girls do not have birth registration forms so it will be harder to find them. And many of them travel quickly from province to province making it even more challenging to find them. Another issue is that many times higher (gov’t) officials are perhaps suspected to be involved so chances are those girls will never be found. LICADHO searches for the missing girls with support from the police and other local NGO’s. They need a lot of support to go into a brothel. The Director says sometimes because it takes too long to get the information about the missing girl(s), it may be too late to save them. But the most challenging aspect of their work lately has been the land grabbing issue that seems to be escalating.

There are prevention workshops and training for the parents and community to teach them about the law and children’s rights. They also teach the parents why it is not good to sell your child. You might want to take a second to re-read that last sentence. And then realize in each country and culture around the world there are things that may go on that would shock and terrify us. But at the end of the day for me it is all about protecting the children from these horrific experiences that should never ever be happening to them in the first place. So if these workshops with training and education can actually help change the mindset of the parents, then it is a value beyond words. I personally applaud all the NGO’s in Cambodia that are brave and passionate enough to dedicate their life’s work to this very challenging issue

My final thoughts

I have always wanted to go Cambodia. One of the reasons was because I always wanted to visit a country that was majority Buddhist. While I am not a Buddhist my sister is and over the years I have learned a lot about the religion and it’s practice through her. More importantly I wanted to witness how a country that had tragically lost 2 million of its people, so brutally, could ever survive let alone be a peaceful Buddhist country. The Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, were responsible for the 2 million Cambodians that died by starvation, torture and execution. But the people that I met in Cambodia were loving, calm and peaceful people. While they were all more than eager to tell me “their” own stories during that time, they did not seem to hold onto the rage or anger, that one would completely understand and expect. Perhaps that was the gift of their Buddhist beliefs.

I have a photo above my desk of 3 little pre-school girls smiling and saying hello with their hands in prayer form, close to their heart (a traditional Cambodian way to greet others). It resembles so much of what I will remember of the beautiful Cambodian people that I met during the summer of 2006.


faces of tomorrow, photographs by diana barnett