Foreign Policy Blogs

Child Sex Tourism in Cambodia

Child Sex Workers

This weekend I was trying desperately to avoid work and all that comes with it, but when you work in the NGO world work is hard to avoid. There I was desperately trying to decompress from a long week at my job working for an anti-child trafficking organization, but I couldn’t escape. I flip the channel over to CNN and there was Anderson Cooper reporting on the child sex industry in Cambodia. The series Invisible Chains, Sex Work and Slavery was reporting in-depth on the industry in Cambodia, an industry that so many blatantly ignore, including the government. Yes, it is against the law, but the law seems to have little jurisdiction on the streets of Cambodia and it offers little protection or hope for the children who are chained to its streets. The industry is right there in your face no matter what direction you turn, children some as young as five, are displayed right on the edge of the street day and night. This report isn’t the first one of its kind on Cambodia, Dateline NBC did a series in 2004, but sadly the situation has changed little over the past few years. UNICEF claims approximately 33,000 children in Cambodia are active in the sex trade. In a recent article, “UNICEF blasts child porn business in Cambodia”, the outrage was made clear, but will it have any effect? I am left to be a bit of a pessimist, as the Cambodian government knows clear and well what is going on and as they have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, they know they are in violation. It is especially clear when looking at “the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, which obligate it to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”

Some of Cambodia’s dirty little secrets came to light when in 2002 British Rocker Gary Glitter was charged for having sex with minors and evicted from the country. Needless to say Gary Glitter and so many like him just find a new place to go and that is exactly what he did. We latter saw him in the news last year after going to Vietnam where he was again in the spot light. But Gary is not alone in his quest for young children. In an article by The Independent on Sunday, January 5, 2003 by Kathy Marks in Phnom Penh. Marks illustrated how vibrant, cheap, easy and open the child sexual market was.

“In Svay Pak, business is conducted quite brazenly. Twenty brothels, each sealed by a padlocked iron grille, line the potholed dirt track that is the shanty town’s main street. Step inside any of the brick shop fronts and the papasan – pimp – will produce a girl or boy to suit any whim. Oral sex costs $5 (pounds 3.20); $500 buys a six-year-old for a week.”

Anderson Cooper also had Nicolas Kristof, the famed New York Times reporter on the show. Kristof has himself been reporting on the issue in Cambodia for a number of years now, even buying the freedom of two girls there. Unfortunately one of them returned quickly back to her brothel, as she had sub come to her drug addiction. Kristof himself admitted much of the problem was that the numbers where too high and people cannot care about numbers, but they could care about one child. Therefore we are faced with the hardening reality that hearing a million children are suffering does little to pull the emotional heart strings, but to show a video of a child would grab a tear or two. I guess myself and all the others out there in the NGO world or in the field desperately need more Anderson Coopers and Nicolas Kristof’s to make are job a little easier. How said is it we have become so TV obsessed in society that we won’t even react to millions of starving and suffering around the world unless we see it on TV first? It’s hard to fathom how one child can endure so much, torture and so much mental anguish day after day, year after year. A daily life consists of mental abuse and rape, and so often gang rape, beatings and so much more. No one child should ever live that fate for an hour, a day, a year; but for many of these children this is the fate of the rest of their lives.  This fate is the only life many will ever know, however short it may be.

It is estimated that over one million children are victims of sex tourism a year. The sad reality is that these children have no life at all; they don’t get to go play ball in the streets or play with their dolls. They are used as toys for the sick and greedy, the men and woman who have bought and sold them, chaining them to this horrid fate. The life of a child who is a sex slave is dramatically cut short and the fate as a slave is all many will ever know. A child who is held as a sex worker is faced not only with beatings and a fate not fit for the small body of a child, but they are heavily exposed to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases that will enviably go untreated. Many still believe that sleeping with a virgin will cure AIDS and the younger the more potent the cure. Condoms are increasing in use, but they are still rarely used or made available to sex workers. But for many it is not just the sexually transmitted disease that take over their little bodies, but also drugs. Drugging a child is one way to keep them in these “invisible’ chains, and so addiction is just another fight many children must now face. The only hope for these children is more reports to the mainstream, increased education, public advocacy, lobbing both within the US and overseas. Countries like Cambodia haven’t really cracked down on the pimps and Johns, for multiple reasons.  One such reason is that more often than not the local law enforcement are involved in this lucrative trade. Another reason the fight is so hard is the endless streams of Westerners who flood the country in search of cheap sex and so many come for the young and even younger each year. An underdeveloped country cannot deny the economic benefits that all the western pedophiles bring with them.

All I could think as I tried to sleep and rest over the weekend was that I was undeniably working for the right cause. For I know that these programs are only a reminder to me of how desperate the situation of human slavery is for millions of mostly woman and children around the world every day, but for so many others this was just an eye opener. But I am personally happy to see the increase in coverage on this issue for too many people think that human slavery is an issue of the past, but the unfortunate and cold truth is it is very much alive today and it is not looking to disappear anytime soon. The scary thought is that human slavery in our modern world is on the increase. Why are humans becoming one of the most traded commodities on the planet? The trade in humans is only surpassed by the trade in arms and drugs. But I will wait for another day to explore this topic more and for now I will leave you with some links to go over and that question in your mind.

Relevant blogs:

Anderson Cooper 360 Blog Counter PunchDaily Kos

Read more on:

US State Department on Child Sex TourismEnd Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking in Cambodia ILO

Stop Child Trafficking

The Emancipation Network

Polaris Project

Free the Slaves

American Assistance of Cambodia


U.S. State Dept. – Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons

Amnesty International: Women’s Human Rights Network

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

Girls Educational and Mentoring Services

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Check out the movie, The Day My God Died, for a nice eye opening experience.



Cassandra Clifford

Cassandra Clifford is the Founder and Executive Director of Bridge to Freedom Foundation, which works to enhance and improve the services and opportunities available to survivors of modern slavery. She holds an M.A., International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland, as well as a B.A., Marketing and A.S., Fashion Merchandise/Marketing from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Cassandra has previously worked in both the corporate and charity sector for various industries and causes, including; Child Trafficking, Learning Disabilities, Publishing, Marketing, Public Relations and Fashion. Currently Cassandra is conducting independent research on the use of rape as a weapon of war, as well as America’s Pimp Culture and its Impact on Modern Slavery. In addition to her many purists Cassandra is also working to develop a series of children’s books.

Cassandra currently resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where she also writes for the Examiner, as the DC Human Rights Examiner, and serves as an active leadership member of DC Stop Modern Slavery.

Areas of Focus:
Children's Rights; Human Rights; Conflict