Warnings such as this one are being advertised on guidebooks and maps for tourists in Cambodia
Sex with children is a crime
When I read the local newspaper everyday, there is at least one reported case of child sexual abuse. This is when I realise the gravity of this crime in Cambodia and intend to do something about it.
Everyday, local children as young as 8 years old are being sexually exploited by foreign tourists and some, are assisted by their own families who sell them for economic gain. Such crimes are particularly rampant in touristic areas such Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
While the government has taken a more vigilant approach to deal with the issue; eg. prosecuting offenders and their abettors, and carrying out nation wide campaigns with the assistance of international and local NGOs (such as the one seen on the picture on top. Some tuk-tuk drivers wear shirts carrying anti-child sexual abuse slogans on their back to show their solidarity for the cause. They also act as watchdogs by reporting suspicious customers.), it now faces a new challenge in regards to the newly amended law on sexual offences.
It is however a misconception that all child sexual crimes are being committed by foreigners alone. For the benefit of this article in view of the significant number of cases involving tourists, I shall focus only on child exploitation by foreigners.
Child sexual abuse does not discriminate. It can happen to boys as well as girls.
Below are real account of cases documented by international NGO Action Pour Les Enfants working in combating child sexual abuse in Cambodia. Names of the persons have been changed to protect their identities.
"Vichet and Douen, both fifteen years old, were abused by the same foreigner, James, when they were twelve years old. James had approached each of them near New Market in Phnom Penh and offered to buy them food. This started a relationship during which James bought them food and clothing, allowed them to sleep in his hotel room, and took them on holidays all over the country. Neither Vichet nor Douen were aware that James was grooming them in order to have a sexual relationship with them. They simply thought he was a good 'godfather'. Vichet was first abused by James approximately six months after meeting him. Douen was abused approximately twelve months after first meeting James. Both times, James used the same technique to ensure the children complied with his advances. After taking them on a holiday outside of Phnom Penh to a remote province, James told the boys that if they did not have sex with him, he would leave them in the province without money to return to Phnom Penh and they would remain stranded there. Both boys were frightened and complied with his wishes. They were each paid $10USD per sexual encounter. When James was subsequently arrested and charged with ‘debauchery’ under Cambodian law, three other boys testified alongside Vichet and Douen to similar use of grooming methods by James."
"Meng aged ten, moved to Sihanoukville from Battambang with his mother and eight siblings when he was eight years old. His father had been killed in a landmine accident. Meng has been working as a beggar on the streets to earn money for his mother since moving to Sihanoukville and started sniffing glue with his street friends shortly after arriving in the town. Some nights Meng sleeps on the streets as his mother does not allow him to come home unless he has earned enough money for her. Meng was first sexually abused by John at the age of nine, when the John approached him at a local petrol station late at night. Meng was later abused by another foreigner, Daniel, a friend of John, who approached Meng late at night in the same place and showed him a $20USD note and requested that Meng go with him to his house. Meng agreed to go with him so he would have money to give to his mother. Daniel was subsequently arrested for abusing Meng and several other children, and is at this time awaiting trial."
Why is this happening?
There are four predominant reasons why child sexual abuse is so prevalent in Cambodia.
Firstly, a significant percentage of the population live below the poverty line. As such, many children are forced to work in order to contribute to the family's income. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Secondly, due to the above, it makes the children accessible to sexual predators since they spend substantial amount of time on the street; begging, working in tourist-orientated places, shoe shining, collecting garbage and performing other labour activities.
Thirdly, the culture of impunity pervades the law enforcement and judicial institutions in Cambodia. This is significantly enhanced by the recent amendments and passing of sexual offence laws in Cambodia whereby sentences imposed on sexual abuses have been reduced substantially.
Fourth but perhaps not lastly, since Thailand and Philippines have stepped up on their efforts in combating child sexual crimes, Cambodia has become the new target.
But before everything is said and done, it is equally important to study and understand the behaviour of offenders.
Not all child sexual offenders are paedophiles
There is a common public misconception that all child sexual offenders are paedophiles. According to the NGO EXPAT (End Child Prostitution, Abuses and Trafficking), it is more accurate to refer those who have been convicted for child sexual crime as child sex offenders instead of paedophiles. Someone who is capable of committing such crime may not be a paedophile and someone who is a paedophile may not be capable of committing such act.
For instance, offenders may be categorised into two types; situational and preferential. For the former, children may be targeted as sexual substitutes for adult partnership due to the fact that children are more vulnerable and easier to manipulate and exploit. According to the FBI Behavioural Science Unit of the United States of America, situational child sex offenders are over-represented by lower socio-economic groups and have low self-esteem.
As for preferential child sex offenders, their actions are manifestation of a personality disorder known as hebephilia which refers to an adult's sexual preference for pubescent youths. Paedophilia on another level, refers to an adult's sexual preference for prepubescent children.
Research conducted in the United Kingdom and United States of America indicated that one of the most common characteristics exhibited by child sex offenders was their distortion of belief and attitude towards specific cultures relating to sexuality. For example, some offenders will qualify their actions by firmly believing that girls are sexually mature at an earlier age in certain cultures. They portray children as being responsible for their own abuse, their actions as harmless and that the children consent to the abuse. Such distortions allow the offenders to delude themselves that the child gains benefit from such actions; i.e. we are only helping the child out by giving money.
According to EXPAT, treatment programmes that challenge these cognitive distortions and encourage development of empathy with the children have met with some success.
Not all child sex offenders are men
Although the percentage of reported child sexual crimes committed by men are significantly higher than women, it doesn't mean that it is a crime committed exclusively by men.
According to EXPAT, the idea that women may exploit children became apparent in the 1970s when single women from North America picked up "beach boys" as their companions in the Caribbean. More recently, Western European women have been known to visit South East Asia for such encounters.
In many cultures, sexual relations with older women are often considered to be a 'rite of passage' for young boys. However, when the boy is prepubescent, injections of hormones or similar chemicals into the testicles may be necessary and leave painful side effects.
When this happens, it is sexual abuse and not a rite of passage.
What does the law say about this?
Previously, all forms of sexual offences were bundled up together under one law, termed as the crime of debauchery in Cambodia, which carried a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, if committed against a minor (under 16).
Now, with the recent amendments and passing of the new law, sexual offences are specifically defined and sentences are being imposed in proportion to the offences convicted. While this makes legal sense, it has also contributed to the reduction of sentences in many child sexual cases where sexual penetration is not proven.
The law now states that, in cases of rape where sexual penetration occurs, the sentence imposed is 10 years imprisonment and for other indecent act, 1- 3 years. Any appeals of old cases will now apply the new law.
This law has understandably created much outrage in local and international NGOs working on combating child sexual abuses. First of all, the law provides the impression that it is a lesser crime to sexually molest a child. It is as if to say that if a person forces a child to perform oral sex, it is not so serious. Or, if a person touches the private parts of a child, it cannot be as bad as having sexual intercourse.
Secondly, 17 child sexual offenders who were convicted last year will now have their sentences reduced. The recent example is Russian man, Alexander Trofimov, who was convicted of having sex with a 14-year old, one of the 19 girls he allegedly abused, and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment earlier this year is now being released. An American who was previously convicted and sentenced to 12 years are now facing 2 1/2 years while a Swiss who was sentenced to 11 years are now facing a new jail term of 2 1/2 years after appeals.
In 2006, a Belgian who was convicted and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for sexually assaulting a 13 year old boy will now serve a 3 year sentence.
For this, many believe and agree that such amendments to the law will serve as a backlash to all the efforts which have been made previously to arrest and prosecute offenders.
Who is responsible for this?
While the responsibility of prosecuting offenders falls mainly on Cambodia, the international community shares equal responsibility in combating such crimes due to the fact that child sexual crimes are internationally recognised. In a midst of major international crackdown on child pornography by many countries, some countries like United States of America and Germany are taking additional efforts in issuing warnings to nationals travelling to Cambodia. USA has also begun to prosecute nationals who are accused of such crimes on foreign soils.
In California, Michael Joseph Pepe, a retired US Marine Captain, is recently facing a potential sentence of 210 years, if convicted of having sex with 7 Cambodian girls aged 9 to 12 while he was working as a teacher in Cambodia. He had allegedly hired a prostitute to help him procure the children from their families in 2005 and 2006. The victims were flown from Phnom Penh to the federal courtroom in Los Angeles to provide statements. According to some of the statements given by the victims, they were drugged, bound, beaten and raped.
Such international cooperation in adopting a zero tolerance policy against child sexual crimes is a significant step in ensuring that tourists who visit Cambodia with the intention of committing such heinous act on children will not go unpunished, especially in view of the culture of impunity here.
However, not all countries share similar sentiments. Russia and Japan, for instance, had gone the opposite way by paying off the fines imposed on their citizens so that the offenders could escape punishment and return to their native lands scot free.
A silent cry for help
The tale of terror and courage told by Somaly Mann, a former victim of child sexual crime, is both heart wrenching as well as inspiring. Somaly was sold to a brothel in Cambodia as a teenager and she now runs a shelter which provides rescued girls education, job skills and work.
In her recently published memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, she gave a vivid account of her traumatizing life as an orphan who was adopted by a man who then sold her to a brothel. When she tried to escape, she was gang raped by the police, held at gun point and then beaten by her "owner". She endured being tied down naked and poured live maggots all over her skin and inside her mouth. Despite such terror, she remained strong and finally escaped the yoke of sexual slavery.
She is determined to change the life of other girls who share similar fate with her.
Women like Somaly are rare. Many do not stand a chance at all to seek justice and return to a life of some what normal due to shame or fear of grave physical abuse and potential death incurred by the offenders.
We can help to change this if we listen to their silent cry for help and do something about it.
We are all guardians of children
Children are our future and hope. We protect them, not just because of their age, but because they are all essentially innocent and vulnerable. Without the ability to make informed decisions as well as limited capacity to defend themselves, we as adults, have the responsibilities to protect their rights.
We live in a world where we cannot begin to define and make sense of the various atrocities committed on human beings every single day.However, with children, there is a hope for a change by helping them to maintain their innocence and the potential to become adults free from the ugly scars left by monsters marking the end of humankind.
You can help to be a part of this change.
If you know someone who is either guilty or suffering from child sexual abuse, report this to relevant authorities or organisations dealing with such issues so that they can carry out investigations and take necessary actions.
Share this information with others so that they too can play a part.
Look at the faces above. These children are each potentially capable of being targets and victims of sexual abuse.
Do they deserve this?
Written on 29 September 2008