Human trafficking, also known as modern slavery, is one of the most horrific crimes committed against human beings, and according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), it affects all countries from around the world.
At a global level, human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, also known as sex trafficking, is the most prominent form of trafficking, representing 53% of the global human trade. Within sex trafficking women and girls constitute the majority of victims.
In the case of Cambodia, it has long been known for being a heaven destination for paedophiles, where finding girls to buy can be as easy as asking a tuk tuk driver or a bartender, going to a karaoke bar or even visiting an orphanage. Additionally, it is also a common practice for parents to sell their daughters into prostitution. As mentioned in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. Department of State: “The sale of virgin women and girls continues to be a problem in Cambodia.”
However, if on one side there are people who reduce human beings to a mere commodity to be explored, abused and to make profit, on the other side there are organizations made of people who care and dedicate their lives in rescuing, and helping victims of trafficking. This is the case of Agape International Missions (AIM), an NGO based in Cambodia dedicated to the fight against human trafficking.
AIM’s fight against child sex trafficking dates back to 2005 when Pastor Don Brewster and his wife Bridget visited Cambodia. After their return to the US, they were confronted with a NBC piece about child sex trafficking in the very same place where they had just been, and where, apart from poverty, apparently everything seemed normal.
The very children I held hands with and saw running in the streets were not just trying to survive poverty. Many were living in hell, enduring torture, […] I couldn’t believe it was right under my nose and I didn’t even know it. – Don
Faced with this cold reality, Don and Bridget decided to take matter into their own hands. They sold their house in the US, quit their jobs, put together a team, and moved to Cambodia with their three children.
One major aspect about AIM’s work, is that it has its own investigation team, which collaborates with the police in identifying cases of trafficking, collecting evidences and arresting the perpetrators, as well as rescuing the victims.
The results are very impressive. In 2014 alone, AIM held 149 investigations that resulted in 67 detentions and 177 victims of human trafficking assisted, among which were children women and men. Additionally, early this year, AIM investigation team together with the local police led an operation that resulted in the rescue of 8 victims, from which 5 were women and 3 were girls. Another example happened last September, in which “AIM Rescue Team and local police made the first-ever child labor ring bust in Cambodian history” that resulted in 22 children rescued and 2 traffickers detained.
It doesn’t stop here. Apart from this outstanding achievement, September was also marked by the rescue of 4 women who were being trafficked into force marriage, six girls and five women that were being sexually exploited, and in the arrest of 15 people, including traffickers and brokers.
Nonetheless, in order to break the cycle of human trafficking, AIM also has a free workout center that is attended by traffickers, and where the organization’s staff tries to reach these traffickers and enlighten them about the wrong they are doing, and hopefully, rehabilitate them as well.
Besides, having in mind a sustainable fight against trafficking, AIM also focuses on the rehabilitation and restoration of rescued victims. For this purpose, the organization gives a safe home to the girls where they can start their new life, and offers them vocational education as a basis for their later employment and independent life.
This process is particularly important when it comes to the victims’ future. Without rehabilitation and opportunities to make a better life for themselves, victims of sex trafficking risk to be trapped in an endless cycle of victimization. Seen as worthless by society, and without the tools to build a new life, such as education and employment, these girls who are in a situation of extreme vulnerability, may end up once again in the hands of traffickers.
Moreover, AIM also works towards the development of the local communities. As an example, AIM has two Rahab’s House Community Centers, where the community is provided with food, healthcare services and education. As if this wasn’t extraordinary enough, AIM Rahab’s House School was considered the best school in Cambodia after winning an inter-school competition that tested students’ abilities in various areas.
Lastly, for a closer understanding of the organization’s work, Words in the Bucket reached out to AIM, that promptly provided us the chance to do a brief interview with Julie Harrold, the Director of U.S. Operations.
We started by asking Julia some of AIM’s most touching moments. She shared with us two specific situations in AIM’s history that were, as she recalls, “major realizations”:
The first being shortly after starting the aftercare home in 2006… We were getting ready to reintegrate a young girl back into her community of Svay Pak. This village had once been lined with streets that displayed young girls in their pajamas in storefronts. After a raid shut down several brothels, we thought that was the end of it, that there was no more danger of young girls being sold for sex. The reality was that the danger had simply been pushed underground and the selling of children was still active in this little village. It was then we began to realize that in order to win against this evil, we needed to move into the village and attack with a holistic approach of Rescue, Prevention, Restoration and Reintegration.
The second moment was when the first American pedophile was brought to trial in Los Angeles in 2008 because of crimes he committed against young girls in Cambodia. We realized the bravery and courage required to testify against him. Five young Cambodian girls who had been sexually abused by this retired Marine sat bravely in front of him, a judge and jury and recalled the details of his abuse. They were, and continue to be, brave young ladies standing up against their perpetrators.
Additionally, Julie explained how Cambodia’s political past contributed to the current situation of child sex trafficking in the country, and how this can be overcome:
For AIM in Cambodia, we are dealing with a culture whose value of family was destroyed with Pol Pot’s regime. There is little value for life and children are often seen as commodities. AIM is a Christian organization centered on the desire to love each person we serve. With that in mind, we start with education to both the exploited and the exploiter – children and adults – education that teaches that they are all valuable. We love them and teach them to love and protect the vulnerable, such as children.
She continued by comparing the situation with the one is the U.S.:
The challenge in the US is the same; the value of family is broken, leaving vulnerable young boys and girls to be groomed to become exploiters, while others are being exploited. Pornography plays a tremendous part in the demand for child sex trafficking.
Despite all the advancements that have been made in combating the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation, the issue is still ongoing. But AIM is not quitting. On the contrary:
Our ultimate mission is to end sex trafficking. AIM will continue to share its model of Restoration and Reintegration with other organizations around the world. In Cambodia, we are working with NGOs who are still in the country to ensure that the rescue and restoration of enslaved girls is sustained. Additionally, we hope to expand into the US in providing aftercare and reintegration.
When asked about the hardest part of working in the fight against child sex trafficking, she answered, as one can imagine, “not being able to rescue more girls”. In this sense, Julia left an important message to all of us:
This issue takes perseverance and sacrifice. It takes commitment to freedom; starting with awareness of the issue of modern day slavery and continuing through to becoming a voice to educate others. It’s a matter of awareness of how one’s own choices either encourage or discourage slavery. Examples are as extreme as buying porn and soliciting prostitutes to the simple action of choosing to buy the cheaper t-shirt that is made in a factory that exploits their workers. Often times, these sweatshops have employees who sell themselves to make ends meet. Every person can affect change and bring an end to slavery.
This shows that we don’t need to wear a cape or have super-powers to be heroes. We all have a hero inside of us. A human hero, with human powers, and that is more than enough to make a difference.
One girl is too many. One day is too long. – Don
Ending GBV is not only about women, it is about every single human being. It is a matter of social justice. It can happen to me, to you, to all of us. Together we can end the violence, and the stigma that often surrounds the victims. I believe in a world free from GBV. Do you?