By Mira Sorvino, Special to CNN
Siem Reap, Cambodia (CNN) –Today we drove two hours north in rural Cambodia to meet with a group of student activists. As we arrived at the school, we saw a group of bright green t-shirted teenagers at a picnic table under a tree. Our youth leader, Han Hunlida (nickname: Lyly), was instructing her peers on their plan of action for the day: split into groups of four and go door-to-door in the community to share information about human trafficking and how not to become its victims.
This region, Banteay Meanchey, is a crossroads for Cambodians migrating for work into Thailand and Malaysia. They are all at great risk for being trafficked by wily recruiters, who prey on impoverished people desperate for work, without local savvy or support.
Lida, 16, is a tiny powerhouse. Inspired by a Somaly Mam Foundation visiting lecturer at her school two years ago, she is a Cambodian girl taking stewardship of her country and its future. I was stirred by her palpable compassion for the vulnerable and victimized. She emanated a kind of unstoppable positivity; her compatriots looked up to her, sharing in a powerful movement towards change. They were humble and excited at the same time and – very encouragingly – there were teenaged boys with them, not only girls.
Back at the hotel, I sat down with Haley Welgus, a women’s studies expert from the Somaly Mam Foundation, to piece together my understanding of the situation. She said many in the generation of the aftermath of the terrible Khmer Rouge regime (which in the 1970s killed up to 2 million people) grew up without families. There is a need to teach boys how to treat and value women in a healthy sexual relationship – and teach girls they have rights. This would combat the relatively low societal status of women and girls. She also felt an infusion of more female police officers would really help victims who are uncomfortable relating their trauma to a male officer.
We talked about the enormous challenges education-wise; my belief that the enforcement of a universal mandatory education would help solve things will have to go hand-in-hand with the establishment of an education not predicated on bribery. it is not enough that schools are currently being built, but teachers must be paid enough and vetted so they do not charge students for the honor of being taught; currently if many do not receive payoffs they will withhold some of the syllabus so students cannot pass their exams, or a child will go to school only to sit in an empty classroom.
I wondered how she and others can stay positive in the face of all this (she said they have recently seen victims as young as THREE YEARS OLD). Patience is required, she said, and also respect for different treatment methods (the West favors talk therapy, where some of the therapeutic solutions here are non-verbal). Inspiration mainly comes from the success stories of survivors and youth leaders like Lida.
The seeds being planted here could be profound – with the right support, teen activists could lead a national movement that wouldn’t require much financial backing. The wildfire spread of student abolitionism and awareness could make a big dent in trafficking in just a few years. It is a big hope, especially if social media is more vigorously developed to go along with it (a Facebook page could be next for the official program – Lida already has one!)
She mentioned that Somaly Mam has the support of the First Lady. I suggested that maybe Somaly’s influence with the prime minister’s wife could lead to the endorsement of the SDG (Student Development Group that Lida is a part of) as a nationwide movement; every secondary school could have a chapter. I am looking for innovative ideas that don’t demand large checks being written that I am afraid won’t be.
That night we went on a walkabout of downtown Siem Reap. During that time I asked an experienced Cambodian man if he thought government officials at high levels are invested in the business of human trafficking, if that’s why it's not stopping.
"It may be true what you say… we are hearing things,” he told me. “You see, in Cambodia today, the honest people get put in jail but the bad people exist in freedom."
He also explained our failure to find the kind of KTVs where you see the girls on display out in the open, is because this is the big tourist town, and they don't want tourists to see this kind of thing. "The old grandmas might be offended," he said. However when we decided to test the waters to see if we could find “very young girls” for sale our cameraman was propositioned by a shifty looking man in the middle of Pub Street. A tuk-tuk driver was at the ready to take him to fulfill that search. Not out in the open, but easily accessed.