By Mira Sorvino, Special to CNN
(CNN) – My time in Cambodia is over. On the plane and beyond, it is time for me to reflect.
One journalist told me that Khmer people smile all the time, no matter how unhappy they are. It made me think of some of the smiles I saw, like that of the sweet-faced general. Behind it does he really possess the will to step up the police response to this situation, and press for the authorization for undercover authority? I hope so.
At least one of our young heroines has seen her day in court and succeeded! Even though the perpetrators were charged on lesser crimes than trafficking and were only given three years as opposed to a stiffer sentence commensurate with the most serious offenses, it is a victory. Toha's bravery has paid off – and if they receive the payments due them from their traffickers they will feel even more vindicated. Hopefully this case a harbinger of more justice to come, and will reverse the trend of dwindling human trafficking arrests and convictions. This should send a message out that Cambodia is willing to try to convict those who exploit young girls, followed by vigorous law enforcement and legal action that can truly end the impunity the criminals now enjoy.
The problem remains: how do you teach someone not to sell their child? The interviews with the mothers of our three young survivors were eye-opening. Don admits they may not be successful at reaching this generation, athough Toha’s mother openly acknowledged Don’s assistance stopping her from selling another child. “If it gets worse again, this time I know I can ask for help.”
All three mothers interviewed described crushing, insurmountable debt as the reason for their choice to sell their daughters’ virginity. The Secretary of State in charge of anti-trafficking efforts, Chou Ben Eng, says people’s mentality has changed for the worse, that “we have not seen this kind of thing before.” Still, one can question her rejection of desperate poverty being the root cause; as if that stance lets the government off the hook for having to address this massive problem. Certainly more vigorously enforcing a corruption-free educational environment for every child in Cambodia would be an important step to lifting the poorest out of such dire vulnerability. And having student-led groups like Lida's build awareness on how not to sell daughters, but also not to borrow from such usurious loaners in communities such as the floating village could help too. But something needs to be done to alleviate the great poverty.
Another equally important question: how do you teach a man not to buy a child for sexual services? Much more attention has to be paid to the demand side: a recent ECPAT- Harvard University study finds that more than 60% of the customers for underaged commercial sex were Cambodian men, not just foreign pedophiles, the popular misconception. It provides a combination of reasons: “The enabling environments of corruption and weak law enforcement, gender inequality and sexual norms, and lack of sexual education in schools and communities facilitate the sexual exploitation of children under 18.”
Hayley Welgus stressed trying to teach young boys, beginning in fourth and fifth grade, on how to view women, and what a healthy sexual relationship with a woman looks like. In addressing the men who locally buy women, not only must a law and order response be stepped up (as in most countries, the local johns who buy girls’ services are almost never arrested) but a community based, ground roots re-education be given to adult men, who may not understand the terrible harm they are inflicting on children and teenagers in the popular pursuit of male pleasure.
Sephak’s broken hearted mother Ann said of the men who buy virginity: “Those people don’t have a brain to think. They use their money to trick others… Somehow, we need to get those people so that in this world there would be no selling children, poor people won’t have to sell their children.” Empathy must somehow be inculcated. Maybe our brave girls’ breaking the silence can help do that.
I broke down crying when I returned to my husband and children. The pain I have been holding in (partially unsuccessfully, as I cried a few times during our interviews) has just overwhelmed me, knowing the terrible, terrible suffering these children and teens are enduring, the mass industry of perverse pleasure based on their rape, beatings, torture and enslavement. I know those who are rescued need years of treatment and love to build them back up, to recreate their fragile hope and give them a sense of self-worth; I cried nearly uncontrollably over all those we are failing, that are not being discovered and saved, and that almost none of us, save the Don Brewsters of the world, are doing enough to end this atrocious, disgusting destruction of lives.
But I have to return to hope, and the question I posed to Hayley about love, which was really more of an affirmation of my gut faith in the only meaningful way to approach this: “It seems the most successful ingredient of any NGO that I have worked with around the world that works with victims and survivors is love. I was struck by one survivor’s statement, "you must love people and they will eventually love you back." Love seems to be the healer as survivors make it through rehab to believe in themselves and others again.
Maybe we must find a way even to understand the people who are trafficking their own and others’ children, through love and compassion, as Don does with the neighborhood youth he transforms into kickboxing anti-trafficking advocates. That may be too much for me to swallow emotionally, but it might be the only way to come up with the best ways to eradicate this for good. Certainly our fight must not only be fueled by hatred for the act but immense love for its victims and survivors. And whenever we feel we are pushing too far, that we should be more circumspect and diplomatic, we must remember those sweet eyes and hearts opening to us, imploring us to stop this for them and all others under this cursed crime, and we must raise our voices and the fight to the highest level.