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Type of document: News
Topic: Law enforcement
Policy and Planning
Trafficking patterns
Geographic descriptors: Cambodia
Language: English
Publisher: www.iht.com
Source: www.iht.com/bin/print_ipub.php?file=/articles/2005/01/31/opinion/edkristof.html
Date of publication: 1 February 2005
Long Abstract: Yet despite the widespread belief that sex slavery is intractable and inevitable, it isn't. Look, prostitution itself will probably always be around, but we could largely stop the buying and selling of the teenagers who are routinely held in bondage in brothels from Calcutta to Belize.If this is an optimistic column, one reason is that I had originally planned to use this space differently. I had thought I would find and write about whoever had replaced Srey Neth, the teenager I had purchased for $150 and then freed a year ago.

So I climbed to the top floor of the Phnom Pich Guesthouse (past the sign asking guests not to bring in their machine guns or hand grenades) and found the room that used to be Srey Neth's world. But now the entire floor is empty. It turned out that the police had raided the guesthouse right after my columns a year ago and arrested Srey Neth's pimp. So now the local sex traffickers are more careful about peddling virgins.

There's a lesson there. In the long run the best way to address the problem is to educate girls and raise their status in society. But a law-enforcement model - sending traffickers to prison - is also very effective in reducing the worst forms of sex slavery. "It's pretty doable," said Gary Haugen, who runs International Justice Mission, a Washington-based organization that does terrific work in battling sex trafficking. "You don't have to arrest everybody. You just have to get enough that it sends a ripple effect and changes the calculations."

He added wryly that his aim is to "drive traffickers of virgin village girls to fence stolen radios instead." With that aim in mind, the West should pressure nations like Cambodia to adopt a two-part strategy. First, such nations must crack down on the worst forms of flesh-peddling. (A UN report estimated that in Asia alone, "one million children are involved in the sex trade under conditions that are indistinguishable from slavery.")

Two girls, age 4 and 6, were being quietly offered for sale in Poipet last month. That kind of child abuse can be defeated, as has been shown in the Cambodian hamlet of Svay Pak, which specialized in pedophilia. When I first visited it, 6-year-olds were served up for $3 a session, but after foreign pressure, those brothels are now shuttered.

Second, they must crack down on corrupt police officers who protect the slave traders. Here in Poipet, local people whispered to me that one brothel kept terrified young virgin girls locked up in the back, awaiting sale. So I marched in the brothel's back entrance and looked around. As it happened, this brothel was undergoing an expansion, which will make it the biggest in town, and the back rooms were all undergoing renovation and empty. But then the owner rushed in - and introduced himself as a senior police official.

I asked him if he imprisoned young girls in his brothel, and he replied: "That's impossible, because I work in the police criminal division, and so I clearly know the law." Getting countries like Cambodia to confront the sale of children is easier than one may think. I'm generally very suspicious of economic sanctions, but the U.S. State Department's office on trafficking has used the threat of sanctions very effectively to get foreign governments to take steps against trafficking (like the closing of the pedophilia brothels at Svay Pak). But it shouldn't be just one lonely office in the State Department demanding crackdowns. Where's everybody else?

On a reporting trip to Cambodia in 1996, I met a 15-year-old Cambodian girl who had been kidnapped off the street and imprisoned in a brothel. Her mother finally tracked her down, and they had a loving reunion in the brothel. But the pimp had paid good money for the girl and refused to give her up. The police protected the brothel, so the mother had to leave without her daughter.

That girl, now probably dead of AIDS, haunts me still. It was partly shame at not having intervened then that led me to breach journalistic custom last year and buy the freedom of the two sex slaves I wrote about. The solution, though, isn't to buy individual girls - that only makes trafficking more profitable - but to put traffickers behind bars.

Nearly a decade after I interviewed that girl, this scourge is poisoning more young lives than ever. I'm optimistic that we have the tools to wipe out this modern slavery - but do we have the will?
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