The commercial exploitation of children for sex has decreased significantly since 2012, according to the results of a new study released by the International Justice Mission (IJM) this week, but other child protection agencies warned that the findings could be misleading.
Undercover IJM agents visited 287 commercial sex establishments in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap City and Sihanoukville for the study and identified 2014 individuals available for sex. Thirty-eight of them were minors, representing a 73 percent decrease from the 147 identified in a similar study in 2012.
In what the IJM labeled Cambodia’s three largest commercial sex markets, it also found just two girls aged 15 or younger, compared to less than 20 three years ago.
“The picture of very young girls being removed from horrific brothels in the Cambodian village of Svay Pak is seared in the minds of the global community as an example of the horrors of sex trafficking worldwide, but this picture is no longer a reality,” Sharon Cohn Wu, the senior vice president of justice system transformation for the IJM, said in a statement accompanying the data.
“Cambodia has progressed, and we need to tell the updated story of children rescued and restored, perpetrators apprehended and punished, anti-trafficking police being trained and equipped, and effective deterrence established,” she said.
But while the IJM report showed fewer minors being sold for sex, Don Brewster, the founder and executive director of Agape International Missions, which is located in the notorious Svay Pak village on the northern fringe of Phnom Penh, told a different tale.
“IJM has made great progress, but while we haven’t conducted the research that they have, the figures that they have come up with are very surprising,” he said.
Like the IJM, Mr. Brewster works with local police to crack trafficking rings and free the women they ensnare. But he says he still sees relatively large numbers of minors in the sex trade.
In an opinion piece published last month in The Washington Post, Mr. Brewster wrote that in the past year, 12 successful raids by Agape freed 81 women from the sex trade—39 percent of them underage.
“Right now, our investigative team has identified 15 places selling sex with underage girls. We are just waiting for permission to do the raids,” he said Tuesday.
“True, the majority are in urban areas, including places like Poipet and Banteay Meanchey. Just last night my investigators briefed me on four places in Phnom Penh with certified underage girls.”
In its latest study, the IJM identifies karaoke parlors, beer gardens, hostess bars, massage parlors and brothels fronting as coffee shops as commercial sex establishments.
Mr. Brewster said that, under increasing pressure from police, the criminal networks that supply sex offenders now operate in a far more clandestine and organized fashion, a fact acknowledged by IJM.
“Brokers have access to groups of girls in certain locations. Pedophiles contact brokers, and the girl is delivered,” he said. “It’s not all out in the open anymore, but it is still here.”
Samleang Seila, country director of Action Pour Les Enfants, the country’s most prolific NGO in terms of investigating foreigners accused of child sex offenses, judged the IJM’s findings to be accurate but said that child sex abuse occurs most frequently in places not covered by the study.
“We have had to change our tactics because, while there are still brothels and other establishments operating, the majority [of the trade] has moved onto the streets,” he said.
Mr. Seila, whose organization recently participated in an investigation that saw its own former director jailed on child sex charges, said that abuse within organizations, schools and communities, and the targeting of street children were his current focus.
“The message needs to be conveyed that great work has been done, but this message could also be misinterpreted,” he said. “The problem still exists, it is just changing.”
According to the IJM study, the prevalence of minors on sale for sex in Sihanoukville decreased by 86 percent from 2012 to 2015. But Maggie Eno, founder and director of M’Lop Tapang, which works with street children in the seaside city, said this figure did not mean there was less sex with minors.
“There has been a huge shift away from those traditional establishments,” she said. “But those who want to have sex with children, they will find a way. They can be very creative.”
“I can’t comment on those [IJM’s] numbers, but what I can say is that child sex abuse in Khmer families has not dropped at all. In fact, it continues to increase.”
Contacted Tuesday, Christa Hayden Sharpe, a field office director for the IJM, stressed that while the group’s findings trumpet a great success, they ultimately represent “a decrease and not eradication” of children being sold to sexual predators.
“We are not saying trafficking is over or that there are no cases that still exist; this is our model to show that if you come alongside the public justice system, it can be an effective solution,” she said.
“This is a chance to pause, take a look and celebrate what’s working.”