The rape and prostitution of children in Cambodia is a problem that is only getting worse and will continue to claim more victims if proper steps are not taken in law enforcement and education, officials said during a conference on Thursday.
“Young virgin girls are sold, raped and exploited in brothels, 5- and 6-year-old children are raped, and other victims are trafficked from rural areas,” said Deputy Director General of the National Police Neth Savoeun, citing the dramatic increase he has observed in the number of sexual offenses against children since 1992.
Neth Savoeun was one of the 112 attendees at Thursday’s National Seminar about the Law Enforcement Against Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Children project.
Interior Ministry officials, provincial police chiefs and NGOs gathered to discuss the sexual abuse running rampant in Cambodia and how law enforcement can put a stop to it.
Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, chairman of the seminar, said the number of rape cases has been increasing because offenders are not punished very often. He added that another reason for frequent child rapes is that men believe having sex with young virgins is good for their health.
“Despite all that has been done, hardly a day goes by where we don’t see an example of the gross abuse of children,” said Rodney Hatfield, UN Children’s Fund representative for Cambodia.
Police have ignored this problem in the past because they lacked the training to properly investigate and punish pedophiles, said Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, chairman of the Project Coordination Committee. Sensitivity toward the victims also seemed absent as police did not understand the psychological effects of abuse, he said.
An objective of the program is to educate law enforcement officials on the proper procedures regarding sex abuse suspects and victims, and encourage the police to have an appropriate attitude while dealing with the situation.
“We’ve found that all the laws are in place but the mechanics for the laws to be used in the field have not been developed,” said Laurence Gray, a director at the non-governmental organization World Vision.
“Too many people were looking at this as only the child’s problem and we needed to address that,” he said.
Police officers trained through the project have rescued 1,352 people who suffered from sexual abuse—almost 50 percent were under 18 and 366 of the victims were younger than age 15, according to Neth Savoeun. As of November, 669 offenders have been arrested—80 for sexually exploiting children, 97 for human trafficking, 465 for rape and 27 for debauchery or child pornography, he said.
“I’m impressed,” Hatfield said. “We have done a lot in four years. It is a real shame that Cambodia has the image as a haven for pedophiles.”
Hatfield said the biggest challenge has been that the problem involves the gratification of individuals, in addition to the money that can be made through underage prostitution. Because of that, it is easy to develop a lot of direct enemies who do not appreciate interference in their activities, he added.
According to Prum Sokha, an increase in human trafficking and rape can also be attributed to poverty. The need for cash can make a child decide to work far from home and accept false job offers. Their parents in the countryside do not have the means to search for them after they are tricked into being sold into prostitution, he said.
“Low education is also our concern,” he said. “Parents don’t understand what is happening to their children. We also need to change the ideas of traffickers and men who like to commit sex crimes.”
He said there are many foreigners who come to Cambodia to abuse children. In the past, justice has not been served but now country officials are gaining the knowledge to properly investigate and convict offenders.
“We must make sure that these crimes are settled in court—not by making payments,” Hatfield said as he addressed police officials at the seminar. “This is more than a moral obligation, it is a legal issue….I ask that when you return to your provinces you provide a commitment to women, children and law enforcement.”
Corrupt law enforcement and court officials have long been implicated in helping foreign pedophiles and local child sex crime suspects act with impunity.