The Fight against Trafficking in Women and Children

Linked to our presentation of Oung Chanthol – Cambodia

Also linked to our presentation The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center CWCC

By Oung Chanthol, Executive Director, Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, Presented at the 2001, Magsaysay Awardees’ Lecture Series, Magsaysay Center, Manila, Philippines.

Ladies and Gentlemen! I would like to deeply thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for giving me the opportunity to be here to present my paper Breaking Ground in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking. This gathering shows the great cooperation of government and civil society in tackling the issue of trafficking in women and children for the well being of all. It is a great honor for me to exchange experiences and to learn from the groups gathered here today.

My presentation will consist of three parts: 1) A brief introduction of trafficking in Cambodia, 2) CWCC’s efforts in countering the issue, and 3) concluding recommendations which the government and civil society might find of use in addressing the issues.


One of the most pervasive and severe forms of violence against women and girls in Cambodia is sex trafficking. The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center’ s (CWCC) clients who have escaped from Cambodian brothels relate harrowing tales of trafficking across the country and borders, abductions, deceptions, severe abuse and slave-like conditions. Their courageous stories are tragic, and the epidemic scale on which these stories are repeated daily, in Cambodia and around the globe, not only demands attention but immediate action.

A. Women and children are trafficked from rural areas and Vietnam into cities for prostitution

According to the Cambodian Women’s Development Association’s (CWDA) findings, there are approximately 50,000-55,000 prostitutes in Cambodia. The Cambodian Commission on Human Rights and Reception of Complaints of the National Assembly estimates that there are over 14,000 women and children working as prostitutes in brothels, bars, massage parlors, private rented accommodation and hotels in Phnom Penh alone. Around 40% of prostitutes are Vietnamese and 35% are under the age of 18 years old.

The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center’s statistics from its client base show that the majority of prostitutes, 64.5%, were forced into prostitution. The remainder “volunteered” due to poverty. Among those forced into prostitution, 53% were deceived through the offer of a high-paying job; 11% were sold by parents, relatives, or friends; and 0.6% were abducted.

These women and children were deceived by the offer of jobs as garment factory workers, domestic helpers, or invitations to visit the city. Most parents sold their children for debt bondage, which was usually to pay for medical bills or food for the family. After being sold, they were usually convinced to dress nicely to serve clients. If they resisted, they were locked or confined in rooms, threatened, beaten, denied food, and subjected to electric shocks until they “agreed” to service clients. The brothel owners took all the income. The women and children received only food and make-up. Most brothels were supported or owned by armed men. This made it more difficult for the authorities to intervene.

The working hours were grueling, brothels are open twenty-four hours a day and the women and children usually worked from 9:00 am to 3:00 am. The average number of clients each day was 3 to 4; however some attractive sex workers reported up to 20 clients a day.

In addition to the severe abuse endured from the brothel clients, many of the women and children interviewed stated that the brothel owner repeatedly raped them. They described this aspect of the abuse as the most degrading, because they were forced to live with the abuser. Often, the woman or child would finish her exhausting day of work only to be awakened by the owner, relatives of the owner or a guard, climbing on top of her.

Around 90% of the clients are Cambodian. Some customers refuse to use condoms, which potentially leads to the perpetuation of unsafe abortions, and leads directly to the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS. Approximately 70,000-80,000 families in Cambodia currently have a family member who is HIV+, according to a survey conducted by the National Committee Against HIV/AIDS.

B. Women and children are trafficked to Thailand

Thousands of other Cambodian women and children are trafficked to Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan to work in slave-like conditions as prostitutes, beggars, servants, domestic workers, and other forms of forced labor. Traffickers convince their prey that they can go to Thailand make a lot of money. For this privilege, they must pay the trafficker between $100-$200 for a guide and transportation to Bangkok. In order to come up with this amount, the person will sell their rice fields, their land and their property. However, if they are later caught and deported back to Cambodia by the Thai authorities, they have nothing to return to, and some of them join the ranks of Cambodia’s homeless. According to a 2001 report from the Cambodian Immigration Office, an estimated 1650 Cambodians were deported monthly from Thailand, after they were rescued from such working places

C. Causes of Trafficking in Women and Children

A number of factors common to all the countries of the region can be summarized as contributing to this phenomenon and its increase, including:

1) Family violence or breakdown. Children see no other option but to run away from home and are then trapped or deceived by traffickers.

2) Lack of information in communities. As mentioned, 53% of trafficked girls were deceived by the offer of a job, and were then sold into prostitution once they had left the safety net of their communities.

3) Poverty and privatization of state services. Social indicators rank Cambodia among one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 156 out of 174 countries in 1996. The gross national product (GNP) was $276 in 1999. The GNP growth rate held at a steady 7% before the political crisis in July 1997. Since then, it has dropped to less than 3%, although we have witnessed improvements since 1999.

Approximately 40% of Cambodians live beneath the poverty line and can seldom access free medial care or any form of social security. The 1999 national budget allocation for the Ministry of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs was 0.095%

One out of every four households is headed by women. Families headed by widows are reported to be the poorest members of rural communities, according to the 1995 Asian Development Bank Report.

4) The belief that “It is O.K for men to have sex during marriage with women other than their wives”. This encourages men to have sex with prostitutes, which in turn leads to a high demand. The traffickers and brothel owners who benefit from this exploitation use any means to trap women and children to supply this demand. A double standard then exists, as a woman is required to keep her virginity before marriage; if she does not do so, then she is condemned by society. Therefore, women are not potential customers from the demand side of prostitution, and men are not usually trafficked to work as prostitutes.

5) Tourism. The increase in tourism to Cambodia and its “reputation” for impunity for customers has also contributed to the rise in trafficking. Seim Reap and Phnom Penh are seeing rising numbers of sex tourists, further fueling the demand for women and girls.

6) Trafficked women and children remain unprotected because of a lack of participation from law enforcement officers and corruption. Perpetrators are rarely accountable for the crimes they have committed. Thousands of women are trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, and yet less than one hundred perpetrators have been prosecuted. This means perpetrators feel free to go about their business unimpeded by legal action.


In response to the seriousness of the issue and lack of services, the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) was founded in Phnom Penh in March 1997 with initial funds from TDH Germany and Netherlands. It aims to eliminate violence against women for the sake of equality, peace, development and happiness for all. Currently, CWCC has three regional offices and 3 shelters with 52 full time-staff and almost 200 volunteers. This has grown from five staff and only one office at its founding. CWCC has the following programs:

A. Monitoring and rescuing trafficked women and children

Staff usually receive information concerning trafficking through people coming directly to CWCC, telephone contact, Icom, radio, newspapers, NGO partners, CWCC’s community-based network, police and motor taxi-drivers. CWCC does not wait for victims to come to our office. Every time, we hear about a case, our monitoring staff go to the place of the incident and seeks information.

As soon as information is received, we act immediately. If the case is an emergency and the victim needs to be rescued, we contact police, competent authorities or/and NGO partners to act as soon as possible. If the victims are injured, we send them to hospitals or clinics for treatment.

For example, when we receive information that women/ girls are confined in a roo and forced to serve the sex trade, we investigate on our own. But if a rescue is needed, we contact police and prosecutors whom we have worked with before and trust, to raid the brothel, rescue victims and arrest the perpetrators for prosecution. We only use the authorities that we trust – we have had a bad experience in contacting local police, who were paid by the brothel owner, and informed him prior to the raid thus enabling him to escape before the police arrived.

CWCC also provides a drop-in center, a centrally-located place of first-contact for women who have been victims of violence, or where citizens and government officials can report cases of gender-based abuse and receive counseling and legal consultations. The drop-in center is based in our office.

B. Court Advocate and Legal Assistance:

CWCC’s lawyers provide legal assistance in order to inform women and girls of their rights and legal options; to make them aware of the costs and benefits of legal action; to help them with preparing complaints; to pressure the court for speedy and fair trials; to accompany clients to court; to ensure verdicts benefiting victims are enforced; to share comments in reforming legislature; and to work with legal aid associations to create innovative remedies for victims.

Our work with the judiciary is also improving. A few courts have now become very helpful after five years of building trust and confidence with them through friends and personal contacts. Judges and prosecutors have begun treating women fairly and seriously by holding perpetrators accountable for the crimes they commit. CWCC advocates are no longer accused of interfering and disturbing court work.

However CWCC did encounter a problem, we did not have enough lawyers to represent all our cases, approximately 200 a year. But we took up this challenge and were successful in convincing the two available legal aid organizations, which saw their role as only representing the accused, to represent victims who were trafficked women and girls.

C. Confidential Shelter

The confidential crisis shelter provides women and their children with safe accommodation and support to foster self-esteem through living in a positive environment. Services include counseling, medical assistance, 24-hour security, clothing, toiletries, bedding, nutritional meals, social activities, daily exercise classes, access to vocational training programs, arts and drama activities, cooking, children’s activities, group educational sessions, literacy training, hygiene and HIV/Aids education, and follow-up services.

D. Vocational, Literacy, and Life skill Training/Employment Assistance

CWCC’s clients in the shelter receive vocational training such as sewing and silk waving if they wish. Each year, CWCC provides vocational training for about 150 clients. CWCC networks with restaurants, factories, shops, and other workplaces to find appropriate employment for clients after the training so that they can support themselves.

When CWCC helps a client to find employment, we pay their first month of rent and food. The women usually receive a salary in the amount of between $40 to $120 a month, which is compared to the average salary of $20 for a government official. CWCC also makes follow up visits to their workplaces and houses to continue supporting them emotionally until they are fully self-confident.

E. Reintegration and repatriation program

The reintegration program aims to assist women who have been sexually trafficked and who wish to return home and reintegrate with their families and communities and to provide training on sex-trafficking and related laws to the victims’ parents, local authorities and communities. We encourage the villagers to be aware of deceivers who try to lure children into prostitution. They are typically deceived or abducted and taken from their home province or country of origin and brought to urban centers and sold to a brothel. After such traumatic experiences, the victims need assistance in returning to their place of origin.

This project helps sexually trafficked or exploited women to return to their homes in Cambodia or repatriate to their country. The reintegration is tailored to meet the individual needs of the woman, especially regarding security, and to respect the client’s self-determination and confidentiality.

If appropriate, the reintegration process begins almost immediately. For example, the client is asked if she wishes her family, friends or relatives to be informed about her whereabouts. If she does, CWCC begins contacting individuals in the particular province that can inform the client’s family or friends of her whereabouts. Those individuals that are emotionally close to the client are encouraged to visit the client at CWCC’s office (the shelter is confidential). CWCC has helped poor families with travel expenses so that they could visit with their daughter/relative.

The majority of our clients have good relationships with their families. Reunions are very moving. Generally, the family has searched for their daughter for many months and has given up hope of being reunited. Many families continue to visit the women until she is ready to return home. These visits often assist the women to dispel their greatest fear – that she will be reviled or rejected by her family and community.

When the woman is ready to return home or to her community, the family can come to accompany them from the shelter. If they do not have transportation, a reintegration staff or/and a police accompany her to her hometown. Our staff usually stay in the woman’s village for three days to ensure that the woman is not facing any problems with discrimination. They also spend time with the family to facilitate the reintegration process, and to make sure that the woman has enough security.

In some cases the client does not want either her family or the community to know about what has happened to her. In those cases, the reintegration staff respect the client’s wishes and assist her to maintain her privacy.

A follow-up visit is made after three months of reintegration to monitor living conditions and, if necessary, to continue providing assistance. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSALVY) also agrees to follow up and continue to assist our clients in the communities.

If the client is a foreign woman/girl, CWCC provides translators and contacts with the woman’s embassy through the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for repatriation.

F. Community organizing to prevent and deter violence against women

The Community Organizing program is designed to prevention and deter violence against women through popular education and intervention from community volunteers. It aims:

To raise awareness and educate villagers on trafficking issues, the role of villagers in combating and preventing the issue, and prosecuting perpetrators.
To educate and train the police in the same villages about the law, how to assist a victim with sensitivity, and how to work with community coalitions;
To train two selected members of each community in how to conduct popular education sessions to further organize and educate villages in the surrounding areas and to assist victims;
To obtain statistics and uncover new cases of violence against women from both community coalitions and from CWCC’s strengthened ties to the village police force. CWCC’s monthly follow-up visits to each village play an important role in this process.

CWCC has trained and organized 43 villages to prevent and deter violence in their communities. These villages in turn can mobilize the nearby villages, monitoring VAW, contacting local police, arresting suspects, and assisting/referring the victims to available services. They contact CWCC only when the women or girls require legal representation. This is a big improvement from when the program started, when all victims were referred to CWCC, which resulted in over loading of our office and staff.

Each year, since its founding, around 300 police officers and local authorities have been trained by CWCC on laws about VAW and crisis intervention. Police officers have now begun intervention by arresting the abusers and traffickers. Upon rescuing victims, they send them to our shelter, which is very unusual in Cambodia. There used to be a time when it took several weeks in order to rescue trafficked women or children from brothels, even when CWCC provided all the necessary information to the police with repeated visits. Most of victims were not assisted. But now, with the new partnership between the police and CWCC, officers are ready to help within few days. Last year, the Ministry of Interior created an Office for Combating Child Trafficking, and this year, a telephone hot line for victims of sex trafficking.

To ensure the sustainable intervention by communities, CWCC’s staff regularly visit the volunteers and continue to provide technical assistance to them. A monthly meeting of volunteers is also organized in the CWCC office to give an opportunity for them to share problems in their communities and techniques in coping the issues. On-going skills training, including facilitation, communication, monitoring, basic counseling, and training methodology are also being provided to them.

G. Awareness raising through mass media, drama, and seminars

Our awareness raising and advocacy efforts include press statements, publications, TV, Radio, and drama to advocate for victim’s rights. CWCC coordinates its efforts with local and international human rights advocates and the government to educate and sensitize all members of the community, and to help create informed policies and programs for victims of trafficking.

For instance, CWCC has published illustrated short stories on trafficking for distribution to the public during national celebration ceremonies. 13 spots on trafficking have been produced and nationally broadcasted through TV and radio. The television station charged us a very low price with the endorsement letter from the Ministry of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs and MOSALVY. CWCC co-ordinated with University of Fine Arts and UNESCO in presenting a drama to the public. We also organised workshops and seminars for lawmakers, judges, prosecutor and the other members of civil society to sensitise them to the issue. We lobbied political parties to put the issue in their platform of action during the national electoral campaign.

After several years of great effort in approaching newspapers, TV, and radio to work with us, we are now actively and successfully working together in disseminating information to the public and policy and lawmakers. Now, the media and newspapers come to us for information, rather than CWCC staff approaching them like it was in the beginning. It is common to see CWCC’s work reported in the media.

H. Networking and Cooperation

We would not be able to carry out the important work we do without assistance from the communities. CWCC networks with appropriate agencies to supply the necessary services to eradicate trafficking. CWCC has networked with over 150 local and international organizations and government agencies to set up a referral system, widen the social service network and develop training programs to build the capacity of service providers and women’s rights monitors and educators. Perhaps most importantly, CWCC’s community networking allows us to provide our clients with health care, legal assistance, vocational training and transportation.

I. Staff capacity building

To ensure sustainability, CWCC is committed to building the capacity of its staff and staff of other local organizations with similar mandates. Through capacity building projects, CWCC aims to provide quality services to our clients and to build a stronger social services network.


In carrying out activities, CWCC encounters various obstacles such as threats from perpetrators, a lack of participation from law enforcement officials, corruption, and a lack of forensic reports for trials which leads to unfair trials and the release of perpetrators. In addition, although the woman or girl may have won the case, it is very difficult to enforce the verdict. The court, as well as the police/authorities, always complain that they have no money/ means to carry out their activities. If a client has no money to pay for police, they seldom attempt to enforce a verdict.

Another difficulty is the long delays in legal process. Some cases take years to come to court, which makes our clients afraid and destroys their commitment to solving the case through the legal system.

Overstaying in the shelter, where the maximum stay is six months, is also a challenge. Some clients stay for longer when their case is pending, or they feel unsafe to return home. Clients are also eager to learn skills as fast as possible so they can have jobs for support their families. But vocational training often requires a much longer time than they had expected.

Another challenge is the time taken for repatriating women and girls back to their own country. Often the Embassy does not want the women and girls, whom they consider as bad persons, to return to the country. Women and girls of ethnic minority groups have also been denied permission to return home.


Sex trafficking in women and children, under any and all circumstances, deserves universal condemnation. It is cruel and inhuman and a violation of human rights. Migrant women face a great deal of discrimination, especially migrant women who work as domestic helpers and prostitutes. There are no laws to protect domestic helpers and prostitutes. Instead, existing laws penalize prostitutes as social evils for committing a social evil or unacceptable act.

Immigration Law enforcement results in violation of rights to life, freedom of movement, and self-determination which are set forth in the UN convention and covenants. Therefore, all counter measures must be aimed at protecting and promoting respect for the human rights of individuals who have been victims of trafficking, including those who have been subjected to involuntary servitude, forced labor and/or slavery-like practices. Standards must be implemented to protect the rights of trafficked persons by providing them with effective legal remedies, legal protection, non-discriminatory treatment, and restitution, compensation and recovery.

There is also a need to improve the existing social net to upgrade the social and economic status of women. Many actors such as NGOs, Governments, and religious bodies can play roles in addressing the issue. But they must bear in mind that their programs must respect the human rights of women. Advocacy is greatly needed to change laws and the need to participate in both public and official forums to address the problem.

We all come to this problem from different contexts and frames of reference and our approaches may be different, but our overall goal and objective must and can remain shared among us. It is only by working in concert that we will be successful in our endeavors. Thank you for your attention.

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