I have recently been to Siem Reap, did all the touristy things and enjoyed the warmth of the weather, the amok fish and the stunning sunrise at Angkor Wat. However, it has been really hard for me to detach the part of me who was having careless fun in Siem Reap from the part of me who was fully aware of what was going on in the underbelly of Siem Reap.
Siem Reap, the temple capital of Cambodia, visited by 3.5 million tourists in 2013, happens to be also one of Cambodia child prostitution capitals. It seems like a natural link… more tourists, more money, more prostitutes. And as far as adult prostitutes are concerned I kind of see the link: some might argue that most of them are really victims of structural violence that made them too poor to have an alternative to selling their bodies. True. But when you work in development you are forced to learn how to be very pragmatic -the sooner you learn the art the better- and when you have to face limited funding and accountability to taxpayers at the other end of the world you do see the problem with structural violence but you also know that the only thing you can do is work for the victims of direct, gruesome and brutal violence. When the world finally gets perfect we will work to prevent and reduce structural violence too. Right now, sadly, our best shot is prevent child abuse (which, if we really did manage to do, would be a great accomplishment)…
So, being in Siem Reap for three days, having dinner and drinks at the pictoresque Pub Street, gives you an idea of why the number of prostitutes never stops growing. But here we are talking about grown up prostitutes who, by order or by choice, approach (often more than tipsy) tourists offering them a quickie. It’s easy to see how a guy who is backpacking or an older gentleman travelling alone could want to experience the thrill of a ladyboy, or of a beautiful asian woman or simply buy sex for a cheaper rate than the one at home. Up to this point no surprises.
What is “surprising” (in a very unpleasant way) is that the child sex trade is booming, and well yes fair enough, we are bound to condider child victims people who are as old as 18, but the horrid truth is that when we say “the child sex trade is booming” we mean exactly what you are thinking: 6 to 15 years old on average, with a growing niche for the 1-3 years old’s lot.
And one of the things that puzzle me the most is that whenever I read articles or speak at informal meetings I am being unoficially asked to give astonishingly high figures and if possible spine chilling details. As if one 5 year old victim of anal rape wasn’t revolting enough as it is… give us a three zeros digit and we will feast on it, one doesn’t mean anything!
My shout out goes to those who watch too much CSI: if your 10 year old daughter, niece, grandaughter was raped in order to train her to do boom boom or give yum yums you would want to kill whoever may even dare walking near her. Please stop objectifying other people’s children in a morbid attempt to become more aware. Awareness counts very little on its own, so unless you are prepared to do something I suggest you stop asking details that I have to know but that give me nightmares and nausea on a daily basis.
In this dirty business numbers don’t count. Or, better, unfortunately they do when you have to report back to HQ, but those reports never really say what child prostitution is. There is no reporting of dark alleys or of girls with a wide smile with one or two teeth missing, coz they do tell you they are 10 or 12 but, really, they are 6.
Besides number are often so high that victims get “dis-personified”, it doesn’t matter anymore WHO they are because all that matters is HOW MANY they are, which is inevitable when you have to calculate how much each victims costs and therefore how many you can assist, but again, it rarely tells you a story.
The story here is that we are trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon and thatchild prostitution brings more income than any of our very sustainable, very much capacity building based, very stakeholder sensitive projects. Selling a child in Siem Reap can buy half a water buffalo, can any of us “donors” provide that in 24 hours with no collateral and no microloan? Unfortunately not. So we can try and try, do our best and release the best PSA, awareness campaigns and hashtags, and maybe we will succeed in passing the message that #realmendontbuygirls, but the awful truth is that all th others… do.