Notes from the Field

In Cambodia: Ending Violence against Women

November 21, 2007

November 25th was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and an opportunity to take inventory of achievements made on behalf of women’s security as well as what remains to be done. 2007 saw an increase in the response to fight human trafficking by the Cambodian government and to reduce the vulnerability of their most at-risk population ” particularly children and women. While it was clear that lack of opportunity and wide-spread poverty are contributing factors to the high risk of human trafficking, Government officials realized that they had to change behaviors and attitudes towards trafficking and women. Responding to international pressure, but also expressing real concern about their citizens, Government officials appealed to the NGO and donor communities to help them address the problem.

Alarming reports of Cambodian nationals being trafficked for sex and labor on long-haul fishing boats, child pornography on the Internet, and young Cambodian women being stranded in neighboring countries because of fake marriages pushed the government to take radical steps. In August, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly decried the loss of Cambodian moral values, pointing to the alarming rise in gang rapes in urban areas. Linking the perceived growth of sexual violence with the risk of losing Khmer identity, the Prime Minister urged the government to do all in its power to turn the tables on those who profit from the sexual exploitation of Cambodians.

With funding from USAID through the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Program (CTIP) and support from The Asia Foundation, the National Task Force (NTF) against Human Trafficking brings together 11 ministries and 3 government agencies to create a long-term strategy to fight trafficking. Altogether, more than 200 NGOs are included in the NTF, making it a powerful forum for coordination, information exchange, and action. Currently, the NTF is focusing on developing national standards of victim assistance, enhancing shelter care, developing a national police training curriculum, training for judges and prosecutors, conducting research on new trafficking trends, as well as planning a national awareness campaign to revitalize the anti-trafficking message.

In August, a High Level Working Group on the Suppression of Trafficking and Drugs (HLWG) was created to support the NTF as a policy-making body directly under the Deputy Prime Minister, but also to work with the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to fast-track anti-trafficking efforts. While it is an impressive initiative, the HLWG does not have the capacity or the resources to change the environment in which trafficking flourishes, such as the lack of economic opportunities, low levels of education, poor health care, and scarce information.

For the young women who were recently rescued from a brothel only to find themselves back in the hands of their exploiters some time later, the Government’s push may appear of little comfort. They know that the stigma associated with being a prostitute means that they can never return to their home. To complicate matters, 50% of the Cambodian population is under the age of 25, and 200,000 young Cambodians enter the job market each year. At Cambodia’s current rate of economic growth, these rescued trafficking victims and others like them will find making a living difficult. While 71% of the population is heavily dependent on agriculture, it only contributes 31% of the country’s GDP, and for every 10% growth in national income, poverty is only reduced by 1.4% — contributing to the long-term poverty trap. Industry employs 11%, but contributes 29% growth. For the average Cambodian to benefit from an economic boom, though, changes must be made to the educational and vocational structure to improve the level of education. With better education, young girls especially increase their chances for an income and a healthy life free from violence.

Resolutely, the HLWG has now pushed for a merger of the HLWG and the NTF secretariats to streamline efforts of the ministries, organizations, donors, and civil society. With a merger of the two secretariats ” uniting policy and practice — it will be easier for the government to affect the behavioral changes necessary to stop trafficking. The focus of the Government’s new strategy, which will be apparent in an upcoming national awareness campaign, is to work closely with provincial governors to unite local authorities and their constituents to protect their communities from exploitation by giving people the facts on where to go if they need help.

Much of the trafficking and ensuing trauma in Cambodia comes from people simply accepting the inevitability of exploitation and abuse ” particularly in the case of young girls who are brought up with the notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of the family. There needs to be stronger resistance to the lure of traffickers, which can only come from the community itself and its willingness to work together to solve its problems. The HLWG will continue its efforts to expedite prosecution of trafficking cases, but with a closer working relationship with the NTF, its actions at the provincial level will be better coordinated, more effective, and more sensitive to the needs of the communities as well as the potential or actual victims.

Marielle Sander Lindstrom is the Chief of Party for the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Program (CTIP) in Cambodia.

View all posts by Marielle Sander Lindstrom

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