Guest post by Matthias Lehmann
More often than not, advocacy for sex workers’ rights and the acceptance of sex work as work puts one at odds with members of that part of the anti-human trafficking movement that rejects these ideas, considers prostitution as inherently harmful, and brands anyone disagreeing with them as a member of some imaginary pimp lobby. Another group one finds oneself at odds with are journalists who report about – and, like the former, conflate – human trafficking and prostitution, as their articles frequently include false, inaccurate or misrepresented information.
As sex workers and their allies will confirm, one could easily spend all day writing rebuttals to counter the influence on public opinion of the many sensationalist reports, but one has to pick and choose. The following is a response to Kyla Ryan’s article “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem” in The Diplomat. Before I start, however, I would like to state that I am not an expert on the situation in Cambodia, although I previously conducted research and field work in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. I can read, however, and my rebuttal of Kyla Ryan’s article will for the most part analyse one of the very sources she used in writing her article.
Far, very far indeed, be it from me to deny that children are being sexually exploited and, as German politician and human rights activist Volker Beck once put it, “every trafficking victim is one too many”.
However, a quick glance at the source of Kyla Ryan’s alarming statements, a report by ECPAT-Cambodia, reveals that what she should have focused on is the rape of children in settings that are not related to human trafficking.
Let’s look at the data and let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the research conducted is methodologically sound and all of the findings accurate.
The report by ECPAT-Cambodia states that in 2011, “658 cases of rape were referred to the 33 participating NGOs, involving 671 victims”, 483 of whom were minors (71.5%). While about half of these 483 victims were teenagers, 169 were aged between 7-12 (35%) and 77 between 1-6 (16%).
The report continues to state that the next highest age group, those aged 18-25, which ECPAT labels as ”young people”, accounted for the majority of adult victims, meaning that grouped together, victims aged 0-25 accounted for 90.5%.
I am not going to dismiss the fact that such an overwhelming majority of rape victims was rather young or even very young, but one should not overlook the fact that ECPAT-Cambodia labels youth here as “children” and adults as “young people”. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see that the organisation’s self-interest plays a role here, regardless of how honourable its goals might be. The report does emphasise that “the majority of victims (approximately 1 in 3) were in the 13-17 years age group”, but I’ll come back to that later.
The report found that, “consistent with all previous Database Annual Reports”, “rape offenders in Cambodia are generally not total strangers to the victims, and usually know the victim fairly well”. The report suggests “that police and judicial investigations, as well as authorities and NGOs, should consider parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from rape”.
In the year 2011, 98.8% of the offenders were Khmer, with 0.9% foreign and 0.2% Cham/Muslim. (No further details are provided.) The total number of offenders was 770, therefore, the 0.9% correspond to 7 foreign offenders (rounded up) in the cases referred to the participating NGOs.
Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation
Looking at the data about trafficking reveals that in 2011, “71 cases of sexual trafficking were referred to the participating NGOs, involving 88 victims”, 66 of whom were minors (75%). While 55 of these 66 were teenagers, 10 were aged between 7-12 (15.2%) and 1 was aged between 1-6 (1.5%).
The report continues to state that “the number of child victims in the very young age groups of 1-6 years and 7-12 years was relatively high, with nearly 17% of the total child victims belonging to these two age groups”. As above, the report also states that, when grouping victims aged 0-25 together, they accounted for 92%.
Once again, every trafficking victim is one too many and I am not going to dismiss the fact that 11 children under 12 years of age were trafficked for sexual exploitation. One should not overlook the fact, however, that in the text of the report, ECPAT-Cambodia uses percentages rather than the number of cases and again joins age groups together, since, obviously, 17% is a more useful number than 11 to raise awareness – and funds! – and the same goes for anything in the 90% range.
The report does not provide details on the offenders who exploited the trafficking victims as customers but only on the 76 recruiters involved in the 71 cases.
Again, the report found that, “consistent, in general terms, with all previous Database Annual Reports”, “recruiters of sexual trafficking in Cambodia are generally not total strangers to the victims, and usually knew the victim fairly well” and suggests that “police and judicial investigations, as well as authorities and NGOs, should consider parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from sexual trafficking”.
Listing percentages only, the report states 50% of the recruiters were Khmer, 10.5% Vietnamese, 7.9% Thai, Other Asian 5.3%, European 10.5%, and American 3.9%. The report states that “there is limited consistency across the years in regards to the nationality of recruiters” and that “it is too soon to determine whether the drastic increase in European/American recruiters in 2011 constitutes a new trend”.
Granted, a combined 14.4% for European and American recruiters is quite a marked increase from 0% the year before. Once again, the use of percentages is somewhat conspicuous, however. Converted into actual numbers, the 14.4% correspond to ten recruiters/traffickers. All foreign recruiters listed in the table accounted for 38.1% or 29 recruiters/traffickers.
It is interesting to note that in 2011, 51.6% (or 39) of the recruiters/traffickers were female, while 48.4% (or 37) were male.
Misrepresenting the Problems
Let’s look at Kyla Ryan’s article at The Diplomat then.
Ryan (or her editor) chose as the headline “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem”, when in fact, the ratio of rape to trafficking victims in Cambodia in 2011 was roughly 7.5:1 (671:88), at least according to the very source Ryan’s article is based on.
The byline states that “the country still sees a trade in girls as young as five years old”. While that may be true, the report this statement is based on lists a single victim aged 1-6 years old and doesn’t actually reveal the gender of the two-year-old victim.
Speaking of gender: nearly 20% of the overall trafficking victims in 2011 – the report doesn’t provide figures broken down by age groups – were male, and the report does state that the “data is a reminder that boys and men are also victims of sexual abuse and exploitation … although this may often be contrary to popular belief”. Articles such as Ryan’s are one of the main reasons why such popular beliefs exist.
Ryan is also guilty of perpetuating the common “male foreign perpetrator, female local victim” paradigm when she writes that Phnom Penh is “where foreign men come to seek sex with young girls”. While I cannot deny that men, foreign or local, may seek sex with young girls, the data on which Ryan bases her article says nothing at all about foreign men who bought sex from young girls. Instead, the report does say a lot about rape, but Ryan chooses to mention rape only in connection to brothels. The only foreigners mentioned in the report are the 29 recruiters/traffickers in 2011, eleven of which were European or American.
While Ryan does allude to the “complicated” situation where family members are involved in human trafficking, she curiously writes that “many young girls are not forced into the trade by criminals, but by family members”. I never knew that being a family member and being a criminal were mutually exclusive. One may disagree with me here, but it appears that Ryan prefers to blame “foreign men” for the crime, with family members merely being complicit in it.
Nobody should dismiss or trivialise sexual violence against children, youth, young adults, or adults in general. My issue with articles such as the one by Kyla Ryan is that they misrepresent the problems and fuel the rampant, and harmful, anti-trafficking panic while largely ignoring the actual problems.
Ryan fails to mention the fraudulent and exploitative activities of Somaly Mam – her organisation AFESIP was one of the NGOs contributing to the ECPAT-Cambodia report – and the underlying problem that more often than not, only lurid stories make for effective fundraising for anti-trafficking organisations, a problem which also seems to affect the way ECPAT-Cambodia wrote its report. Ryan also leaves out ECPAT-Cambodia’s recommendation to give greater consideration to “parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from sexual trafficking”. I must assume it didn’t fit into the narrative she wanted to engage in.
The report by ECPAT-Cambodia states that 1 in 3 rape victims and 2 in 3 trafficking victims were in the 13-17 years age group. Where rape was concerned, all offenders were male and nearly all were Khmer, but where trafficking was concerned, a slight majority was female and the majority was Khmer, though 38.1% (or 29 people) were foreign.
To summarise: according to ECPAT-Cambodia’s report, the bigger problem in Cambodia is rape, not trafficking; the main victims of both rape and trafficking are youth aged 13-17; and the offenders are overwhelmingly locals – where rape is concerned this is entirely the case, and where trafficking is concerned they comprise the majority.
Kyla Ryan’s article paints another picture. “Read The Diplomat, know the Asia-Pacific?” Hardly.
I said above that for argument’s sake, I would assume that the report by ECPAT-Cambodia is accurate, but I strongly recommend anyone truly interested in the subject to read further, because regardless of its wording or use of percentages, the report does provide a number of interesting facts, e.g. who was classified as recruiter/trafficker – included were owners or employees of brothels or massage parlours – or the reasons why “92% of victims agreed to go with the recruiter” – 29.2% stated they “wanted money to buy things” – or that “the majority knowingly entered sex work”. Admittedly, 42.1% said they were promised other occupations and then forced into sex work. One mustn’t discount, however, that some respondents might well have hesitated to admit they knowingly entered sex work, for fear of the stigmatisation they would face as a result of that. By suggesting that, I certainly do not mean to dismiss any actual cases of sexual exploitation. But equally, one must not ignore that due to the stigma attached to sex work, people selling sex frequently experience discrimination and violence, which even extends to their children and other family members, exacerbating their health risks and isolation and depriving them of their basic human rights.
Matthias Lehmann is a doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. His prior research and field work dealt with human trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region and human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. His current research focuses on prostitution legislation in Germany. His blogs can be found here and here.