Friday, April 3, 2015

Country Overview: Cambodia

I joke with people that I've been chasing spring and fall around the world this year. Well, looks like I outran them - it is definitely summer in Cambodia. This country is hot, hectic, and hazy. But it is also so much more than that simple alliteration. Cambodia is also known for its polite people, beautiful beaches, and fascinating foods. I'm on a roll with the literary devices today! My high school English teacher would be so proud.

Unfortunately, it is also known to many as an affordable place to find prostitutes - many of which are underage. Its recent history under the Khmer Rouge certainly plays a role in this problem. Keep reading to see what I mean.

The Basics

Cambodia is a fairly small Southeast Asian country that is sandwiched between Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Its population is over 15 million - many of which reside in the fast-growing cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Like in Thailand, life and culture in the city is very different from that of the villages.

The official language in Cambodia is Khmer - once again a language with a script and sounds that are completely new to me. Getting around cities gets more and more difficult the further east I move because of the language barrier, but the plus side of this is that I've become quite good with hand gestures and sketching out directions!

The economy has grown well in recent years - with an up and coming export demand for textiles, silk in particular. There is also an exciting trend in fair trade production beginning. Many organizations that provide aftercare to victims of sexual exploitation are able to make use of this trend for economic opportunities to survivors. Interestingly, the primary currency used in Cambodia is the U.S. dollar. Only when change below a dollar is needed do they use the local currency, Cambodian Riel. So the $20.25 in my wallet right now is made up of two tens and a 1,000 Riel note. It's an interesting system.

Cambodia and My Project

Unfortunately, Cambodia's history isn't quite as beautiful as its silk fabrics. In order to understand the current problems of sexual exploitation and abuse within the country, you must know what its people have endured in recent years. While here, I had the opportunity to visit the Stuol Treng Genocide Museum in order to learn about this heartbreaking event in Cambodian history.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a Cambodian offshoot of the Vietnam's People's Army, came to power as the ruling party of the country. Modeling its policies after Maoist China. The cities were cleared so that citizens could work at rural camps. Meanwhile, the educated and powerful were imprisoned and tortured in what is now recognized as a genocide.

Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, was in power for nearly four years. During this time, it is estimated that a quarter of the entire population died as a result of torture or famine. Stuol Treng once was a school, but when the Khmer Rouge took power, it was converted to a prison. I was horrified to learn about the cruel torture that occured there, rivaling the tactics of Hitler during the Holocaust.

Even more astounding is the fact that most of the world was completely blind to the problem. The few who escaped as refugees told horrific, almost unbelievable stories. It took years for the rest of the world to piece together the firsthand accounts.

The aftermath of this horrible time continues to this day. Those who survived the Khmer Rouge have lived through incomprehensible trauma. The young generation was raised by parents fighting to find normalcy after the unthinkable. Similar to my conclusions from Rwanda, this kind of generational trauma appears to contribute to the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation in the country. When the survival instinct trumps all else, people are incredibly vulnerable to those more powerful.

All that to say, there is a large problem of sexual exploitation in Cambodia. However, dozens of organizations are on the ground working to remedy this situation. Change appears to be taking root. Organizations have noticed a drop in the number of minors in the commercial sex industry. However, the recent TIP report still classifies them as a Tier 2 watch list. This means they are not meeting minimum standards for fighting all forms of trafficking and will be downgraded to the lowest tier if they do not respond swiftly. Many organizations have an optimistic view for the future, however, as the justice system seems to be responding well to external pressure and assistance.

Here are the questions I was looking to answer while in this country:

  1. How does the history of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian genocide play a role in the current problem of sexual exploitation?
  2. With the tension between Vietnam and Cambodia in mind, how do organizations address the problem of Vietnamese women trafficked to this country?
  3. How do the numerous organizations in this country partner together to fight sexual exploitation?
  4. What kind of expertise regarding trauma is available here in Cambodia?

First Impressions

On a lighter note, though, this country is beatiful in many ways. I find the blend of ancient customs and bustling modernity fascinating.

Teaser for my next post: While in Cambodia I was able to meet with Pierre Legros, ex-husband of the recently fallen global icon for Cambodian anti-trafficking work - Somaly Mam. If you don't know the story of this scandal, be sure to Pierre's first interview after the incident in 2014 here before my post early next week!


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