Sexual Slavery Response in Cambodia: Educational Empowerment for Women in Rural Areas

This article is part of AASYP’s “Break the Chain” programme that highlights innovative solutions to modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour. Through this Op-Ed, Chin Sopanha explores sex trafficking in Cambodia and identifies the key drivers of this illegal industry, including the extreme poverty women and girls in rural areas are facing and the persistent educational gap between those in rural areas and those in urban areas. Evidence show that the prevalence of sex trafficking is significantly reduced in rural areas through assistance from stakeholders in developing an education system that is accessible for these women.

Sex trafficking is still a major human rights issue in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia. According to UNICEF (2017), empirical data show that around 9 in 10 adolescent girls who reported having experienced forced sexual intercourse or other sexual act indicate that it happened to them for the first time during adolescence. The sex trafficking trade is a well organised, manipulative trade that is unfortunately far too commonplace in regional communities. Most sex traffickers are foreigners who along with the individual running the prostitution ring in the local community search for girls and compensate the family for giving away their daughter typically in the form of money. The majority of these girls are trafficked into territories such as Mainland China, Hong Kong SAR, Vietnam, and Japan where they are forced into brothels.

In Cambodia, the number of people who are living under the poverty line is higher than that in other countries in the region such as Thailand, Malaysia, or Singapore. Simulaneously, 261 thousand out of 15.5 million Cambodian citizens are trapped in modern slavery according to the Global Slavery Index in 2018. Hence, it stands to reason why individuals in Cambodia who are suffering from a higher poverty rate are more prone to human trafficking.

Women and girls from families in poverty are more vulnerable as the opportunity for a good education in these remote regions is not available. In turn, these individuals lack the information to identify the warning signs of sex trafficking and are therefore not able to protect themselves from traffickers. In Cambodia, 30 percent of female sex workers are below the age of 18 and have very little education. Education for girls in Cambodia is very limited due to two main factors: the extreme poverty women and girls face and the physical distance educational institutions are from these individuals in regional areas.

First, poverty constrains girls from pursuing education as the economic situation of their families requires these girls to provide for their families at the cost of their own education. Girls are forced by their parents to find a job in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, in order to support their families from the age of 15. This means that they have to drop out from high school or secondary school to fulfill the needs of their parents. In reality, many do end up dropping out of secondary school or even primary school.

Second, women in isolated regions find it difficult to pursue education as the location of the educational institution is often too far from their house, which prevents them from attending. In fact, the issue of distance is felt by individuals all over Cambodia. According to The World Bank, 76 percent of the Cambodian population live in rural areas in 2019.

Moreover, there is a cultural expectation that girls should not pursue higher education beyond grade six or nine. Many rural Cambodian women are constrained by attitudes and rules of their communities, which are based on a traditional patriarchal hierarchy that inhibits girls from progressing with their education. As articulated by Sok Kimsroeung, Programme Manager for the OPTIONS Programme, a programme aimed at supporting vulnerable children who are at risk of trafficking, “With an estimated 30 percent of sex workers in Cambodia being under 18 years old, having less than three years of basic schooling and little or no vocational skills, the link between the lack of education and vulnerability is clear.”

Education should be a right accorded to everyone regardless of gender, race, sex, status, etc. At present, scholarships are provided to female students to equip them with stationery and clothes for schooling but there are strict guidelines to qualify girls for such scholarships. These include their family having to be considered to be in poverty, personal disability or difficulty accessing education. UNICEF and the United States Department of Labour have also collaboratively established the programme, OPTIONS, which is run by World Education to support girls from rural areas by granting scholarships that enable them to continue their study. The programme offers girls in grade five or six weekly lessons on a wide range of topics such as sex trafficking, reproductive health, sexual abuse, and vocational awareness. By receiving these classes, they can identify the precursors of human trafficking, the protection of reproductive health, and the preventative methods of sexual abuse, all of which contribrute to their safety and security from human trafficking and sexual abuse.

To empower girls in Cambodia to seek an education, there are many actors from various sectors that can play a key role to ensure the quality of education in Cambodia. These actors include the government, the private sector, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, and local communities. It is essential to recognise that education plays a crucial role in raising awareness about the risks of sexual slavery and human trafficking, which can be enhanced through series of workshops and scholarships made accessible to everyone, especially those in rural areas. A community should also be created for women to be actively engaged with authority to report cases of sexual trafficking.

This article was written by Chin Sopanha, edited by Daniel Clarke, and reviewed by Choo Qian Ke.

More to explore