I'm fascinated because they seem to be an unfortunate visual representation of this country. I'm not sure where I was when we studied Cambodia in history class - perhaps I fell asleep that day, or perhaps we never studied it. In preparation for my trip here, I dug into everything I could read about Cambodia and was shocked to learn that the dismantling, breaking, and crippling of this country has happened in my lifetime. The Khmer Rouge, an anti-government gang rose up in power, promising a better life for the common man. They began with a mission to kill the educated, those in favor of the government, and anyone else who was in support of structure and a flourishing nation. We visited The Killing Fields on this trip and witnessed chilling mass graves of people sent to "reeducation" centers who never made it out. We saw random bones and teeth sitting near the graves - which are really just areas of dirt where bodies were buried - that continue to surface from the ground when it rains. By the end of 4 years in power, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for 2 million deaths, either through torture and execution or due to lack of food and medical care.
The Khmer Rouge left Cambodia with nothing. No schools, no structure, no government, no hope. And the wounds are still fresh. Our tour guide told us that his dad had been killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was a baby. He has never seen a picture of his father and doesn't know what his face looked like. They have tried to rebuild, but unfortunately, corruption has driven much of the reconstruction of the government and educational systems. They will tell you that the educational system provides free schooling, but the teachers demand pocket money from their students (and more cash means better grades). So while school is "free", many children cannot afford to go.
The Prime Minister is the ruling authority in Cambodia, an elected official. About 18 months ago, a new Prime Minister was voted in. However, though one person won based on the people's votes, another man was sworn in and is now ruling the country, and the people are up in arms. Even during my visit, the tension is mounting, and the police have been lining the streets and filling the parks with anti-riot gear, ready to fight against any rebellion.
To think about the trafficking here in Cambodia, you have to understand the state of this broken country. You have to understand the poverty, the lack of control, and the basic need to survive. It's easy to wonder how parents could let this happen to their kids. Kids here are not getting kidnapped like the girls in Nigeria - the parents, in most cases, are offering their children into the industry as a way to make money and pay their rent or feed their families. There is a strong cultural mindset that the children are responsible for supporting the family by working, and if a child can provide "services" to someone even at the young age of 3 or 4, that just means they are beginning to fulfill their duties at a young age. That mindset and willingness makes it very, very difficult to end the cycle of trafficking. It has also put Cambodia on the map for every pedafile, and it's chilling to see "foreign" men walking around the riverfront with little Cambodian children.
I have to admit that I came to Cambodia to learn about the issue so I could help make it stop. That's such an American thing to do - we want to give money and fix everyone's brokenness. The power lines here are really tangled, though, and the issues will not be quickly solved. The Hard Places Community is doing what they can to remove children from situations of trafficking, to equip them with skills like speaking English and using computers, educate them on concepts like good and bad touch and how to respond, and to provide afternoon clubs in the worst areas of the city. They are partnering with the families, where families are involved, to teach parents that if children can come to the Center and learn, they will be able to get better jobs in the future, which will mean better support for the family in the long run. The biggest thing they are doing, though, is teaching the children that they have value for who they are. Children are conditionally valued here, but not taught that they are precious creations, made and loved by God. It's that teaching that will, more than anything, change who these children are, how they see themselves, and how they will raise their own children some day.