Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sex Trafficking, The World's Second Oldest Crime

Sex trade ancient world
Chinese slave girl 19th Century America

Cambodian sex trade

Most people will usher in 2009 today, by nursing hangovers, watching bowl games, or reflecting on the year that was, or thinking about what 2009 will bring with each sunrise. I am no different. I began this quiet morning catching up on my blog links and scaning the headlines of the daily roundup at Small Wars Journal. One headline stood out and as I opened the link, it reminded me that evil still raises it's serpents head to strangle the hopes and dreams of countless people.

The headline called attention to a opinion column in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof.
Mr. Kristof's column addresses the scourge of slavery that lurks in the underbelly of Cambodia an ancient country whose recent history includes a genocidal time that came to be known as the Killing Fields.

Kristof begins:

Western men who visit red-light districts in poor countries often find themselves surrounded by coquettish teenage girls laughingly tugging them toward the brothels. The men assume that the girls are there voluntarily, and in some cases they are right.
But anyone inclined to take the girls’ smiles at face value should talk to Sina Vann, who was once one of those smiling girls.
Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

What unfolds in Sina's story will invite revulsion that such behavior still exists in the world today. This article is a must read, as it illustrates one more area where human dignity has been trampled upon for far to long. The only way to fight this evil is to do as Mr. Kristof has done, and shine the bright light of public opinion towards the doers, in a hope of moving the government of Cambodia to act.
His final words offer some hope:
Sex trafficking is truly the 21st century’s version of slavery. One of the differences from 19th-century slavery is that many of these modern slaves will die of AIDS by their late 20s.

Whenever I report on sex trafficking, I come away less depressed by the atrocities than inspired by the courage of modern abolitionists like Somaly and Sina. They are risking their lives to help others still locked up in the brothels, and they have the credibility and experience to lead this fight. In my next column, I’ll introduce a girl that Sina is now helping to recover from mind-boggling torture in a brothel — and Sina’s own story gives hope to the girl in a way that an army of psychologists couldn’t.
I hope that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will recognize slavery as unfinished business on the foreign policy agenda. The abolitionist cause simply hasn’t been completed as long as 14-year-old girls are being jolted with electric shocks — right now, as you read this — to make them smile before oblivious tourists.

Read the whole article: Cambodia: The Evil Behind the Smiles

Nicholas Kristof is not just using his pen to combat sexual slavery in Cambodia. In his column On the Ground he writes that, We start a school in Cambodia

There was a special reason for the timing of this trip to Cambodia, one you won’t read about in my columns: My family has built a junior high school in Cambodia, and we just had the opening ceremony. We timed it for the Christmas vacation, so our three kids — aged 11 through 16 — could see it. Oh, yes, and so that they could see kids who are desperately eager to get an education.
I’ve been visiting Cambodia for the last dozen years and have been particularly moved by the horrific sex trafficking here. One of the antidotes to prevent trafficking is education, and Cambodia is desperately short of schools. A couple of years ago I wrote about a school in Seattle that had funded a school in Cambodia through American Assistance for Cambodia. I was impressed with the organization and the way it gets extra bang for the buck through matching funds from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Moreover, in some countries, you build a school and have a nice new building, but the teachers never show up. That’s much less of a problem in Cambodia, where one of the bottlenecks truly is school buildings.

Nicholas Kristof is putting his money and time, where his pen and mouth has been. I admire and honor him for getting involved and showing leadership and encouragement to others. But, this is not the first, Mr Kristof has written about Cambodian sex trafficking. Beginning in 2004, he has been using his pen to call attention to the plight of these young women and their stolen futures.

Read them all when you Go to Columnist Page »

Girls For Sale, January 17, 2004
One thinks of slavery as an evil confined to musty sepia photographs. But there are 21st-century versions of slaves as well, girls like Srey Neth, here in northwestern Cambodia.
Bargaining For Freedom January 21, 2004
Srey Neth and Srey Mom were stunned when I proposed buying their freedom from their brothel owners.
Going Home, With Hope January 24, 2004
As we bounced along rural Cambodian roads, the two teenage prostitutes I had just purchased told me how they had come to be 21st-century slaves.
Loss of Innocence January 28, 2004
Four years of sexual servitude had shattered Srey Mom's spirit and left her with no real family, other than the brothel owner she called ''Mother.''

Stopping The Traffickers January 31, 2004
Buying sex slaves and freeing them is not a long-term solution. It helps individuals but risks creating incentives for other girls to be kidnapped into servitude

Sex trafficking is as old as recorded history. Our own country experienced it in large doses during our frontier development.Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.

As many of you read these articles, you may at first think that this is problem that is 9000 miles away and none of our business. The sex trade breeds other problems and keeps Cambodia from attaining it's rightful place in a global society. We have committed thousands of soldiers and billions in treasure to democratize Iraq and brings schools to girls in Afghanistan. Our efforts in Cambodia are at a grass roots level where concerned Americans can make a difference by contributing time, money or voice to support the efforts of organizations like those below. Our leadership can lend their voice from the area of public diplomacy to perhaps shame the government of Cambodia into acting to end this problem.

Important links to groups working to improve conditions in Cambodia.

I hold a special place in my heart for the people of Southeast Asia. This comes from the time I spent in Vietnam and the legacy it left imprinted on my soul. America became involved in Vietnam and in turn, Cambodia with noble intents, that went horribly wrong in Cambodia as they descended into genocidal revolution in 1975.
In the past, I have written about a young woman whose parents escaped those killing fields to eventually make their way to America, A Resilient Nation and The First Saturday in May. She recently became the first in her family to graduate from a university with a BS in International Business. To imagine her, or her sisters consigned to a life like those described above, troubles me to no end. I will endeavor to write about this problem and follow Nicholas Kristof's efforts and those of the brave women like Sina and Somaly. Since 1975, we have opened our doors to those who stood by us and suffered as a result of our failed efforts in Southeast Asia. Reaching back to help those left behind, is the least we can do today.


Dan tdaxp said...

A good post.

One problem in this topic, and I think it's one that Kristof's entangled himself with it, is separating the issue of slavery from the issue of poor working conditions. The first may be a universal human rights concern -- the second is obviously a problem of economic development

Those on the left and right who wish to end prostitution as such further compound the problem, defining sex work as having poor working conditions per se, or even being a form of slavery per se.

HISTORYGUY99 said...

Hi Dan,

As always your comments are first rate and insightful.

You are right about the two issues. Prostitution as such is not so much the problem as the selling and buying of underage women, then using torture to maintain disipline.

Other countries currently tolerate
prostitution as do some counties in our own United States (Nevada). If it was revealed that the girls of the old "Mustang Ranch" were given electic shocks to keep them smiling, the public outrage would have seen the place burned down.

I agree that Kristof has moved from observer to crusader, when he became personally involved in trying to solve the prolem. In this case, I think if I were in his shoes, I would have done the same.

Dan tdaxp said...


Excellent reply.

As I think we agree, this is an issue that is so emotionally-laden it helps to think about it as consisting of its constuent parts.

For instance, underage labor in any industry tends to be a function of economic underdevelopment in the country in which such underage labor occurs. The problem from our perspective is not the underage labor as such, but that the country is so far in the gap of the global economy that the underage labor has a real chance to exist.

The use of a training regime, whether Skinnerian conditioning or late 19th-century Scientific Management or whatever, presumably thrives to the extent it is effective and management knows how to compare the effectiveness of such a training regime.

I presume that if the H.R. policy of any random factor in Guangzhou would become widespread in Nevada, this would create controversy. Indeed, that's why we have OSHA: because we can afford to create a floor in the quality of work for labor, and accept that this naturally results in some lost income.

HISTORYGUY99 said...


Thanks for your excellent comment.

As you mentioned about OSHA, a century ago we were just like those Guangzhou factories, with HR policies that were just this side of being an indentured worker.

The best to be said is that there is hope for change, as those of us who care raise our collective voices to support rulesets that allow for conditions that will build a better life.

Along the way, problems mostly solved in the core states, like priracy, slavery and the suppression of women, will begin to be stamped out in the gap states.

Dan tdaxp said...

I agree, though that is a long ways away from emphasizing the issue, or viewing it as the unfinished business of the 21st century, or however Kristoff puts it.

When the problem is a combination of "you're poor" and "I'm a puritan," the solution is wealth and MYOB.

Rev. Daniel said...


Please do not stop reporting these stories. I hope the world will get a hold of them and stand up to Human Trafficking. My wife and I are in College and we felt it was important to report about this slavery. Thank you for your reports and everything you do to help these women and girls.

HISTORYGUY99 said...

Hi Rev. Daniel,

Appreciate your comment and support.