Selling Children for Sex

As many as 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked for sexual exploitation every year. In Cambodia, one third of the country’s 55,000 sex workers are between 12 and 17. The just-released documentary film, “Redlight,” focuses on five Cambodian children, four girls and a boy, as they recount their horrific experiences. These children’s stories vary in detail, but share too many things in common: all four girls were trafficked by people they knew, either tricked by a neighbor into thinking they were going to the city to see a sibling or find well-paid work, or sold outright by a parent. Their shared experiences include repeated rape, torture, captivity, subjugation to fear and intimidation, having their hymens sewn and re-sewn to fetch, over and over again, a high price for their virginity.

The camera captures something else they have in common; haunted eyes overwhelming their smooth, unlined children’s faces. Despite having escaped or having been rescued, they are faced with obstacles beyond the already enormous challenges of recovering physically and psychologically. They are being returned to a society in which they will be stigmatized, rejected and shamed. Susan Bissell, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF, author Kevin Bates and narrator Lucy Liu examine the cultural factors affecting both the prevalence of trafficking and the fact that justice and reintegration into society seem almost impossible for its victims.

Communities where trafficking originates share poverty, corruption, the undervaluation of female children and, of course, demand — often heightened by tourism. In recent years, HIV/AIDS has increased the demand for virgins, and therefore for children. Survivors of trafficking are heavily stigmatized, so for those few who are brave and resilient enough to press charges, court cases are extremely difficult to win. Traffickers can persist in their highly lucrative trade without fear of retribution. In Cambodia, history adds an additional set of factors: 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians are still feeling the ravages of Pol Pot. Families torn apart, a lack of trust among neighbors, migration back to cities emptied during that period, an extremely young population (approximately 50% below age 20) with few job opportunities.

At great personal risk, grass-roots activist Somaly Mam, herself a survivor of child trafficking, and prominent politician and women’s rights advocate Mu Sochua have taken the children of Redlight, and thousands of others, under their protective wings. From supporting rescue operations to providing emotional counseling and legal advice, they are the voices of hope, struggling to overhaul a system that has failed its most vulnerable. While laws exist that purport to protect children, the laws on the books clearly do not work. We learn how a court ruled that seven men who raped and cut open with a knife a seven-year-old girl because she was too small were released because they were old and would suffer in jail, whereas the girl, in the words of the judge, was young and would forget all about it. Both Somaly Man and Mu Sochua are demanding policy changes, including education, enforcement, assistance and protection. (For their efforts, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. We learn in a tragic endnote to the film that Somaly Mam’s 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped and raped in retaliation for her mother’s activism.) Israeli directors Guy Jacobson and Adi Ezroni took considerable risks to ensure the careful documentation in “Redlight,” which includes hidden camera footage from inside Cambodian brothels. The film notes the global responsibility for putting an end to this problem, including wider adoption of extraterritorial laws, so countries can prosecute their own nationals and residents who travel to other countries for the sexual exploitation of children; and the necessity for the United Nations, governments and multinational corporations to work together. This demand for international cooperation comes just as the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) is expected to come to a vote in the U.S. Congress this fall, after having failed to do so through the three sessions since it was introduced in 2007. “Redlight” paints a bleak picture of child trafficking and sex slavery, but it also offers a powerful case for taking strong action to make change.

The great hero of the film is Rena, the teenage sister of Sokha, one of the girls tricked into prostitution. Over the course of the film, we learn how Rena found her sister, rescued her from a brothel, defied convention by standing by her, encouraged other girls from her village abducted by the same team to join her in pressing charges, and successfully took the kidnappers to court. In a rare victory, thanks to Rena’s unwavering resolve, the trafficker was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and the brothel owner to 18 years. But Sokha, in addition to her’s many challenges, has “lost her soul.” She is addicted to drugs, traumatized and in shock. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, we watch Sokha undergo a ritual to recover her soul. Despite her sister’s efforts, Sokha eventually returns to a life of prostitution, but Rena, inspiringly, fights on.

Elizabeth Mandel is a documentary filmmaker with a special interest in women’s empowerment and gender-based violence. She co-directed the 2010 documentary “Pushing the Elephant,” about a Congolese mother and daughter.