"Between 2000 and 2002, there were many foreigners—thousands each year—who came here. There were many at-risk children, and prostitution was very rampant. We worked night and day until we were able to be in control of this situation. We can see that the current situation is completely different… We will make every effort to crack down on any persistent criminals and make this place safe today and in the future" - General Pol Phie They
Last summer I had the opportunity to work with International Justice Mission in Cambodia. I have always admired their work and been a huge supporter of everything they do. Over the years, I have photographed just about every project you can imagine in the humanitarian sector, but I have never photographed sex trafficking stories of any kind. And to be honest...they scared me. I think it's easy for us to turn our eyes from the things we don't understand or don't know what to do with. I have so many friends involved in Anti-Trafficking efforts and I'm so thankful for their hard work. But I stayed clear from involving myself in these stories. I actually started reading Gary Haugen's (Founder of IJM) book, The Locust Effect, but I put it down. I couldn't finish it. Just the first chapter broke me to pieces.
When IJM asked me to work on this project in Cambodia and photograph the change that's happened over the past 10 years because of the collaboration between the government and various organizations, I knew I had to say yes.. I'm a person who is always searching for hope in a story. I do believe it's always there. The human spirit fights for it. This story was covered in hope. The hope and outcome of what CAN happen if people work together to fight injustices. I had the gift of meeting the most incredible men and women who risked their lives for the safety of thousands of children. It was an absolute honor. They truly are heroes and I hope you see that in these images. One of the photos that made me a little nervous was photographing Her Excellency, Secretary of State, Chou Bun Eng. The only photographs I had seen of her online were in her office. I really wanted to go for something different. Before the photoshoot, I pulled up examples on my computer of photographs I wanted to take of her in a field nearby. I was thrilled when she agreed. She brought an entourage of about 20 people as we photographed in the hot Cambodian sun. I'm so thankful for the hard work she's put into fighting for the protection of so many young children.
We listened to stories from morning to night everyday for a week. I heard things that I couldn't believe. When I was photographing General Pol Phie They, he pointed to a building and explained to me that his Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police helped to rescue hundreds of women and children who were being sold for sex in it just 10 years ago. I learned that over 4,000 foreign men came monthly to that specific village for sex with children. There is a café underneath the building where men would sit and wait for pimps to offer them children for sale. There are no words for these types of things. I was so disgusted. But also oh so thankful for the raids that happened and rescued children. The justice system is now in place in Cambodia and prosecuting perpetrators. They can't get away with it any longer.
I poured everything I possibly could into capturing these images and stories. I knew the world needed to see this story. I trekked the long journey back home to Texas processing little bits and pieces of what I had heard and seen. A friend picked me up from the airport and brought me to my house. I was on my doorstep, reaching into my bag when I realized I had given my house keys to someone before I left and they went out of town. I was locked out of my house. Then it hit me. It felt like a waterfall. I fell to my knees and began to cry and cry and cry. My dear friend took me to her house and sat me on her couch and let me process for hours. I share this because I want all of you to know that it's okay to mourn the awful things that happen in this world. I mourn for those who do not deserve these awful things that are done to them. I mourn for those innocent children. I mourn for those who are afflicted by war. I am so angry at those who selfishly use and abuse others for their pleasure. There are sick sinful people in this world.
I questioned a lot after that trip.
"Where are you in all of this God?"
"Where were you when that child was taken?"
"Why did you not rescue them before this pain was caused to them?"
"Will you even protect me if I was attacked or taken?"
There is so much evil in this world and when that's all we see, it's hard to trust that God is our protector and a Good Father. But He is. His goodness and mercy are never ending. He is the ultimate rescuer and He does His good work in us and through us, His people. The thought came to my mind, what if Gary Haugen didn't act upon the vision that God gave him to start IJM? What if instead he decided to go into a different field of law? How many little ones and people in general would still be in slavery around the globe. How many other lawyers wouldn't be working at places like IJM right now to fight for Justice? I don't know Gary very well but I am a witness to seeing what his Yes to God and the Yes of so many other's can do.
We all have a part. I am still processing this trip. I am still questioning...but my questions are shifting.
"God, what do you want me to do here on this earth to show people your Goodness?"
"God, what can I do to fight against slavery and injustice?"
I hope you take time and enjoy reading through these stories below and hearing about the transformation that has take place over the past 10 years in Cambodia.
If you feel compelled to do something right now, you can become a freedom partner with IJM.
Captain Keo Rattana
Captain Keo Rattana knows danger. He works in the shady streets where traffickers try to abuse children. But he rarely feels afraid anymore. He’s been trained well, and he’s helped rescue dozens of children successfully.
Still, it’s difficult for his family at home. “My mother was not happy about my job. She was afraid when I was in an operation, that I might be at risk.” He smiles. “But I told her that we arrested all the perpetrators, so she does not need to worry.” This is the gentle confidence of a new generation of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police.
Once seen as uniformly ineffective and corrupt—today they’re ready to investigate trafficking cases and treat victims with dignity. They take pride in their work and want to keep Cambodia moving in the right direction.
The Captain says, “I hope all people across the country will become aware of the law and enforce the law together. Whenever we understand the law together, we are able to prevent and suppress trafficking. We must all work as a team.”
“For many years, this fight against sex trafficking felt like a long, dark tunnel. I now see that hope—that light—coming through.” Helen Sworn has lived in Cambodia since 1999 and vividly remembers meeting children who were being exploited, with no one to cry out to.
She founded Chab Dai Coalition in 2005 to help rally the NGO community and partner with the government to protect these little ones in need. Projects like Chab Dai’s resource library (pictured) have kept the anti-trafficking community equipped, unified and ready for the challenges ahead—all contributing to some of the world’s best aftercare for girls.
Helen says, “I describe the difference as night and day to what it was in the year 2000, really. When I see police and the government standing up and saying sex trafficking is not acceptable, it brings me hope not just on this particular issue, but it brings me much greater hope for Cambodia. It doesn’t mean Cambodia doesn’t still have challenges—we have a long way to go—but look how far we’ve come in the last 15 years.”
Sek Saroeun once worked as a DJ in a popular bar where girls were sold for sex, and he witnessed the violence and cruelty they endured nearly every day. “I could see a lot of injustice happening, so I had to do something,” he says.
Saroeun put himself through law school and along the way helped gather information for IJM and police to rescue dozens of children. Today he’s a leading attorney and the head of our legal department. He’s secured justice for hundreds of survivors and ensured many traffickers are jailed for their crimes.
He says, “When we started this journey, I thought it was impossible because of the broken public justice system. But remember: any problem can be solved.” After more than 10 years in the fight for justice, he feels the transformation in Cambodia all around him. “I can see that it is safe for our children…I feel very privileged to be part of this change.”
"I never thought a human being could do this to small children,” she said softly. “They are so innocent and cannot protect themselves. They don’t know what you are doing to them.” These were the shattering moments for Pastor Oeun Sienglai—when her eyes were opened to the child abuse and trafficking happening in the quiet Cambodian villages around her.
Once she knew more, Sienglai had to act. She and her husband have woven child protection into their outreach, and they encourage parents not to leave young kids home alone—so girls like 8-year-old Dany (pictured) will be safe as they grow up. Thousands of Cambodian church leaders and community members like this are helping to end trafficking from the ground up.
Sienglai says, “I was touched and changed first. I will do my best and use my life to help and encourage others to protect the children around them … It’s like the influence of the rain: one drop of water, and the waves go outward.”
Lim Tith heads UN anti-trafficking efforts at the highest levels—but he vividly remembers how life felt on Cambodia’s streets when child sex trafficking raged in the early 2000s. “In those days, people were so afraid. They did not go to see law enforcement, because they did not understand that officials were there to help,” he says.
That environment fueled him and other UN leaders to action: with crucial policy change and collaboration with government and NGO leaders. They reformed the main trafficking law in 2008—now with serious sentences for offenders. The result? Child sex trafficking decreased, and the public has greater confidence that law enforcement can and will protect them.
Tith says, “The justice system has seen a lot of improvement. If the situation had continued like before, I think it would be so sad for Cambodia and for the world. But we should be proud. Sex trafficking—particularly child sex trafficking—has decreased. There is some work we still need to do, but this is a big success for Cambodia.”
Sex trafficking once flourished in Cambodia because criminals knew they could get away with it. But today their impunity is ending.
Courts, judges and prosecutors are more responsive and child-friendly than 10 years ago—and traffickers are being held accountable as a result. “I can see that Cambodia has improved in cracking down on human trafficking,” says Judge Kor Vandy. Reformed anti-trafficking laws are much clearer, and his staff can more easily collaborate with police, prosecutors and social services on cases.
Thanks to reforms he championed, victims can testify safely in court without seeing their abusers face-to-face. It’s a compassionate solution, making sure the truth can be heard in every case—and justice can be served.
The Judge says, “I want to send the message to criminals who want to commit crimes in Cambodia: it’s not as easy as they may think."
General Pol Phie They
Reducing a crime like child sex trafficking requires bold moves to hold violent criminals accountable. General Pol Phie They accepted each new challenge as it’s come and is strategically raising the standard of his police units. They’ve successfully shut down abusive brothels, rescued thousands of victims, and stopped hundreds of traffickers and pimps from hurting children.
“We have a heart to protect the country—to make sure there is security and social order—by ensuring rights and freedom for all citizens, and by ensuring citizens have understanding and are free from trafficking, exploitation and suppression.
Perpetrators may keep coming up with more trickery—but what we have is our will and our responsibility to fight against them.”
H.E. Chou Bun Eng
Progress on child sex trafficking wouldn’t be possible without action and ownership from change-makers like Secretary of State Chou Bun Eng. Her passionate leadership has helped unite government ministries, community leaders and NGOs to tackle trafficking as a unified front.
Her Excellency told us, “In the early 2000s, we found that 20 or 30 percent [of sex workers] were teenagers or underage. At that time, the government and police tried to conduct raids and put pressure on the brothels. Even though we were willing, our response didn’t seem to be enough.” Since then, she’s championed hundreds of programs to prevent trafficking, raise awareness in the community, and improve the justice system’s response—all leading to a dramatic decrease in the crisis-levels of sex trafficking.
She says, “Only strong collaboration straight to the same goal together has helped us move towards solving the problem…I am so happy the government has a strong willingness to combat trafficking in persons and put children as our priority.”
Phnom Penh with IJM’s Christa Sharpe stirs up ghosts within Cambodia’s pleasant capital—but only to show how far it’s come. She’s seen this city change year over year since she moved here in 2005. Her favorite streets, now full of coffee shops and boutiques, used to be disturbingly different.
Christa says, “In the early days, we were shocked to the core by what we saw: an open, wholesale market of young children for rape, in mass numbers across the city. Abusers trumpeted Cambodia as THE place to purchase young children for sex, where the justice system was so dysfunctional, so ABSENT, that people could exploit the vulnerable without fear or shame.” But Christa also remembers the bright moments showing change was possible, as IJM worked with anti-trafficking leaders to confront the epidemic of violence.
It’s a different story today. “Thousands of girls and women have been rescued. Hundreds of traffickers and abusers have been held accountable. Passionate government officials are working hard, and their consistent action has led to an astounding decrease in the number of minors being trafficked and sold. The trajectory of Cambodia changed. What seemed impossible years ago has become POSSIBLE.”
This vibrant little park in Phnom Penh buzzes with laughter—but just a few years ago it told a much darker story. “There were many children here being prostituted and sexually abused. Most of them were street children lured by foreigners,” remembers You Sopheak, a director at Cambodia’s Department Of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth.
Sopheak says, “We saw so many vulnerable children—just like our children—and we knew if we didn’t help them they would be victimized.” Cambodia’s social services once struggled to keep up with the needs of these many victims.
But today, children meet caring government social workers and a robust private aftercare system. Aftercare leaders are improving their skills, advocating for more resources, and working hard to ensure these children can heal from trauma and thrive once again.
Sopheak adds, “Even though we have a lot of poverty, we cannot let poverty control us. Cambodians need to stay strong and protect our children. I believe it’s possible because we have seen change already.”
Perhaps the greatest testaments to Cambodia’s transformation are the survivors of trafficking themselves. Many of these young women have overcome years of trauma and bravely stood up for justice.
At 12 years old, Lyna* pushed past her fear to bravely testify in court and eventually saw her trafficker sentenced to 11 years in prison.
She’s just one of the 1000s of trafficking survivors overcoming abuse and becoming the leaders Cambodia needs. We asked what she would say to people who made her journey possible.
With calm confidence, she shared: “To the police and judges in Cambodia, I want to say thank you for helping victims…To the people who are helping to stop trafficking, I really thank them for having the heart to help. Because of their love, we can be changed.
To other victims, I want to tell them I know how hard it is. If your family or anyone doesn’t care about you, there are people who care, and God cares. I would encourage them to stay strong, don’t look down on yourself, and be a warrior.”
Stories written by Scott Adams
Art Direction by Vera Leung