Federal Politics


How you can fight child-sex slavery

Srey, a thin, graceful and serious 10-year-old girl, was five years old when her mother sold her to a brothel.

Child-sex slavery is an unfortunate reality in Cambodia, where Srey lives, and in other countries in South-East Asia, where such stories are not uncommon.

Thousands of children, from as young as three, are forced to work in brothels. They are locked in tiny rooms and made to have sex with up to 20 men a day. When they resist they are often tortured.

I met Srey at a shelter in eastern Cambodia, which houses girls who have been rescued from the sex trade. When I arrived, Srey and another little girl ran up and with a staff member gave me a tour. The girls pointed out things and chattered away in Khmer to each other.

I was visiting the shelter as part of a charity bicycle ride for an organisation called Project Futures, which raises funds to combat human trafficking in Australia and South-East Asia.

My visit gave me an insight into the terrible experiences of child-sex slaves, and an understanding of what can be done to stop this trade.


I also met Somaly Mam, the founder of this and other shelters. Somaly is a former child prostitute who now leads the fight against sexual slavery across South-East Asia through her charity, the Somaly Mam Foundation. The Foundation is committed to ending human trafficking around the world.

Srey was rescued during a police raid involving Somaly and her team. After she was rescued, Srey lay motionless for long periods of time. It was soon discovered that she had AIDS. She was treated with medication, which made her hair fall out. Somaly wasn't expecting her to live much longer. Then one day, Srey looked up at her. Calling Somaly the most fitting term possible as the woman who has loved her most in her life, Srey said ''mummy, I don't want to die''.

An incredible will to live kicked in, and Srey started taking her medication on her own three times a day. She now constantly tells Somaly and the other children at the shelter that they have to be strong. Her hair has grown back and is beautiful.

Somaly once said to me ''we know she won't always be with us, but what more can we ask for than she's happy before she leaves us''.

What can we, as Australians, do to combat child prostitution and give dignity and hope to the victims of this evil trade?

First, we can support NGOs that work on the ground. Organisations such as the Somaly Mam Foundation are making a big difference. Thousands of girls and women in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos have been rescued by this one organisation alone. The Foundation has established shelters where the survivors - as those who have been rescued call themselves - are safe and have the opportunity to rehabilitate. They go to school and learn occupational skills, such as hairdressing and sewing.

Secondly, we can ensure that we keep our laws strong. The Australian government has recently strengthened laws against the sexual exploitation of children. Australians who travel overseas to sexually abuse children are now subject to heavier penalties of up to 20 years' imprisonment. People who use the internet or mobile phones to deal with child pornography or child abuse now face up to 15 years' imprisonment. We can also support other countries in the strengthening of their own laws and enforcement.

Thirdly, Australians should take the time to become more acquainted with this issue and be prepared to discuss it in families and communities. It shouldn't be a taboo topic. As horrific as child sexual exploitation is, it's important to have it addressed openly in Australia by parliamentarians, the legal profession and the media.

Fourthly, Australia and other First World nations need to clean up our own backyards. We need to devote additional resources to tackling the prostitution of children in our own countries. The recent arrests of three men and two women in NSW who were allegedly prostituting children as young as 12, some of whom were homeless, demonstrates the need for vigilance and action on this issue.

Every day, I think about something Somaly said to me: ''You don't have bad days. You don't know what a bad day is. My girls have a bad day EVERY day''.

Somaly was right - comparatively, we don't know what a bad day is. Let's work for a world where children such as Srey never have to suffer this type of trauma.

Joel Williams is a member of Project Futures, an Australian non-profit organisation which raises awareness and funds for programs dedicated to combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Australia and South-East Asia. These are his own views.