Whether it is spoken about in newspapers, social media or even cafes, child sex trafficking is becoming an increasingly hot topic across the world.
But in the age of the internet – where people are constantly neck deep in information – the line between truth and fiction about issues can blur. For child sex trafficking, it is important to know the truth to correctly protect and educate others and – ultimately – end the trade.
To help set the record straight, Child Rescue has drawn on nearly 20 years of international experience to explain the basic reality of child sex trafficking in Southeast Asia.
Unmasking the true traffickers
Crumbling up the idea of traffickers being an underground gang of men selling children, international rescue director Mike says many traffickers are women.
In Cambodia and Thailand, nearly 70% of traffickers were women, according to a report in 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Female traffickers, Mike says, are cunning hunters who wield their femininity to build trust with parents and gain access to their children. The women scout poor villages and pretend to be career recruiters offering girls jobs in a nearby city.
“As a parent, you are going to trust a woman over a man to take your daughter away,” Mike says.
The women, who are often retired sex slaves, slowly wean off the girl’s contact with her parents after she is taken to a city and forced to have sex with men.
“They exploit these kids knowing full well what it is like.”
On top of women, Mike says a handful of poverty-stricken parents can also become traffickers out of desperation.
A quarter of children worldwide, who are today trafficked for sex, were sold by a family member, says global anti-trafficking agency Counter Data Trafficking Collaborative.
Mike says these poor parents in Southeast Asia will ‘sacrifice’ one of their children to work to help feed the family or pay a debt.
Families can become financially dependent on the money their daughter is able to send home. With this newfound security, many parents pretend to not know what their child does for work to dodge feeling guilty.
“Deep down, they know their kid is being trafficked,” Mike says.
Pushed down the slide
Unlike blockbuster movies where children are kidnapped and thrown into the sex industry, most children in Southeast Asia are tricked or led by necessity.
These kids, Mike says, often have only two options for work – farming or prostitution – because they lack education, work experience and even citizenship.
Alternatively, a single mother might seek work in the sex industry in an attempt to balance caring for her child during the day and earning an income at night.
“Ninety-nine percent of the girls never want to be in this situation,” Mike says.
Girls are often tricked too. Some traffickers lure girls to them by pretending to fall in love with them on social media and convincing them to leave their home country.
Guys just troll the internet for vulnerable kids.”
Other traffickers blatantly promote a ‘mysterious’ high-paying job on social media. They leave out key details about the job description, but to a trained eye, “you can read between the lines”. Naive girls, on the other hand, could miss the signs.
Taking advantage of a vulnerable girl is a profitable business model for the traffickers. They see it as an easy way to make a dollar in one of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world.
BILLION PER YEAR
The global sex trafficking industry was expected to earn $99 billion a year, according to a report in 2014 by global labour rights agency International Labour Organisation.
And while sex trafficking victims only made up a fifth of all human trafficking victims, they were making the most money for the industry – two-thirds of its annual profit. Most of this money was coming out of East Asia too.
In other words, the bulk of the industry’s income was coming from one small group of trafficking victims from one region.
Luxury penthouses with red silk bed linen are not typical workplaces for prostitutes – at least not in Southeast Asia. Mike says most child sex trafficking victims work in karaoke bars, massage parlours, brothels or on the street.
Street pimps, often women known as “mana-sans”, typically hold a tablet showcasing pictures and personal details of their sex workers, similar to a dinner menu at a restaurant.
As a client, you will pick a girl and location, and the pimp will send them to you.”
Additionally, Mike says, these girls are being sold online to pleasure customers by way of a live stream video where customers pay them to perform sexual acts.
“That’s very much the way of the future.”
Most traffickers are also not flying, boating or driving their victims long distances to sell them in one of these locations. Instead, most victims stay in or near their home country.
In East Asia, more than 85% of human trafficking victims, which includes people sold for labour, were sold within this region, according to a report in 2016 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Child sex trafficking victims cannot simply leave the industry. Mike says a shame-honour culture, death threats and the appeal of a luxury lifestyle can stop them.
A “shame-honour culture” is a term to describe a culture where people do not represent themselves but rather their group identities, such as their family or community. If a person violates their group identity’s expectations, they can humiliate everyone in the group.
Considering this culture, child sex victims can be too afraid to return home because they could cast shame upon their family or community, occasionally facing harsh consequences.
“[In severe cases] a girl … returns to the village and is violently beaten, torched or even set on fire because she brought shame onto the family,” Mike says.
Many girls also cannot leave their work place without facing harsh blackmail such as death threats. Or, disturbingly, some traffickers will take a paparazzi-like photo of a girl’s innocent sister to show her they can find and kill her sister too.
“They instill this fear into this girl that basically has no option but to work.”
Thirdly, these girls, who see no joy or hope in or outside the walls of the brothel, often stay in the trade because they can at least find glimpses of pleasure by affording materialistic items.
Mike says they buy cars, expensive phones and clothes, which creates a lavish lifestyle that they then become addicted to, especially after being raised in a poor village.
“These are things they have never dreamt of having.”
Pulling back the curtain
Contrary to a girl’s warm façade at a brothel, Mike says they do not want to be there and are good at masking their emotions.
Some girls have ‘sales targets’ where they must sleep with a certain number of men each month, or their pimp will beat them or deduct money from their wages.
“They have to get into roleplaying of making these men want to have sex with them.
“When he goes to the toilet, you’ll just see her whole demeanor change … then he will come back and she will, at the flick of a switch, turn it all back on.”
You’ll just see her whole demeanor change…”
These girls are also not protected by their pimps when they are with a customer.
Pimps turn a blind eye to their girl’s sexual interactions with customers, leaving the child at the mercy of a customer behind closed doors.
“Whatever he’s into, she has to participate in. Guys are fulfilling fantasies from porn.”
Considering all factors that play a role in child sex trafficking, Mike says, “there’s no rule to how people are trafficked. There is no black and white answer to everything.”
But they typically have one thing in common.
“Wherever you have desperation and poverty, you have exploitation.”
But despite this – and the mountain of other burdens listed earlier – child sex trafficking victims are surprisingly resilient, Mike says.
Most of them walk out of our programme and into bright futures such as returning home, gaining new skills and higher education, landing a safe job or starting their own business.
Child Rescue is relentlessly empowering the rescue of girls and helping them along their paths to freedom. Whether it’s raiding a brothel, intercepting a potential victim at the border or offering the hope of a better life to a girl in a bar, our work remains laser focused on rescuing children from exploitation.
This work is made possibly by the generosity of people like you. The issue might seem overwhelming but there is hope of rescue and bright futures. You can set the next child free; become a Rescue Partner today.
His name has been changed to protect his identity