PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Every day in Cambodia children are bought and sold in the sex trade. Sadly this is usually done by a family member – a mother, a grandmother, a brother. Last week I had the opportunity to travel to the notorious Sway Pak area, just outside of Phnom Penh, to see an organization dedicated to preventing and rescuing victims of this trade.
For two hours I met with Don Brewster, the founder of Agape International Missions to understand the current situation and what he and his organization are doing about it. The problem starts with the lack of a moral compass for so many of the population. From 1975 to 1979 approximately 1.8 million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime, which accounted for approximately 27 percent of the entire population. The Khmer desired an agricultural utopia, instead they brought a brutal hell to the country.
Literally everyone was driven out of the cities and into the countryside, and all who were educated or held positions of authority were killed. If you wore glasses, it was a death sentence as it indicated you may have education. As the regime looked for scapegoats, families were turned against their own families, children we forced to kill their parents and relatives, the country fell into a moral abyss as the genocide took life after life.
Today, in the impoverished Sway Pak area, there are many ethnic Vietnamese who migrated there years ago and who live on less than $2 per day. Many of them get into trouble borrowing money from local loan sharks. When the loans balloon, many find the sale of their child to the sex trade as the easy way out. Others sell their vulnerable relatives to the trade simply to make a profit.
The Karaoke bars then house these underage children in a back room, where a pedophile can easily purchase their services. The owner of the bar will arrange to have the child delivered to the pedophile’s hotel room, much like a pizza delivery. The child may stay there for days, being repeatedly raped.
When Don visited Cambodia on a mission eight years ago, he saw the child slave trade was still vibrant, and he decided to do something about it. He and his wife Bridget have devoted their lives to fighting slavery in Cambodia. He purchased the building where the whorehouse was located. The “Pink Room” upstairs held virgins for sale. Of course virgins demanded a higher price as many pedophiles believed that having sex with a virgin could cure their AIDS.
Don set up a school for the kids, gave them a safe area to play and built a church. He needs help to instill a moral compass and to change what is in the locals’ hearts to help them understand the difference between right and wrong. He opened a school that currently has a few hundred students, to provide them with education and options. He opened an employment center that provides sustainable jobs for 73 ex-sex workers. I was amazed at how young some of them are. They enthusiastically make shirts and bracklets, and are clearly happy and relieved to be there. He opened “The Lord’s Gym,” to help build relationships with local young men. His shoestring operation has grown each year; there are hundreds on the waiting list, and more girls each month seek shelter at this facility and employment center.
Is he making a difference? In looking in the eyes of the 73 ex-workers I saw, there is no question that he has given them a chance of a decent life and is making an impact. Just as important though are the people he has helped by preventing their sale into slavery. He is also working with local authorities to prosecute the brothel owners who prey on the children and utilize the law to help end the underage sex trade. Extreme poverty combined with a lack of a moral compass has combined to create a horrible situation in Cambodia. Don Brewster and his team are an inspiration to what can be done by good people in the face of such evil.