Cambodia - Child Rights Coalition Asia
Nearly two decades since the end of its civil war, Cambodia struggles to emerge with economic progress by further exploiting its vast natural and human resources. But as it aggressively attempts to catch up with its Mekong neighbors particularly Thailand and Vietnam by opening itself up for foreign investment and loans, Cambodia has been largely underperforming in protecting its own people, especially children.
For example, while there have been significant changes in its tourism infrastructure, little has been done to eschew cultural barriers which tend to render women and girls even more vulnerable to abuses, including those resulting from the country’s economic strategies. In fact, the government has been deliberately committing countless human rights violations which have a profound impact on children.
In recent years, Cambodia hit the headlines as it sanctioned the eviction of families from their homes to give way to so-called “development” projects. The authorities are also known for its sweeping arbitrary arrests and torture of minors suspected of drug abuse. Moreover, Cambodia has been a hot spot for trafficking of persons especially women and girls, discrimination against girls and violence against women and girls.
Cambodia is a signatory to the major international human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its related Optional Protocols. In recent years, the country has created laws and procedures which aim to protect children. However much remains to be desired particularly in the implementation of these measures. For instance, in 2008, the government passed a new law that provides for stiffer penalties for trafficking and that gives more clarity in defining minors as those under 18 years. However Cambodia remains under Tier 2, which means that the country is below average in complying with the minimum standards in preventing trafficking.
The last few years saw several forced evictions undertaken by the state both in the city and the countryside without sufficient legal basis nor public consultation. Some of these are sanctioned even by state actors and multilateral development banks and claimed by civil society organizations. Families who were denied their homes were likewise denied of their sources of livelihood. In many cases, they were undercompensated that it became difficult for them to rebuild their lives. The Center on Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE) linked forced eviction to children’s disrupted education, malnutrition and lack of safety since evicted families stay in tents by the roadside and without the usual sources of food for a prolonged period. In 2008, Amnesty International estimated that some 150,000 Cambodians were at risk of being evicted: “Tens of thousands have already been forcibly evicted in recent years, many left homeless, others relocated to inadequate resettlement sites with poor infrastructure, lacking basic amenities including sanitation, and with limited access to work opportunities.” In 2009, when authorities evicted 14 family houses in the community of Dey Krahorm, 140 children were rendered homeless.
Evictions tend to aggravate already worrying figures on the health of Cambodian children. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the country has the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the region, at 97 and 141 per 1,000 live births, respectively. Nearly half of its children are also showing signs of moderate to severe stunting.
Although the government has managed to decrease the prevalence of HIV AIDS, many children still die of the disease. In 2007, there were 4,400 children under 14 years who were living with HIV AIDS. It has also been said that 10 per cent of all orphans in Cambodia had parents whose lives were claimed by the disease. Meanwhile, statistics on disabled children are nil. In March 2009, it was said that there were some 70,870 children and young people with disabilities but this figure was deemed very partial, excluding those who live in remote areas.
Extreme poverty and desperation, coupled with discrimination against women, girls and minorities have led many to unexpected places and degrading situations. Trafficking is a severe problem in Cambodia, where victims are bound either to the capital or to neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. In its report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) described how easily parents could be duped into sending their children to work in the cities and how their children are eventually stripped off their dignity: “Victims are then sold to rich people and are sexually abused on a frequent basis in barber shops, massage parlours, hotels, karaoke clubs and guest houses. After they are considered to have lost their virginity, they are sold to brothels.”
At least 200 girls are forced into the sex industry annually but the number can be much higher since reporting is uncommon and the nature of trafficking can be unpredictable. Indeed, in 2009, the Ministry of Social Affairs referred to NGO shelters 535 cases of sex trafficking from the provinces alone. An NGO alternative report to the CRC read, “A relatively new trend is the trafficking of Cham girls to Malaysia as domestic servants but there are reports that dozens ended up in brothels and some of those who escaped were detained for months as irregular immigrants and sometimes brutalised while in police custody.
At the moment, there are no conclusive statistics on sexual exploitation of children. But the same report suggested that based on the surveys of the United Nations Development Programme and the Cambodian Ministry of Planning, around 5,000 or 30 per cent of 80,000 to 100,000 sex workers were under 18 years in 2000. More recent data show that 198 of 5,317 prostitutes were trafficked children, figures which somehow correlate with those of NGOs which typically care for 200 to 300 children who were sexually exploited. The group Action to End Exploitation places a much higher value: Of the 55,000 commercial sex workers across the country, a third consists of children.
Cambodia has made serious efforts in tourism industry while sexual and commercial exploitation of children continues to be a challenge to this country. Westerners have been tagged as key clients of the trade. Some are likely to have pioneered online pornography that involves children.
But contrary to the public imagination, locals are still the major patrons of the sexual and commercial exploitation of women and children. As the alternative NGO report revealed, “Although accurate information about nationals engaging in child sex is lacking, it is common knowledge in the country that a significant proportion of the male Cambodian population patronise brothels and other sex establishments where under-aged girls are waiting for them. In fact most of these men view 14 or 15 year old girls or boys not as children, 15 years being the traditional age when a girl is presumably ready for marriage.”
Corruption in government institutions has been a big barrier in curbing sexual exploitation and, trafficking as well as in administering restorative justice particularly to children who are in conflict with the law. As the US State Department said, “Police and judicial officials are both directly and indirectly involved in trafficking. Some local police and government officials extort money or accept bribes from brothel owners, sometimes on a daily basis, in order to allow the brothels to continue operating.” Corruption has also aggravated Cambodia’s still weak inter-country adoption mechanisms, where it has been widely rumored that state-run institutions themselves turned over orphans to foreign couples in exchange for huge sum of money.
Corruption has also worsened the already deteriorated condition of Cambodia’s juvenile justice system. In the past, it had been reported that children were not separated from adults, fed stale meals and forced to work. Their parents were also not notified. While some changes have been made, t there still seems to be a lot of money behind rounding up and incarcerating minors. According to the Human Rights Watch report, “Skin on the Cable: The Illegal Arrests, Arbitrary Detention and Torture of People Who Use Drugs in Cambodia”, of the 2,300 detained in 2008, one quarter were children. The release of children usually comes at a price, as parents are left with no choice but to bribe police officers. The situation becomes worse for young women.
Ultimately such low status accorded to women and girls has been a major culprit behind many stories of violence against children, especially girls. Having sex with a “virgin” could fetch as much as USD4,000. But once one’s virginity is lost, a girl is likely to be sent to a brothel, drugged so that she could be sexually exploited many times over.
Many children are also exposed to the rampant cases of domestic violence experienced by their mothers and kin. This explains why several boys have also been involved in raping and gang-raping girls. Sixty-one to 70 per cent of rape cases involve girls. Yet many more cases go unreported given the sensitive nature of rape. Reporting also has some negative social and cultural consequences for the survivors in communities which widely accept the inferiority of women and girls. As ADHOC asserted: “The widespread belief that it is normal for men to abuse women as an expression of masculinity is supported by pornographic material, which results in the transmission to children of customs that go against a respectful view of women.”
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
Concluding Observations: Cambodia (CRC/C/CO/KHM/2)
CRC 2nd Periodic Report (CRC/C/KHM/2-3)
CRC Initial State Report (CRC/C/11/Add.16)