Story Highlights• More than 1 million children in global sex trade each year, U.S. State Dept. says
• 50,000 to 100,000 women and children involved in Cambodia's sex industry
• Gang rape, AIDS, torture afflict the women and children in this field
By Dan Rivers
Adjust font size:
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) -- At an age when most children might be preparing for their first day of school, Srey, 6, already has undergone trauma that is almost unspeakable.
She was sold to a brothel by her parents when she was 5. It is not known how much her family got for Srey, but other girls talk of being sold for $100; one was sold for $10.
Before she was rescued, Srey endured months of abuse at the hands of pimps and sex tourists. (Watch where freed girl is found upon reunion with reporter )
Passed from man to man, often drugged to make her compliant, Srey was a commodity at the heart of a massive, multimillion-dollar sex industry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
"It is huge," said Mu Sochua, a former minister of women's and veteran's affairs who is an anti-sex trade activist.
The precise scale of Cambodia's sex trade is difficult to quantify. International organizations -- such as UNICEF, ECPAT and Save the Children -- say that anywhere from from 50,000 to 100,000 women and children are involved. An estimated 30 percent of the sex workers in Phnom Penh are under the age of 18, according to the United Nations. The actual figure may be much higher, activists say.
Global sex industry
Around the world, more than 1 million children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade each year, according to the U.S. State Department. The State Department believes Cambodia is a key transit and destination point in this trade.
"Trafficking for sexual exploitation also occurs within Cambodia's borders, from rural areas to the country's capital, Phnom Penh, and other secondary cities in the country," the State Department wrote in a 2006 report. "The Government of Cambodia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so."
Sochua said that with millions of Cambodians struggling to live on less than 50 cents a day, many women turn to the sex industry. Poverty is also often what drives parents to sell their child or themselves on the streets.
"Always a child is left behind, often a girl, who is preyed on by traffickers," Sochua added.
An unlikely savior
Srey was rescued from the life of a sex slave by Somaly Mam, a former prostitute who runs shelters for the victims of Cambodia's sex trade. Somaly has rescued 53 children, so far. Many of them have profound psychological trauma. Some clearly are mentally ill. (Watch how one woman has saved dozens of children from brothels )
"A lot of them, when they arrive, have psychological problems ... very big problems. ... And they never have love by the people, by their parents," Somaly said.
One girl at Somaly's shelter appears especially disturbed. She was rescued after being imprisoned for two years in a cage, where she was repeatedly raped.
She needs psychiatric care, but there is none available. Somaly says she does her best to give this girl love and support, but that it's not easy with so many other needy children around.
Somaly herself suffered terrible ordeals when she worked the streets, including seeing her best friend murdered. She is determined to build something positive out of so much despair.
Her work has caught the attention of world leaders, celebrities and religious figures. Her office in Phnom Penh is adorned with photos of her meeting Pope John Paul II and messages of support from governments and charities.
Despite the attention, Somaly said the situation on the street is not getting better. Gang rapes of prostitutes are becoming more common, she said, and many of the attackers don't use condoms. Instead, they share a plastic bag.
"Poor women, they have been raped by eight, 10, 20, 25 men ... they hit them. They receive a lot of violence," she said.
HIV-AIDS also remains a persistent, though declining, problem among Cambodia's female sex workers.
About 20 percent of Cambodia's female sex workers are HIV-positive, according to Cambodia's Ministry of Health. This compares with the 39 percent of sex workers who tested positive in 1996, according to the Health Ministry.
To help sex workers transition to a more normal life, Somaly is hoping to expand her refuge in the countryside outside Phnom Penh, where former sex workers attend school and learn skills like weaving and sewing.
Asked what the future holds for Srey, Somaly stroked the girl's hair and paused.
Srey is HIV-positive, she said.
In such a poor country, without decent hospitals or medical care, Srey's future is bleak. Somaly just hopes she can make this girl's life bearable for as long as it lasts.
These former child sex workers learn how to weave and sew to support themselves financially.