The first week of October, I visited Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines with Love146, an organization dedicated to the end of child trafficking and exploitation. This week I’ll be posting a 3-part series of posts about what I learned and saw on that trip.
Do you know that thing that happens, when you share a struggle that you have with someone and you pour your heart out and they begin their answer with, “Well, it’s simple. You just…” and it feels like they punched you in the gut? And you want to scream, “It’s not simple to ME or I wouldn’t be talking about it with you!”
Prior to my trip, I’d tell people a rough version of where I was going and what I was doing and I’ll have to admit, I thought it was a simple problem: just get people to stop exploiting children.
Part of the problem is that when we think about this issue, many of us think of girls in cages. And while that image pulls at our heartstrings (at least it should!), in reality, child trafficking and exploitation is much more ambiguous and complicated.
Yes, everyone agrees we need to reduce the vulnerability of children. Duh. But that is much easier said than done, which was starkly demonstrated during the first several days of the trip in Cambodia. Consider the vulnerabilities inherently present in Cambodian life:
You have a culture in which, just a generation ago, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed 25% of the population – all the doctors, educators, artists, people with “soft hands.” Nearly everyone we met had a story about aunts, uncles, parents, or even themselves subjected to this brutal regime. It’s a whole culture sorting its PTSD.
Largely because of Pol Pot, you have a very poor culture – even compared to its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. And where there’s poverty, there is exploitation. And where there’s exploitation, children are the most vulnerable.
Culturally, Cambodia is mostly Buddhist, a faith not often associated with a strong justice ethic. Rather, the focus of Buddhism is on inner peace in spite of one’s circumstance (a message more of us in the Christian tradition could learn). However, when a culture is not focused on justice, it creates an attitude that says, “this is my lot in life, I need to accept it.”
And finally, a marked difference from our culture is the idea that children – particularly the oldest daughter – are responsible for their ancestors. So, when we interviewed garment factory workers in Phnom Penh and asked them how much they make, they reported their base salary is $128/month and that they send about $80 of that home to their rural village. And if they get a raise, all of that is sent home as well, keeping these girls impoverished and vulnerable.
Against these cultural norms, it became clear that preventing the trafficking and exploitation of children is a complex and nuanced issue. I could say a whole lot more here, but my point is this: as those who have the means to help, we need to avoid our tendency to minimize complicated problems by saying “They should just…” or “It’s simple,” and rather look deeply into what’s happening in the world and see how we can best put our resources to work making a difference. It’s easy to send money to a campaign to free girls from cages, but it’s more difficult to read and investigate and give to the issue, even when it’s nuanced, complicated and ambiguous.
The week after I got home, I turned on the TODAY show one morning and the top story was how a former basketball star was in critical condition after going on a bender in a Las Vegas brothel. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, men are purchasing teenage girls for sex, Jews & Palestinians are living in a powder keg, and drug cartels are killing civilians in Mexico.
Our culture is hell bent on keeping focus on the trivial. As good people who want to make a difference, we can’t be lulled to sleep by the inanity of American culture, passing off trivia as news.
If you don’t know what else to do, and this post moves you in any way, please consider making a donation to Love146. Love146 is a terrific organization that has studied the issue and developed deep expertise in the areas of prevention education and survivor care, while maximizing the effect of donor contributions.
[about the photo: I took this photo with my iPhone6s at the Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat, just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. I haven’t filtered it in any way. It really is that amazing, and yes those are trees roots growing over the temple walls on the left.]If you liked this post, please share it!