Not Just Girls in Cages: Love146 Trip (Part One)

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.]

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Where the Sex Trade Got Real

Four girls sit in a market stall not much larger than a single-car garage, intensely focused on their work. Each one hovers over a small notebook in which they practice artwork that, once they’ve achieved a level of confidence, they will paint on the fingernails of paying customers. They’re clearly embarrassed by the attention of the eight Americans watching. When they dare to look up from their work, they do so blushing.

These four girls work in a beer garden. I know what you’re thinking: craft beers served in large pint glasses, maybe even in lederhosen. But here in Phnom Penh, beer garden means something else entirely. Here, the beer garden (as well as the karaoke bars) are the places where young girls like these are expected to not only to serve drinks, but to entice the patron to eventually pay for other services.

These four girls – who look to be in their mid- to late teens – began their training with the Precious Women ministry just yesterday. They will be trained to paint nails first, as a way of learning a skill that will give them the ability to make income so that they can quit their job as a beergarden girl. The hope is that they will choose to enter a year-long vocational training program so that eventually they can arrange a micro-loan in order to start their own business. But, to be honest, that seems a million miles from here, and there are so many obstacles.

The reason I’m in Phnom Penh with Love146 is to see the how complex the problem of human trafficking is. We’ve met with various groups that Love146 has partnered with over the past decade, and let me tell you, there are so many factors that create vulnerabilities in these young girls. There’s a cultural vulnerability stemming from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, there is legislation, familial and cultural expectations and attitudes that make these girls vulnerable to those eager to exploit their bodies for money. We’ve sat with groups trying to make a difference and those who have dug deeply into the research trying to understand the problem and how to make a difference, how to end the trafficking of children, yes, but also all those who are vulnerable.

But, standing at the door of the market stall, watching these four girls practice their designs, I’m suddenly choked up and tears well up in my eyes, hidden behind my aviators. In just the next 12 hours, these young girls will be groped and fondled and eventually expected to fulfill the whims of men two and three times their age. And suddenly, right now, shit gets real. In this beautiful country, filled with beautiful people who almost sing their beautiful thank yous, hellos and goodbyes to us, this is what will happen tonight.

It breaks my heart. And I’m sure it breaks the heart of God as well.

If reading this makes you want to do something… please consider giving a gift to Love146.

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Why I’m in Southeast Asia This Morning

On the day this goes to post, I’ll be visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia. While most Americans are likely more familiar with Hitler’s crimes against the Jews in WWII, the 20th Century saw plenty of “gangster statesman*” murdering the masses. It’s estimated that Joseph Stalin killed somewhere around 50 million Russian, Mao killed 45 million in the four year “Great Leap Forward” and in Cambodia in the late seventies, Pol Pot  and the Khmer Rouge murdered somewhere around 2 million Cambodians – out of a population of approximately 8 million – in the late seventies. The Killing Fields are a number of sites where Pot and the Khmer Rouge slaughtered their countrymen and buried their remains.

(Can I pause for a second? Those numbers are staggering – the number of lives thrown away in the name of destructive ideologies. It’s really overwhelming.)

The reason I’m in Southeast Asia is actually about another kind of violence, though. Last spring, Jennifer and I went to New York with some friends where we were exposed to the work of Love146, an organization dedicated to “THE ABOLITION OF CHILD TRAFFICKING AND EXPLOITATION. NOTHING LESS.” My friend Peggy serves on the board, and we attended the Red Gala, where we were challenged by the reality of the problem and the work that Love146 is doing. (If you really want to hear the heart of Love146, you should listen to the founder, Rob Morris, on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, “Here’s the Thing.” I cried driving home from church late one night as I listened to Rob tell his story. Or, this video is powerful as well.)

There are wide-ranging statistics for the prevalence of human trafficking, but whatever statistics you choose to believe, what is agreed upon is that human trafficking, of which child trafficking is a particularly heinous kind, is a problem more prevalent than most Americans want to believe. (Here’s a Rolling Stone article that gives some perspective.) And southeast Asia is an area where the problem is particularly prevalent.

So, due to the gracious generosity of a family foundation, I am traveling with Love146 on their partner trip. I flew into Phnom Penh, Cambodia Saturday night, and will also visit Bangkok, Thailand and finally Manila, Philippines. Along the way, we’ll visit red light districts, talk to people doing the work of abolition and visit the Round Home, a safe home for girls rescued from the sex trade.

So why am I going? The truthful answer is, I’m not sure exactly. This isn’t a “let’s go build a house” type of mission trip. We’re there to observe, to see the injustice and what’s being done. The trip is a chance to put actual faces to a huge, and sometimes seemingly overwhelming, “issue.” I’m sure I’ll have a series of posts about it when I get home. But for now, I just know that this opportunity was something put in front of me, and it felt like an invitation to which I was compelled to say yes. I don’t know what I hope to “get out of it”; it just feels like something I need to do. So, I’ll take a cue from Pope Francis and ask you to pray for me.

I don’t know what kind of access I’ll have to the Internet, so I won’t be responding to any comments, but I look forward to seeing your comments and discussion when I get home.

* I borrowed this term from historian Paul Johnson and his book Modern Times. If you really want a great read of the twentieth century, the premise of Modern Times is that “ideas have consequences,” and the history of the 20th century is one in which the ideologies of the “gangster statesmen” has been a catastrophe in human history.

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