The fledgling tourism industry is growing and creating more jobs. But towns such as Sihanoukville also are known as safe havens for pedophiles to prey on children and not get caught. And the opportunity to earn money from tourists often draws children from impoverished families out to the streets.
"When I saw other children make a lot of money from visitors, I wanted to earn, too. So I quit school at grade 2," says 12-year-old Ponleu.*
The prospect of additional income was particularly appealing to Ponleu, whose father was unable to support him. Ponleu's mother died when he was 3 years old, and his two older siblings left Sihanoukville in search of work.
"I would do almost anything for money," says Ponleu. "Every day, I would walk through markets, restaurants, and beaches, searching for recycled wastes and offering to shine people's shoes. I worked from 7 in the morning until 10 at night."
Ponleu's best-paying customers were typically Westerners. In the evenings, he shined shoes at the 'French Village,' a popular tourist hotspot. "I could earn a lot more than [I would at] other places. Foreigners would pay $1 for each shoe," he explains, "while locals paid only 15 cents for a pair."
When a 36-year-old German man invited Ponleu to eat with him, the unsuspecting boy agreed without hesitation: "I was excited when [the foreigner] invited me and three other boys. I thought it was very kind of him."
Promising them toys, the older man lured the youth into his house before sexually exploiting them. Giving each boy $10, he invited them to return, but told them not to visit him more than once a week. Ponleu's desperate need for money brought him to the pedophile's house six times.
When a child protection officer from the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) M'lop Tapang learned of the abuse, he immediately reported the incident through a local child exploitation hotline. The lead made it possible for the police to arrest the perpetrator, who has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The care and support from M'lop Tapang has helped Ponleu recover from the exploitation that he suffered. He now looks to the future with hope. "When I'm older, I want to learn motorbike repair skills," he says. "I want to be a motorbike repairer."
*Please note that names have been changed to protect the children's identities.
>> Read about World Vision's Child Sex Tourism Prevention Project.
>> Pray for an end to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and pray for those who are combating this horrific practice, as well as for the transformation of those who are implicated in it.
>> Advocate. Ask your senators and representative to push for an increase in resources to prosecute U.S. citizens who sexually exploit children overseas.
>> Report an American sex tourist. If you have information regarding a person who has sexually exploited a child, or suspect someone of child sex tourism, you can contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
>> Become a Child Crisis Partner. For $20 a month, you can help one child after another escape a life of horror.
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