For two weeks every year, one stretch of Cambodia’s mighty Tonlé Sape river accomplishes the unthinkable.  Because of water build-up, it turns and runs upstream.  The water defies the downward pull of gravity – and literally pushes back.

As I travel through Cambodia, I’m continually bracing myself for the misery of children whose lives are torn apart by sex and labour trafficking.  Much of the time, that current of sorrow seems impossible to fight.

But I’m also finding that in small but miraculous ways, things are turning around.  And often it’s the courage and determination of children that makes it happen.  In a culture where many boys and girls are raised to be soft-spoken and deferential, children are standing up to terrifying foes and speaking out against overwhelming odds.  And, little by little, their voices are causing the miraculous to happen.

It’s an inspiring thought.  At World Vision, we take joy in partnering with children not “saving” them.  As we ask Canadians to join with us in helping end child slavery, it’s humbling to know that children are already speaking out.  How can we remain silent now?

Here are some stories from my past 24 hours, on the ground in Cambodia.

Amber Alert, Cambodian style

We normally think of rape as something that happens to a girl.  But at a slum I visited yesterday in downtown Phnom Penh, I learned that sexual predators frequently saunter into this community to “groom” boys for sex.  They take advantage of the friendly, open Cambodian culture – and children who are raised to listen to their elders.  They come back repeatedly, offering candy, food and drugs.

When the moment is right, they strike, luring children away from the safety of home and family.  Sometimes the abuse happens in the tall grasses right next to the slum.  Sometimes it’s in a place where no one can find them.  Even the smallest are violated in ways that my mind won’t let me consider, though police have apprehended hard drives full of the video made by sex offenders travelling to Cambodia.

But through the World Vision program “My Son”, the boys and their families are standing together against sex traffickers.  Think of it as the Cambodian version of the Amber Alert program.  There’s no electricity in the slum, no flashing billboards letting everyone know when a child is in danger.  But they have something equally powerful: a community committed to protecting its children.

Every afternoon, the boys are called out of their homes to play sports.  You should see their volleyball spikes and the little boys’ wrestling moves!Then, panting and happy, they flop down on the ground and share intelligence about any unusual characters they’ve spotted in the neighborhood.  World Vision has taught them to move in threes, to be wary of any man trying to bribe them to leave the area.  And they know to sound the alarm, by telling parents and calling the World Vision team member in the area.

These children are helping take responsibility for their own safety, saying “no” and speaking up when they’re afraid. Their voices at the daily meeting are crucial.  Even the smallest boy can mobilize an entire community to rally around its children.

small circle of light

As night fell, our van bumped down an alleyway into an open area littered with garbage.  This was World Vision’s night outreach program for street children.  Girls and boys trickled out of dark places between the buildings to sit on tarpaulins lit by blazing lanterns, for lessons in health and safety from laminated posters.

Then in the crowd, I spotted him – a little boy of about three, the same age as my son.  All day long, I learned, he’d earned a grand total of fifty cents, picking for trash to sell.  Broken bottles and sharp bits of metal were among his treasures.  At one point, his shirt moved up and I saw a huge gash running down his side.  With a gulp, I turned away.  I couldn’t imagine such a wound on my own son, unless he was sitting squarely in the best emergency room Ontario had to offer.

There was a medical worker on site applying alcohol to the injury.  Still, I began to wonder what difference these discussions about hand-washing and walking in threes could actually make for this little guy.

Then I saw something that made me think again.  The sessions on the tarpaulins were lead not by adults, but by older boys.  One of them, fourteen-year-old Rith, lives at a World Vision centre for street children while he’s finishing school.  But he returns to the street at night time, to guide and teach the little ones still making their livings in these dirty and dangerous ways.  I watched his beautiful face as he talked to the children.  And I saw a young leader in the making.

With the right support, I know the same can happen for the little boy.  Perhaps by the time he’s fourteen, children working in garbage dumps will be a thing of the past.

Barbed wire and laughter

The Trauma Recovery Centre for girls is surrounded by high walls and barbed wire.  I learned it’s not uncommon for sexual predators or their lawyers to try to reach the girls, trying to talk them out of testifying in court.  World Vision once faced a $20,000 lawsuit, filed by a sexual offender, for the “illegal detention” of the girl he sexually assaulted.  He referred to her as his Goddaughter.

Inside, with the gates tightly closed, the compound was like an oasis.  There were trees and flowers everywhere, a mural on the wall showing all the things the girls want for themselves – including marriage.  And from every room, I heard laughter and chatter as the girls worked away at their sewing or weaving.  Painstaking work, with beautiful results.

I was guided to an inner room, where I sat on the floor with a young girl known as Mao to protect her identity.  I’ll never forget the way she held a stuffed bunny rabbit as she told her story, softly but calmly.

At fifteen, Mao sold her virginity for $200 to keep her family from living on the street.  Centre staff had let me know the details of her assaults beforehand, as repeating them can traumatize a child all over again.  Two days after the rape, still sore and bleeding, this tiny girl had slept with another man so she could keep sending money home.  This second sale yielded a fraction of the first, as did all subsequent sales.  Mao was no longer a virgin.

Her final rapist was a man the police were already seeking.  Mao was rescued, and has remained in the centre for 17 months, healing, learning and receiving counseling.

Changing history

It’s so painful to imagine a girl like Mao standing up to a sexual predator in court.  I couldn’t imagine the girl who clutched the bunny giving intimate details of her attacks – while standing only a few feet away from her abuser.

I learned that World Vision works with the girls and their families to prepare them for court, staging mock trials with a variety of questions.  And they help families find the strength to say “no” to money from sex offenders who want them to blame their own daughters.  Poverty is crippling, and the payoffs can be generous.

“These girls are making history,” says World Vision Cambodia’s Ray Sano.  “Five years ago, it would have been unheard of for a young girl to stand up for themselves in court.  But they’re using their voices.”

In Canada, we think of slavery as a thing of the past.  But I can tell you that modern-day slavery is alive and well.  I’ve seen it here in Cambodia.  But with your help, we can start to turn the river around.

Please stay with me, as I visit a brick factory tomorrow, to see children working long hours in incredibly dangerous conditions.  And the day after, as I cross the border to Thailand along with several thousand Cambodians heading over for work.  It’s a prime spot for traffickers and children are especially vulnerable.

By Caroline Riseboro – VP, Marketing and Communications