Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) began work in Cambodia in 2003, and caused real confusion when staff members first took to the hospital a young boy who had been abused. Doctors were unable to comprehend how a boy could have been sexually abused, and were at a complete loss regarding how to examine him. APLE quickly realised that what was needed stretched much further than catching offenders. Education was vital and everyone from the general public and health care workers, to courts and the police needed to have a much clearer view of sexual abuse.
So began the real work of APLE, which is dedicated to combatting child sexual abuse and exploitation through prevention, protection and promotion of prosecution. In 2013 alone, 79 victims were removed from sexually abusive situations, APLE assisted with 44 arrests and 39 convictions were made. In all, 3,331 people were trained in issues surrounding sexual abuse.
Exploitation of children in Cambodia usually fits into one of four categories: Establishment-based in brothels, sex houses or karaoke bars; street-based, involving the offender or an intermediary approaching the child in a public place; online-based, where an individual uses the internet to contact, groom, and/or indirectly exploit children through watching or distributing child pornography; and institution-based, where an institution, for example an orphanage or school, is used to gain access, groom and sexually exploit children. Grooming is a common technique used by foreigners who strike up a relationship with the child and, over time, buy him or her gifts, food, pay school fees and even take them on trips, where the abuse may begin.
APLE’s investigative teams work to find offenders who are abusing children. Once they witness or hear of suspicious behavior from trained community members or NGO partners (including M’lop Tapang in Sihanoukville), APLE then contacts local police, and a plan is made to investigate the case jointly. If the case involves a foreigner, the relevant foreign police entity is contacted to assist in the investigation.
Once an arrest is made by the police, APLE’s Social Support team offers immediate and long-term support to the victim and his or her family helping to reintegrate the child when that is necessary and presenting options for the future. The APLE Legal Support team helps the child throughout the court process, which can take up to 6 years.
A recent case in the headlines involves a former member of the French Judiciary and the director of Sihanoukville NGO, Enfants du Cambodge. APLE had heard rumors of children being abused by the French citizen, but had no evidence to start an investigation until July, when a victim came forward and described the abuse he had endured. APLE referred the case to the national Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit to start a joint investigation.
More victims then came forward and after enough evidence was collected, the police were able to arrest the suspect on charges of sexually abusing seven children aged 12-19. APLE’s work in creating a network and training the public on issues surrounding sexual abuse has allowed exposure for such cases. By working jointly with the police, corruption also has decreased meaning it is less likely that suspects will be able to pay off authorities to avoid prosecution.
Although the situation relative to sexual abuse of children in Cambodia has improved over the last 10 years, new challenges are constantly emerging. There are an increasing number of suspects within NGOs or schools. APLE now is advocating for mandatory background checks of all people working closely with children, as well as conducting trainings on child protection policies.
Extensive grooming by offenders also results in some families not wanting to file a complaint. APLE works closely with these families and children to help them understand what has happened through counselling, in the hope that they will realise the gravity of the situation and file a complaint.
The virginity trade is also a huge challenge, with high-ranking, rich or powerful suspects financing these activities. APLE has held trainings for the police and other relevant authorities on this trade, and works tirelessly to bring offenders to justice, regardless of their standing in society.
In the medical field, refusal by hospitals to examine boys is still a big challenge. The Ministry of Health and UNICEF jointly created an official medical examination form for girls who have been sexually abused but there still is no equivalent form for males.
Hoping to encourage their own eventual phase out from the investigations, for each case, APLE now involves one police officer and one APLE investigator, playing more of a facilitator role, helping the police with a plan and monitoring the progress.
The vital and effective work is helping to change the Cambodian landscape, ensuring that children are safe and sex offenders are brought to justice.
Written by Sarah Cottee