Dana Jupiter: Blurry Lines in Monitoring Sex Trafficking

At the students’ hotel — a safe and clean tourist establishment — signs of the sex trade were everywhere.

“There were just a lot of older white men with young Cambodian women,” explained third-year law student Dana Jupiter. Not just a little older — 60- and 70-year-old men with 20-something women.  “Obviously some of it is a prostitute and a john, and some are probably more like sugar-daddy relationships.”

The blurred lines between those relationships make it difficult to research sex trafficking, Jupiter found. Prostitution in Cambodia is legal among women aged 18 and older, but brothels and street prostitution are illegal.

“There are no statistics,” Dana said. “It’s all underground. There’s no real way to get reliable numbers, but that is true in every country.”

Some women find themselves drawn to the commercial sex industry after they migrate to a city to find employment, only to discover they’ve been deceived and are expected to become prostitutes. Or some may be worn down and without work, and resort to selling themselves.

The government has run a series of raids to show they are making an effort to combat trafficking by taking women from brothels or karaoke parlors.

“There’s no set victim identification procedures, so they don’t have a way of determining who is a trafficked person and who is a voluntary sex worker,” Jupiter said. The captured women are usually brought to shelters, but for a while women were unlawfully detained in “rehabilitation centers” without access to basic facilities.

More than 200 NGOs are dedicated to the problem, but Jupiter found none that have the capacity to measure whether their programs, like awareness-raising workshops in villages, are successful.

“They can tell you things like the attendance is better,” she said, but qualitative measurements don’t exist, because most organizations don’t assess the level of understanding or knowledge before or after these workshops.

The lack of data on trafficking prevention programs meant Jupiter had to modify the focus of her paper to encompass the commercial sex industry as a whole.  “It was productively frustrating, because all the things that were frustrating about it were learning experiences,” she said. “The difficulty of researching my topic was a large part of my experience and is going to be a large part of my paper because of that.”

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