Don and Bridget Brewster of Agape International Missions on combating Cambodia's child sex traffickers
Don and Bridget Brewster witnessed the scale of child prostitution in Cambodia and decided to do something about it. They tell Elaine Yau their remarkable story
Bridget Brewster's eyes well up as she recalls the heartbreaking tale of Rotha, a young Cambodian rescued in 2006 from a brothel that her mother had sold her to when she was eight years old.
Held captive, Rotha did not see daylight for three years. "She never left the room she was locked in. And men came repeatedly to rape her," says Brewster of Agape International Missions (AIM), a Cambodia-based organisation working to curb the country's child sex trade.
"Rotha was 11 years old when she came to us. Her mum was sent to prison for 15 years for selling her. She forgave her mum eventually and visited her in prison. The mum even brought her two-year-old son along to the prison, as you get more food if you get a child in prison. After Rotha graduated from our programme, she found work in a restaurant as a supervisor and got custody of her little brother and got him out of prison."
Bridget Brewster and her husband Don had been working for a church in California but set up AIM after discovering for themselves the distressing extent of child prostitution during a fact-finding trip to Cambodia.
With three children of their own, the couple decided they had to do something.
"If this happened to our own daughters, how would we feel? No one did anything about it back then," says Don Brewster, who was in Hong Kong to give a keynote address on combating child trafficking at the Justice Conference Asia.
The couple quit their jobs, sold their house in California and moved to Cambodia. AIM opened its first shelter in 2006 in Svay Pak, a village about 11km outside Phnom Penh, known as a centre for child prostitution.
"We came up with a four-pronged strategy: prevent, rescue, restore and reintegrate," says Don Brewster, referring to the organisation's efforts not only to help stop child trafficking and rescue the victims, but also to help them heal and rejoin the community.
AIM now employs 400 staff, who run 12 programmes encompassing a school, rehabilitation centres for paedophiles, pimps and sex victims, community care centres, health clinics and employment centres.
"We provide housing for the victims. The employment centres provide what they need after they are healed. The local culture sees child sex victims as trash. We make sure they have good jobs to support themselves. They make as much as four times what they can get in other types of factories," says Brewster, who has since learned to speak Cambodian.
"We also reach out to pimps and traffickers who later became professional kickboxers or construction workers. There are also employment centres for mums and dads so that they don't have a financial excuse to sell their children."
AIM now plans to expand its school which houses 350 children, he says.
"We have a waiting list of 3,000 children from villages. We want to take in 1,500 more. Our school is run like a normal school where the kids get quality education."
Don Brewster believes, however, that the child sex trade isn't simply a problem of poverty but stems from the moral collapse in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime decimated the country with its pogrom.
"It's not a financial thing," he says. "It gets confused because there's abject poverty in Cambodia. There's no other genocide in history like that in Cambodia. After genocide in whatever culture, the family structure still remains. But in Cambodia, educators were executed. Buddhism provided an excellent moral compass but it was destroyed as monks were executed.
"Under the Khmer Rouge, women, men and children were all put in separate camps. Children at that time were used to being spied on. There were significant number of cases [in which people] tortured and executed their own families. Those children are parents today. They are uneducated and lack a moral compass … they think nothing of selling their children. So it [sex trafficking of children] becomes a moral and spiritual issue."
Brewster believes the collapse of Cambodia's moral fabric also bred a corrupt bureaucracy, which has worsened the problem.
"It can be traced back to the justice system set up by the French colonisers which protected the rich and the expatriates. When the French left, power went to the Khmer Rouge, who kept the system the same way to protect themselves. The corrupt police who tip off brothels about raids are just doing what police in Cambodia are supposed to do. Their jobs are meant to protect the rich and powerful."
However, the hurdle of tip-offs has been overcome in part after AIM received permission from the Cambodian government to set up a squad to conduct raids on brothels and arrest culprits.
"Collusion [between brothels and police] happened time after time. That's why we developed the team. It was just approved by the government. Some of their anti-trafficking police became our employees. Our own people go in to do the investigation and rescue. There could still be corruption, but that's highly unlikely because there's only such a small group of people in the know. Team members are not told [about the target] until 15 minutes before the raid takes place.
"We take away their cell phones so there's no way to communicate. When they take part in a raid, they have GPS and camera attached to them. So we know where they go and what they do at every moment. If somebody tries to tip off the brothel, we at least know who the corrupt person is."
For Bridget Brewster, the biggest satisfaction comes seeing the girls make new lives for themselves despite their past ordeals. "When they come to the shelters they think their lives are over. But then they get out, get a job and are able to help their families; they don't have to worry about how they are going to survive," she says.
"When the [AIM] centre was first set up, five girls were brought to Los Angeles to testify against a paedophile. I was impressed by their bravery as they went to court and testified, with the offender sitting only 25 feet away from them," she says.
After nearly a decade's work, Don Brewster reckons their efforts to curb the child sex trade in Cambodia is making a dent.
"When we first moved to Svay Pak ... 100 per cent of children aged from eight to 12 were trafficked," he says.
"If you are born in a village in Svay Pak, you know you will be trafficked by the age of five. The figure has since dropped to 70 per cent. But it's still a substantial figure and the problem of pre-pubescent sex trafficking in Cambodia is still the most serious in the whole world. So we have more work to do and it's a long-term battle."