Sek Saroeun first read the Bible at a Phnom Penh bar where young girls were illegally sold for sex. Hamburgers were $1.00, draft beers were $1.50, and bigger bills could get you a companion for the night.
The Buddhist law student worked as a DJ at Martini Pub and had recently begun serving as an undercover informant for the Christian human rights group International Justice Mission (IJM). He scanned the room to scope out suspects as Michael Jackson boomed over the speakers. He cracked open a loaned copy of the Bible—a curiosity introduced to him through IJM—and began to make his way through it in the DJ booth.
Sek took part in the organization’s earliest sex trafficking investigations in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country had turned into a cheap, shabby hotbed for sex tourism in the decades after its notorious genocide and resulting civil unrest. In 2003, IJM launched the first large-scale attempt to fix the Khmer kingdom’s public justice system that allowed pimps and pedophiles to go free.
Excited, disgusted, and afraid of being found out during his capital city spying, Sek repeated Romans 12:12 to himself: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Over time, “fear led to longing; longing led to transformation that is unimaginable,” he told colleagues at an IJM conference a decade later, explaining how he became a Christian and the group’s top lawyer in Cambodia.
“God didn’t just change me,” said Sek. “He also changed a family, a community, a nation.”
Between 2004 and 2015, Sek and his team watched the prevalence of underage girls in busy brothels, roadside massage parlors, and neon-lit karaoke bars steadily drop as they partnered with Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police and social services to rescue more than 500 victims and take about 140 child sex trafficking cases to court.
The result: In 2015, underage girls composed about 2 percent of women available for commercial sex in major cities—only a quarter of their share a few years earlier, according to IJM research. Before the project began, the Cambodian government estimated that girls under 18 accounted for as much as 30 percent of the industry.
Gray-haired foreigners on rented mopeds do still occasionally show up in Svay Pak, a dusty Phnom Penh suburb where girls younger than 10 used to offer themselves up to white men on the streets. But they can’t expect the same treatment anymore.
Along rows of tiny shops, Agape International Missions (AIM) has taken over brothels once raided by IJM, turning them into a church, clinic, shelter, and factory in an effort to revitalize the once-sordid area. “I have seen this community transformed. They used to say this is the armpit of Cambodia,” said Phal Sokunthy, who grew up in Svay Pak and now works as an operations assistant for AIM’s 300 staff members there.
Phal, his neighbors, and most of his countrymen have had to be “patient in affliction” their whole lives. After 1975 was declared Year Zero by the communist Khmer Rouge revolutionaries who took over the government, Cambodia emptied its cities, buried 1.7 million people (20% of the population) in a genocide against the educated and religious, and forced survivors to flee to border camps as civil unrest raged on.
Thus, a traumatized generation in a pummeled economy became fertile ground for exploitation to flourish in farms, factories, and brothels. But interviews with Cambodian church leaders, social workers, government officials, and trafficking survivors paint a picture of a changing landscape in recent years, with progress largely led by Christians. They see glimpses of hope in some of the country’s darkest places.