I attended the world premier of REDLIGHT this week in New York City, and was overwhelmed by the plight of children not just in Cambodia but around the world who find themselves locked in a perverse world where their innocence is sold by the hour. Not only in Phnom Penh, but according to the experts, even in Brooklyn.
According to REDLIGHTChildren.org:
Every single day children are kidnapped or stolen and forced into the global, multi-billion dollar sex industry. Interpol estimates that this trafficking of children and young women is the third largest international criminal activity.
Its scope is shocking. According to UNICEF, over two million children are involved — from kids around the world who are kidnapped from their families to children victimized on the Internet via community sites and chatrooms.
The deeply moving film REDLIGHT points out the staggering statistic that over two million children under 18 years are exploited each year. They can be raped 20 - 30 times a day, and up to half of them will die from shock, torture, drugs, and/or AIDS. The film also shows you a few real children and tells their stories.
One woman who has dedicated her life to opposing the systems that enslave children is Mu Sochua, a Member of Parliament in Cambodia – and a top leader of the opposition known as the Sam Rainsy Party, named after exiled leader Sam Rainsy.
Mu Sochua is one of the leading advocates of children in her native Cambodia, yet may
be imprisoned upon her return for her defiance of the corrupt government in power there –
the government that allows child slavery.
I first met Sochua when she visited the U.S. last spring. I wrote about her amazing story for the Huffington Post: Cambodian Parliament Member Mu Sochua Visits U.S., Speaks on Lack of Human Rights at Home (link). She struck me as the Cory Aquino or the Aung San Suu Kyi of Cambodia.
Although adults loom large in the child trafficking debate, at the end of the day it is about the lives of innocent children. I personally cannot imagine having an older man hold a gun to my son’s head.
The film REDLIGHT, produced and narrated by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Lucy Liu, is about two women in Cambodia – Sochua and Somaly Mam, a former child prostitute – who have dedicated their lives to social justice and supporting the children who face injustice. See the film’s trailer on Vimeo.
Deftly blending horror and compassion, hope and futility, REDLIGHT is the second film in a trilogy that is changing the dynamics of child trafficking globally. Filmmaker Guy Jacobson has mastered the emotional edge of sexual slavery and manages to bring it to us in our sterile lives so that we get it – and want to stop it. The photography of the film is superb, with the breathtaking beauty of Cambodia juxtaposed with the squalid conditions of the children forced into Phnom Penh brothels.
The narration by Lucy Liu is familiar enough so that we are able to handle the unfamiliar – the evil that is pedophilia. The quality of the film assures that its message will resound with audiences around the world as it is sure to win awards from Cannes to Sundance. More amazing than the film is the dangers Guy Jacobson overcame to film it in the shadow of the mafia, for whom human life holds no sanctity.
REDLIGHT is a brutally honest, gut-wrenching film that is the antithesis of a Hollywood feel-good flick. This is not a ‘veg-out’ movie, but rather a get-involved film. The cinematography is exquisite, the narrative riveting, and the plot like rivers meandering through the delta that cross each other again and again.
This film is the perfect tool to us for social change – in this case the eradication of child trafficking and sexual slavery. Guy Jacobson is a master of film, and Mu Sochua is a committed human rights activist and political leader. The many other members of the team are equally brilliant. Share this important film with your friends and make a group decision to do something. The children have no one else.
I spoke to Thida Sam from the University of Michigan after the Premiere. Thida, a spokesperson for Grassroots Women for Change, shared these thoughts with me:
The solution to child trafficking is to make the perpetrators accountable for their actions -- both legally and socially. As for the legal mechanisms, those discussed at the premiere are the best approaches we have today, particularly those related to transnational cooperation.
But even more importantly we need to make it socially unacceptable for offenders. Too often, I've overheard expatriates and tourists in Phnom Penh bragging about their conquests to a dismayed audience of friends. From what I've experienced in Cambodia and the U.S., people simply turn a blind eye to these situations, particularly if the offender is a friend or a white, middle- or upper-class male. We need to have the same disgust for sex abusers as many people have for prostitutes.
For many poor rural families, there aren't a lot of other options than to sell one of their children for cash. As an example, imagine if it were a drought year and the choice was to sell a child or feed the rest of the family. We have insurance options and safety nets built into our system to keep us from starving.
If there were stronger social safety nets (i.e. more and better primary and secondary schools, crop insurance for subsistence farming families, stronger land tenure and titling rights, etc.), these families would have more options to choose from. Instead of vilifying the poor, we need to better understand some of the structural constraints in place that force families to make these kinds of decisions.
I also think that Jacobson and his team should explicitly address the difference between forced and voluntary sex work. The former is human slavery, whereas the latter is an entirely different situation altogether. In a Puritanical society like ours, most people have a gut reaction to sex-related topics, and in some ways I feel like this documentary capitalized on that general discontent.
The girls depicted in the film were slaves, with absolutely no free will and control over their bodies and their lives, and we should carve out a new type of disgust for that type of behavior, as opposed to the one society has for prostitutes.
I find that the situation in Cambodia particularly troubling, especially with the impunity afforded to not only men, but white men in particular. White men in Cambodia bring with them money and a great deal of influence in social situations, and people generally defer to them. This is something I haven't seen in any of the other countries I've worked in.
I work with Sochua on gender and land rights-related issues in Cambodia, and recently gave a lecture to undergraduates at the University of Michigan on her work with women and children. To be brief, she is an inspiration to us all, and is making significant changes to the social and political landscape of Cambodia.
I am particularly worried about Mu Sochua. She left New York yesterday for Manila, but will then return to Phnom Penh where she faces arrest by the corrupt government there. As I covered in the Huffington Post, Sochua was called a whore by the head of the government and she demanded an apology. Not getting one, she sued.
Her case was thrown out by the government court. And then the government sued her, stating that by having challenged them, she had offended the state and must pay a fine. Sochua, of course, refused. But now, because of this, she might be arrested when she arrives next week.
Please help me monitor her travels. If the eyes of the world are upon her, she has more of a chance than if she travels alone in darkness. I support Mu Sochua as a global leader and human rights activist because she brings light to so many children – and the hope of a better future.
All photos by Arthur Eisenberg (www.nycArthur.com)