Sreypov Chan is a young woman with an infectious smile and a love of American songs. Yet, locked behind her dark eyes are visions that will forever spring to life in her worst nightmares.

Trafficked at seven years old in Cambodia, she was soon sold to her first client with whom she refused to have sex. As punishment, Sreypov was forced to drink the man’s urine. The abuse escalated over the coming days as she continued to reject clients; she was tied up, burnt, and beaten with an electric cable that left a trail of angry welts all over her body.

She eventually relented and agreed to have sex with a customer, but promptly changed her mind after she saw the grown man. Consumed by fear, she sobbed as the gravity of her demise settled into her little body. Infuriated, her pimp stuffed crushed chillis into her vagina, and then took a hot metal bar and shoved it inside her. Muted by the agony that seared through her, Sreypov experienced her first sexual experience – when the client raped her.

Badly torn, she was then stitched up – completely awake and with no anesthetic – to have her “virginity” sold again and again. For the days she could not service enough men out of fatigue, she was shocked with a wire from an electrical socket.

After attempting to flee, she was hauled into a small room where she was hung up by her arms and beaten into a bloody mess. Chillis were then rubbed into her open wounds. Undeterred, she would keep trying to escape – from the various brothels she was sold to – until one day, at 10-years-old, Sreypov finally managed to escape.

Yet, hundreds of children remain trapped in Cambodia’s disconcerting pedophile’s playground. UNICEF reported that around 35% of Cambodia’s prostitutes are children under the age of 16. Minors transmute into little more than sex slaves; they receive food and accommodation, but no wages. Armed guards are hired by the pimps to ensure that their “property” is unable to flee.

Nor does being rescued from the clutches of the brothels address the problem. Relegated to being little more than commodities, it is easy for traffickers to simply go to a poor village and pluck out the new girl to replace the one they lost.

Nicky Mih first met Sreypov in 2009 while volunteering to work with survivors of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Inspired by Sreypov, Nicky went on to co-found Free To Shine – an organisation that works to prevent the trafficking and exploitation of local girls by strengthening the family and community to bolster the safety and education of their children.

Sierra Arlidge, Communications Officer at Free To Shine explained, “In our experience, traffickers often target the most vulnerable girls and families to find victims, travelling to villages in the remote areas and luring girls from families under extreme economic pressure with offers of job opportunities in the bigger cities.”

Grinding impoverishment and a fractured social substructure also mean many desperately poor families sell their own children into the sex trade. In some of the poorest communities, many live on less than $2 a day – and even that amount might be a struggle to earn. With no other resources for unexpected events such as illness or the death of a spouse, a young girl’s virginity often becomes the only asset the family might have.

“Sexual exploitation of child trafficking victims occurs everywhere, but can be loosely divided into the categories of sexual exploitation within business establishments such as karaoke bars, brothels, and massage parlours; and sexual exploitation on the street,” Sierra continued.

There has also been a concerning trend of orphanage tourism within Cambodia, which places minors at further risk for exploitation. The correlation between child exploitation and orphanage tourism/volunteerism is becoming increasingly known and the government has taken measured steps within the past year to prioritise family-based care. Tackling trafficking, however, requires increased awareness within the public sector, which has often gravely overlooked.

“As a tourism hotspot, Siem Reap can benefit from raising awareness on these issues within the tourism sector. As a member of the ReThink Orphanages, Free To Shine participates in awareness-raising efforts and encourages responsible tourism practices through our interactive educational experience, A Mile In Serey’s Shoes,” added Sierra.

Cambodia remains a prime source, destination, and transit country for children victims of trafficking. The trafficking occurs both internally and externally with tourist destinations hotspots such as Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, Thailand, and Vietnam. With the demand for brides caused by China’s One-Child Policy, trafficking from Cambodia to China for forced marriage is also increasingly being seen as an issue.

Apart from sexual exploitation, children in Cambodia also fall victim to labour exploitation. Vulnerable to trafficking due to breakdowns in family structures, lack of family or social support, and economic pressure, children will be forced to seek out resources on the streets, which in turn increases their vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking.