Growing up with a widowed mother and seven siblings in a rented room in Phnom Penh, Seima, a pseudonym, did not have an easy life. His mother worked hard to support the family with an unsteady job. She took in laundry and took care of children in the community for extra cash occasionally, but times were tough.
Seima’s education was severely affected by circumstances, and he did not start school until he was 13. At that time, Seima was approached by a man who promised to make his life better.
With the promise of support for his education and other expenses, Seima hurriedly accepted the offer. He began to receive free education, food, and other benefits. But it was not like what he expected. Shortly after, the man was arrested and it was discovered that Seima had been the victim of sexual abuse.
Yam Chamroeun, president of First Step Cambodia (FSC) said that in 2018, a man had been arrested for sexually abusing six children who were all boys. At that time Seima was one of them. He was the first case the organisation received from Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), which was leading legal proceedings against the perpetrators.
“Shortly after that, our social workers began a long-running healing process through medical support and social services. A few months later, we received another victim of the same predator into our care,” he added.
He said that when Seima was initially referred to his agency, a full assessment was made of his well-being and his needs, and a service plan was prepared. Working with APLE and the Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF), the FSC worked to guarantee his safety and provide medical care and legal support.
In early 2019, social workers from FSC began to help Seima deal with his traumatic experiences and developed a solution strategy to meet his basic needs.
To improve Seima’s mental health, the FSC focused on his own strengths, which allowed him to recover. Within a year, Seima had learned about grooming techniques, and how to identify risks and protect himself in the future.
“He gradually reduced his guilt and restored his self-esteem. He learned to cope with these traumatic events and is now confident enough to talk about his experiences with his family and friends. Through ISF, he was also able to continue his studies,” Chamroeun added.
The social workers worked closely with Seima’s mother to help her better understand the sexual abuse and its effects on her son. They identified her need for a more stable income and helped her to start a small business selling fish in the market.
By early 2020, the organisation had made enough progress that it had begun preparing an exit plan, meaning it would carefully discontinue support over time. In March 2020, the emergence of the Covid-19 virus brought up new challenges and undid those plans.
Seima’s mother could no longer sell in the market and the pandemic made it almost impossible for her to earn a steady income. In response, the FSC began helping the family with essential food supplies, contributed to her rent and helped her cover medical costs.
Sar Sineth, deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, said the ministry has never conducted a study on child sexual abuse, but urged parents and guardians to think about their children’s physical, mental and sexual safety. She reminded people that it was as common for male children to be the victims of abuse as females, and reminded the public that they were just as traumatised by the experience.
She said that boys were often more stoic and guilt ridden by this type of trauma and found it shameful to talk about it. It was often only after they were severely traumatised that they would speak out. In order for children to dare speak out, community participation was required.
“We have to work with boys to provide protection and mental support, and think more carefully about their safety,” she added.
Sambath Sokunthea, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodia National Council for Children (CNCC), said the council was aware that some child abuse cases had occurred in Cambodia because some NGOs had conducted research, especially in Siem Reap and Battambang provinces.
Regrettably, there was no government data available, as many NGOs would not engage with the government or allow it to take part in the research, he added.
The ministry’s General Department of Technical Affairs director-general Touch Channy said his ministry would support any child who was the victim of any form of abuse, whether male or female.
“We have several plans in place to deal with this issue – often working alongside various partner organisations. While we do focus on child abuse, we do not record our cases by gender. We do not separate them,” he added.
Chamroeun said that child protection required the participation of many parties. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and this is why there can never be just one person dealing with the kinds of cases he saw in his work at SFC.
“It is crucial that we have active participation from parents, children, neighbours, teachers, service providers, authorities and journalists, if we want to end these awful crimes and help their victims,” he said.