Renting Children

What is human trafficking? Sometimes the answer to this question is not as easy as it seems. Obviously, it is a huge human right issue. But, what do we really know and how does our definition change the face of the problem and the way we should react?

Kelsey (another GWB student focused on human trafficking) and I have discussed at length our frustrations about the research around human trafficking and some of the definitions. Some organizations, and studies, denote all child labor as human trafficking. This includes teens with after-school jobs, children working in sweat shops, and children forced into pornography and prostitution. In my mind, these are not the same. Similarly, many countries run into the problem of who is a traffic victim (adult) and who is an illegal migrant worker (adult). Also, how does human trafficking within a country’s borders fit?

You would think that some of the key legal documents would shed light on these questions. In part, they do; however, they leave so much up to interpretation.

The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, Supplemental Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children says that:

‘“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) [see above] of this article;’

Meanwhile the US definition, as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 defines trafficking as:

1) Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under 18, or

2) The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Here in Cambodia, we are faced with many difficulties in defining victims of human trafficking. The local people actually refer to the practice as “renting”. Unlike many other countries, a large percentage of the children we (organizations and shelters) work with were “rented” by their parents. Sometimes, their parents traveled with the children. I routinely hear that these children are not as victimized as trafficked children in other countries and that they are comparatively safe. I cannot help but have three thoughts:

1) Is this truly representative of the population of traffic victims or is this just who we are able to reach. Although I have no research to support this, I think that we deal with returned street beggars, as opposed to children forced into the sex trade or sweat shops, because the brothels and sweat shops are not being raided.

2) If the child is going with the whole family to beg, does this really constitute trafficking or is it just a family trying to survive? How are they different than homeless families in the US that have to beg or perform petty labor to survive?

3) I suppose that comparatively children who are rented with their families are less traumatized because they have their social support with them. However, they are still face a huge risk for being exploited, sexually abused, and to experience atrocities. Moreover, if the family rented the child out but did not go with them, then the child most likely faces similar risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as any trafficked child.



  1. Hmmm…that does raise difficult questions. So does that mean that you ration your group’s services based on the level of trauma the child experienced or first come first serve or some other method? Does this practice of “renting” usually refer to physical labor or does it also include sexual services? Are there societal taboos on prostitution that are as strong as in some other countries (not that that stops people from being abused or coerced or anything, it just changes some of the dynamic as parents make decisions)? Very complicated. So complicated that I’m going to bed.

  2. Hmm. I think, unfortunately, even in the US services are rationed to those who are subjectively “more” traumatized. Groups get funding for a certain amount. They worry about sending too many clients to phsychiatrists as they are unsure what clients with come later. Domestic violence and rape shelters turn victims of human trafficking away because its not their issue, not their trauma type. Its sad. Somehow we have to prioritize care. Here my organization does not do much direct service, more capacity building and overseeing; so, it is not us that makes the decision.

    As for the practice of renting. Generally, from what I understand, parents think that they are sending the kids to beg or to work in factories. The problem is that once kids are on the street, who knows where they end up. Even if the children are not directly put into sex trafficking, they are still at huge risk of sexual exploitation. (I have a post brewing in my head about this).

    There are huge social taboos about sex and prostitution. That said, it is of course rampant. Also, the gender different does not help. There are something like 9% less men that woman in Cambodia (due to war, disease, pol pot, landmines, etc.). The unfortunate side effect of this is that some women are “disposable”.

  3. Hi Clare,

    You probably won’t remember me. I was a grad student of your Dad’s and a client of your Mom’s back in the 1980s. I was shamelessly bragging about my daughter to him, and he couldn’t resist the temptation to brag just as shamelessly about his. We’re even–which is to say, we’re both way ahead. I have read your blog with great admiration for what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You display here both a deep respect and affection for the people you’re working with, as well as great moral courage in opposing a vicious, dehumanizing system. Extraordinary! I’m very proud of you. Go get ’em!

    All best,
    Rick Steele

  4. Hi Rick,

    I do remember you and your family. Vaguely from meeting, but also from my dad talking about you over the years. Thank you for leaving a comment and for the multitude of compliments. I really love what I do. I think it takes an odd personality to be able to see hope and laughter in the face of such despair; but it’s an oddity I appear to have. Keep reading! Hopefully there will be more interesting stuff to come. And, best wishes to the whole family.

  5. Not all oddities are saints, of course, but all saints are oddities. And oddities that protect children AND share recipes about carmelized pineapple and tofu are at the very least saints-in-the-making. (Of course, I’m a Methodist country preacher with a very good appetite, which means that I’m always on the lookout for saints-in-the-making with good culinary skills.)

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