In October last year, an American communications professor
released research about human trafficking in Cambodia that caused a stir in the
NGO community. Could there really be only 2000 sex-trafficking victims in
Cambodia? What effect would this have on NGO funding? And should moto-taxi
drivers be used as research assistants? In part four of a series, Liam Cochrane
looks at the difficult task of researching
Sequels rarely match their original, but for Dr
Thomas Steinfatt, a Fulbright Scholar at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, his
third study into Cambodia's human trafficking problem proved to be a
Is this girl a victim of trafficking? A study that sent motodops to brothels to count prostitutes and gather information on the extent of trafficking in Cambodia has attracted both praise and criticism.
It was this research project that recruited local men -
mostly motodops - to visit brothels and conduct counts of prostitutes, trying to
find out as much as possible from the owner about the number, ethnicity, age and
terms of employment of sex workers without blowing their cover as a middleman
for a potential customer.
This innovative methodology proved
controversial among researchers but it did come up with some numbers to gauge
the scope of Cambodia's sex trade. Steinfatt's team counted 5,317 women and
children in direct and indirect sex work establishments in Phnom Penh and judged
1,074 as having been trafficked. From this, he estimated that the total number
of prostitutes in Cambodia was 18,256, with approximately 2,000 victims of
These figures roughly agreed with part one of his research,
which took limited counts from Phnom Penh brothels in 2002 and extrapolated the
data based on existing information about sex workers and tourism. Using this
method Steinfatt and his fellow researchers estimated 20,829 brothel workers
The only other countrywide empirical study known to
have been conducted was by the National Assembly in 1997 and estimated 14,725
prostitutes working in Cambodian brothels, but it was rarely cited in
These figures differed markedly from the 80,000 to 100,000
estimate that had been used in many NGO reports throughout the 1990s and early
2000s to quantify the extent of prostitution in Cambodia.
began using the estimate to describe "sex slaves" and "trafficked women and
children" rather than "prostitutes", giving an alarming impression of Cambodia's
In part two of his research, Steinfatt tracked the
origins of the 80,000-to-100,000 statistic and found it to be a ghost number,
falsely attributed to a 1996 Unicef report. This second paper was never finished
or published but was summarized in part three of his
"Publications by NGOs and international organizations often print
incorrect numbers that have no basis in fact," Steinfatt said in his most recent
"Other published reports then cite such numbers uncritically and
without checking their validity, and then those reports in turn become the
source for further such printed estimates."
In an email to the Post in
March, Steinfatt said that while there may be pressure for NGOs to exaggerate
statistics to justify their funding, he said NGOs must work with the statistics
available at the time and not intentionally use incorrect information.
Many others with knowledge of the sector agreed, saying NGOs tried hard
to be ethical in their work.
Nevertheless, Steinfatt's questioning of
accepted wisdom and attempts to get a more accurate picture of prostitution and
trafficking in Cambodia have led to a healthy, if at times heated, discussion
legal advisor for anti-trafficking NGO Afesip, is one of the most outspoken
critics of the Steinfatt report.
"Basically, we say his figures on
trafficking are too low," said Kapoor.
A feisty report co-written by
Kapoor and American sociologist Joseph Swingle, released by Afesip this month,
disputes results of the study, questioning the methodology and the definitions
used for trafficking victims.
Steinfatt took his definition from the
United States' Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act 2000, which
talks about "trafficking in which a commercial sexual act is induced by force,
fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not
attained 18 years of age."
Afesip's report points out that this
definition is for "severe forms of trafficking" and argued that the "true and
wider definition" would have found a greater number of prostitutes counted in
Steinfatt's study as being victims of trafficking.
Kapoor and Swindle
also note that while claiming to be a study "Measuring the Number of Trafficked
Women and Children in Cambodia", Steinfatt's research focuses exclusively on
trafficking for sexual exploitation, omitting trafficking for begging and labor.
Recent research from the International Organization for Migration found
hundreds of children cross into Vietnam and Thailand each year to beg,
suggesting overall trafficking figures could be significantly higher than
Steinfatt's count of sex-trafficking victims.
In the introduction to his
study, Steinfatt does acknowledge the other forms of trafficking but states that
"women and children trafficked as sex workers.... is the focus of this
The Afesip report makes a host of further criticisms that it says
result in unreliable figures, including: the failure to visit three of
Cambodia's top ten most populous towns (Prey Veng, Pursat, Takeo); the
undercounting of prostitutes in "street pick-up areas"; the reliance on brothel
managers to give full and accurate information about their workers; and the use
of motodop drivers in the research.
"Would a brothel owner not become
suspicious of anyone not actually buying any services right then but asking all
these questions?" asked the Afesip report.
Steinfatt defended his use of
motodops at a roundtable discussion on trafficking research and policy organized
by the Asia Foundation and co-sponsored by the Ministry of Women's and Veterans'
Affairs and the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center.
He said their role
providing transport for customers to brothels as well as their first-hand
knowledge of the local sex industry puts them in a uniquely informed position.
Steinfatt found motodops to be a reliable source of information on sex
in the city. When three motodops were asked to map the major sex-work locations
in the area, each produced a list that included 90 per cent of places the others
mentioned. Similarly, when more than one motodop surveyed the same brothel, the
resulting reports were accurate to within 95 per cent of one another.
technique of using motodops to scout for information raised another contentious
issue: that of trust.
Steinfatt argues that prostitution is a commercial
activity and brothel owners are business people. Therefore, a brothel owner will
make a quick decision to trust a potential customer and reveal the full range of
services available or not.
"I don't believe there's any kind of sliding
scale. I've seen people get simply flung right out of a brothel when people are
not sure about them but I have never seen a manager knowingly lie or lower a
number or change a number - they either give estimates or they don't," Steinfatt
told the Post on May 18.
He pointed out that motodops used to gather
data were not told of the research project and so genuinely believed they were
procuring information for clients, leading to a more relaxed
Sitting alongside Steinfatt while he answered queries at the
May 11 roundtable discussion was Dr Janice Madden, director of the Alice Paul
Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Pennsylvania, who
prepared her own assessment of various trafficking studies.
"Notes on Issues in Counting Commercial Sex Workers and Trafficked Individuals"
questioned several technical research matters in Steinfatt's study and broadly
agreed with points made by Kapoor and Swindle in the Afesip report.
However she said: "The minor issues raised in my summaries of his
techniques above, if correct, do not materially affect Steinfatt's counts. These
studies [Steinfatt's] represent the best, by several degrees of magnitude, of
those reviewed here."
Policy and funding
Researchers and NGO workers
involved in anti-trafficking efforts generally agree that accurate statistics
are crucial to providing meaningful projects to help victims and prevent
"Hard data on the trafficking problem can help us establish
a baseline and track the problem over time," said Nancy Hopkins, representative
for the Asia Foundation in Cambodia, opening the roundtable
"If we are serious about addressing trafficking, we must be
able to articulate a clear sense of the scale of the problem to show that it's
important relative to other problems Cambodia may be facing," Hopkins
Most funding agencies and NGOs told the Post they had no fears that
reduced estimates of the scale of prostitution and trafficking in Cambodia would
have a negative affect on funding.
The consensus was that more detailed
research will lead to more effective programs to battle trafficking.
is only in the mind that the problem has changed, nothing has changed on the
ground," said John Vijghen, a research advisor for the Coalition to Address
Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia (COSECAM).
"In terms of
projects, it [a revision of statistics] won't affect [funding] because projects
work in reality," said Vijgen.
The very real battle against human
trafficking has been given a boost in recent years, leaping to the forefront of
the international funding agenda.
Last year, US President George Bush
committed $50 million dollars to "support the good work of organizations that
are rescuing women and children from exploitation, and giving them shelter and
medical treatment and the hope of a new life".
While Cambodia's share is
still being negotiated, the new money is expected to increase significantly the
capacity of USAID to support trafficking programs.
The increased funding
has researchers upbeat.
"Now, as long as you've got trafficking in your
proposal you'll get funding... a few years ago it was gender," joked John
But Vijghen, who has studied trafficking in Cambodia for over a
decade, says there is a need for more research that is not linked to projects,
which he says gives studies an in-built bias.
"The good thing about
starting without presumptions is that what comes out comes out and then you can
go and design your programs," he says, adding that it was more difficult to
secure funding for this type of research.
The debate over trafficking
studies is set to continue, with Thomas Steinfatt preparing a response to
Afesip's report, due for release in the next month, but one thing is clear:
thousands of women and children continue to be trafficked from, through and into
Cambodia each year.
"When we're talking about the impact of trafficking
on an individual life, there's no way that you can capture in quantitative terms
the trauma associated with this type of abuse," Nancy Hopkins reminded the
research conference on May 11.
Aarti Kapoor echoed the words of many who
fight against trafficking when she said: "Even five victims, or 100 victims, or
one victim, is too many."