The glamor of a brothel raid

Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., shares a story from his recent visit to Cambodia that highlights the numerous interventions required to fight poverty, injustice, and oppression -- those that are dramatic and highly-publicized, as well as those that are less conspicuous but equally critical.

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In Cambodia last month, I met a young woman who, in a dramatic raid, had been rescued from the sex trade. Local police alongside the International Justice Mission stormed into the brothel where Ruse (not her real name) had been kept as a slave -- and where she had been forced to sleep with roughly 700 men a year.

We sat in Ruse’s simple one-room apartment, where she took care of two younger brothers. Her bed was covered with a pink comforter decorated with cartoon tigers. Piled high on one end were pillows and blankets. On the wall hung a picture of her uncle and a Winnie the Pooh clock. It appeared as if Ruse was only now able to experience the childhood that was stolen from her.

She told us the story of her father’s absence, her mother’s illness, and Ruse’s own desperate decision to sell the only thing of value that her family had -- her virginity -- to help her ailing mother.

Having sold it, however, Ruse had nothing left that her society valued. Like more than 30,000 women in cities across Cambodia, she was trapped in the brothel, selling her body for just $1 or $2. (Some experts estimate that there are up to 100,000 women trapped in this hidden underworld of sexual slavery.)

Ruse’s life was suddenly changed on the day that the International Justice Mission and the police raided her brothel, freeing her from a life of forced sex. But her dramatic rescue doesn’t explain how Ruse now lives in her own apartment, cares for her family, has a job, and is able to take English classes in hopes of earning an even better living in the future.

Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S. (in blue shirt), visits with Ruse at World Vision's trauma recovery center in Cambodia.

Like so many other components of fighting poverty, the rescue was just one step -- in this case, a very visible one -- in a long process. When we seek to lift people from the fires of evil and injustice, we need a whole bucket brigade of caring people who perform less dramatic, but no less important work.

Having been forced for many years to routinely have sex with often-abusive men, Ruse was in no shape to leave the brothel and begin life on her own. She was immediately counseled by World Vision and put into a group home alongside other women, all of whom had escaped the sex trade and were on the path to recovery. After roughly two years, Ruse received job training from World Hope. Now, she receives spiritual nurture from her Baptist church.

It’s easy for us to get excited about the dramatic fight against poverty and injustice. We all like to hear the story of a woman rescued, or a gushing well irrigating arid farmland, or the medication that restores to health an HIV-positive mother.

Often, however, the real work is done when few people are looking. Water wells can bring instant relief to a suffering community. But the well itself isn’t enough; it must be adequately maintained and repaired -- work that happens out of the spotlight but is absolutely essential. And although brothel raids provide instant relief from suffering, they don’t actually rescue people unless they're followed by years of counseling and retraining.

If Ruse’s story is like a precious vase that has been broken and glued back together, the solution isn’t simply a matter of trying to restore the vase’s original beauty. It’s a matter of preventing the vase from being broken in the first place.

Prevention work is often the most difficult, because it requires us to address factors like culture, as well as a community’s values, morals, and beliefs. In the end, it’s often extremely difficult to tell whether or not you’ve been successful. After all, it’s much easier to know when something happens -- such as a woman being rescued from a brothel -- than it is to know when something didn’t happen but might have, such as a girl whose parents chose not to sell her into the sex trade.

Development work is often like an iceberg. The portion that we see -- that gets covered in the press or promoted online -- is just the tip of what we must do in order to transform lives. However, it is what’s unseen that really makes a difference. Yes, brothel raids are often necessary. But I’d always rather see investment made in the less glamorous and hard work of prevention and long-term recovery.

What other important components of fighting poverty and injustice should receive more attention? Share your thoughts with us!

Make a one-time gift today to help provide hope for sexually exploited girls. Your donation will help deliver a wide range of interventions in the fight against this tragic practice, like safe shelter, medical care, informal education, vocational training, compassionate counseling, and more.

Also, contact your members of Congress today and express your support for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The most recent version of this federal legislation expired on September 30, 2011, and must be renewed immediately to keep the United States positioned as a leader in the fight against modern-day slavery around the world.


    We must find a way to stop this degradation and elevate everyone to the truth of who they are: Sons and daughters of the Creator of the universe--worthy of love and respect. God Bless the victims and God forgive the oppressors.

    As someone who lives in Cambodia, I can only wholeheartedly agree with Rich's comments - especially this:

    "Yes, brothel raids are often necessary. But I’d always rather see investment made in the less glamorous and hard work of prevention and long-term recovery."

    The private sector and for profit businesses seldom (actually never) gets attributed with the type of glamor that comes from a brothel raid. Yet, socially responsible businesses (big and small) are often the ones reducing the risk to many of the world's most vulnerable.

    If you're an experienced business professional, please realise the critical role you can play in changing the world. It may be less glamorous than the very visible effects of a brothel raid - but equally important. Inclusive wealth creation not poverty eradication is what we need. For that, we need armies of entrepreneurs and professionals with strong moral character.

    Footnote: Many experts agree that poverty cannot be blamed for trafficking but it is a contributing factor. See for a recent article.

    Having worked in the fight against child sex trafficking in the states for the past several years and now human trafficking on a more global scale, I appreciate the work world vision is doing in his area. Thank you for all the work that is maybe not so glamorous, but critical for the life of the victims.

    Hey Darrell,

    Thanks for your encouraging words :) I'd love to hear more about your involvement in the fight against human trafficking.


    Lindsey, WV Staff

    Lindsey, I worked on a grant in the state of Texas to end the Demand for sex trafficking in Texas. I did this as a missionary for the church of the Nazarene and through the process wrote a book for their missionary reading program. I now live in AZ and am still engaged in the fight through seminars I do called "Pimpping America".

    I am also now working on a more global scale and addressing human trafficking by reducing vulnerability through child sponsorship. I just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with Team World Vision and in the process sponsored approximately 100 children.

    You can read more about this journey etc on my blog.

    Thanks for your interest. Love your blog.

    Hi, i have reading out and i will definitely bookmarrk your site, just wanted to say i liked this article.

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