When I first arrived in South East Asia, this is what I thought underage sex work looked like: a ‘pimp’ visits a poor family struggling to make ends meet. He kindly offers to give the teenage daughter a good job in a city restaurant. When the girl arrives in the big city she is instead taken to a dark, dingy brothel where she is thrown in with other young girls, the door is locked and she is forced to sell herself on a daily basis. There is no freedom and the treatment of the girls is terrible.

This scenario does indeed happen, but in my city it is not so common. I want to share with you another form of sex trafficking, just as prevalent but less known.

Srey Mom* lives in a very poor rural family. Their sole income is a small rice field. Srey Mom has limited education because she had to stay at home to look after her siblings while her parents worked in the field. Her parents have three loans from local money lenders, with extortionate interest rates. Recent droughts have prevented the family from being able to repay these loans.

Suddenly Srey Mom’s mum falls seriously ill and is taken to hospital. The hospital fees are exorbitant and there is no way the family can pay. Desperate, her parents tell her she must go and work in the local KTV bar to pay the bills. Many girls and women working in KTV bars and beer gardens provide sexual services to men. Most of these men are Asian (locals and tourists), but there are Westerners also. Being underage, the pay Srey Mom would get in the sex industry is far higher than other employment. As filial piety is so strong she has no choice but to obey her parents. She also desperately wants to help her mum get better.

So, Srey Mom goes to the big city. She lives in a rented room with a few other girls and earns a monthly salary as a ‘hostess’. Sex work earns her more money, much of which she is allowed to keep and send home. Srey Mom feels glad that she can contribute to her family, and slowly becomes addicted to the party life.

And that’s when we meet her. We offer her a safe and loving place to live and counselling to help with the suppressed trauma. Srey Mom can now study, gain confidence and self-esteem, and learn a useful skill that will enable her to support herself and her family. She is also gently introduced to the love of Christ and the chance for a new life in Him.

It’s very hard to comprehend the scale of the problem. In our western mindset there is no justification for parents asking their daughters to work in the sex industry. However, it is so easy to judge until you start to understand what abject poverty really means. Focussing on helping the poorest families earn a basic living is a necessary part of the solution. During my time here, I have learned that, ultimately, the only infallible answer for these girls is a transformative encounter with Christ. Please pray that we would be rooted in Christ and demonstrate his love for girls like Srey Mom.

The author is spending two years On Track, working against sexual exploitation of children.

*Srey Mom is a fictional character, but her story is based on many of the girls in our care.