“Where are we going?!” my voice echoed through the confines of my helmet as I called out to my friend S. as our motorbike sputtered desperately, gasping for breath as it struggled to negotiate its way through the winding, narrow paths weaving through the rural fishing village along the banks of the Tonle Sap River.

I faintly heard him giggle, which is famously characteristic of his lighthearted personality. “Why — are you scared?” he teased, followed by another giggle.

Mounds of garbage crowded me on either side as chickens scoured the remains for every last scrap of food they could find. The stench of sewage and rotting meat was so overwhelming, I would taste it in my mouth for hours later. Young children, barely dressed, their faces smeared with dirt, their chests covered with bites, cowered cautiously in the corners of the alleyway to avoid a collision with our vehicle.

As unpleasant as this scene may seem, it was strangely welcoming; comforting, even. I was back in Cambodia, a place I have come to hold dear; a country where I feel surprisingly at ease. I had only arrived in the capital Phnom Penh a few hours before, fresh off a plane from Jordan where we had been visiting and supporting Syrian refugees, but had quickly been transported to Svay Pak, an impoverished and notorious village on the outskirts of the town, where I was introduced to the community where I would spend the next week zipping around on the back of a motorbike.

This was not the same Cambodia I had seen plastered all over the pages of National Geographic Traveler magazine. This was not the majestic temples of Angkor. Oh sure, there were picturesque temples on nearly every street corner and saffron-clad monks were ubiquitous sights adorning the city’s gritty streets. But this was the real Cambodia — in all its dirt, stench, and glory. This is a side of Cambodia that fails to make the pages of tourism brochures, but it is a glimpse into this tiny Southeast Asian nation that is tragically authentic and immeasurably important. I returned to Cambodia because this beautiful country is a hot-bed for one of the most unconscionable evils on the planet: child sex trafficking.

And that’s why I headed directly to Svay Pak …

The International Labor Organization estimates that more than 4.5 million people are the victims of sexual exploitation at any given time around the world– many of whom are children.

The community of Svay Pak is among the poorest and most desperate in Cambodia. Poverty is pervasive and food insecurity and severe malnutrition are a daily reality for residents. Such economic hardship has yielded a desperate, deviant, and dangerous environment that thrives on the commercial exploitation of children, primarily for purposes of prostitution and manual labor. In contrast to other areas throughout Southeast Asia where children are often permanently sold for sex or manual labor, many Svay Pak caregivers, specifically those of Vietnamese descent, will sell their children into prostitution for days or nights at a time to earn money for the family. This is a widely known and generally accepted practice in this community.

For well over a decade, Svay Pak has been a well-known hub for child prostitution, even to the point of being so accepting of the practice that children as young as five would be displayed in storefront windows to attract clients and encourage them to select a child for purchase. Pedophiles and sex tourists from all over the globe have flocked to Cambodia, specifically to Svay Pak, to engage in sexual acts with young children. Over the past few years, high-profile attention to this notorious community through mainstream media such as Dateline NBC and the CNN Freedom Project has forced these brazenly open “businesses” to move their operations underground. Because of the increased presence of law enforcement and community-based NGOs seeking to help the community develop economically and socially, the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Svay Pak has somewhat reduced, but it still occurs at an abysmal rate. For example, I recently heard that ten years ago, it was estimated that 100% of young girls in Svay Pak (and a large percentage of boys) had been sexually exploited. That number is now estimated at around 65%.

Svay Pak’s Vietnamese community largely inhabits a fishing village along the banks of the river. Families live in floating homes and earn a living catching fish and selling them in the local markets. Most of the residents are Vietnamese immigrants who live in floating homes because they cannot afford to purchase the property to build a home on the land. The financial, physical, and emotional stress these families experience is unfathomable to most of us in the more economically developed world.

It is important to note that as sickening as the practice of child sexual exploitation is, it is motivated out of an economic desperation. These families do not hate their children. Families are desperate. They may sell one child in order to help feed and care for the others. Or, they themselves are the victims of abuse and exploitation and traumas so entrenched in their lives that what we consider to be a crime they view as perfectly normal. It is easy for us to sit on this side of the situation and label the practice as evil (which it is, horribly) without really taking a hard look at the factors contributing to it. It’s easier to sign a petition that says “Stop child trafficking NOW” or to wear a bright-colored wristband to show our support than it is to sit down with families who have actually trafficked their children (or, if desperate, would consider it) and say, “How can we help to support your family?”

For two weeks in June, I did some consulting work for a great organization to try to help them develop the family case management component of their child trafficking prevention program. This aspect of the program has the ability to meet families where they are — mired in poverty, personal tragedy, hopelessness, and desperation — and partner with them to overcome these challenges in healthier ways that protect all members of the family, but particularly the young children, from exploitation and abuse.

I spent ten days getting to know the program staff and the residents of the Svay Pak community, meeting with them in their homes and talking to them about their vision for their children’s future. Upon my return, I prepared a report summarizing my observations and proposing recommendations to aid the program in strengthening this aspects of its service to families.

In February 2014, I plan to return to Svay Pak to work with program staff on the implementation of several of these recommendations. I’m excited to be able to continue this partnership with both the staff and the community. I look forward to seeing more lives transformed because of the presence and dedication of the program staff.

*Note: Photos revealing children’s faces were taken with permission and do not feature children who are known victims of exploitation, nor do they feature children of the program I am partnering with.