In defense of the defenseless

Sharon Cohn Wu, lawyer at International Justice Mission. Photo by: Jeff Tyson / Devex

In May 2002, International Justice Mission lawyer Sharon Cohn Wu sat down with her colleague at a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to interview four confused and frightened young girls who, until that moment, were trapped in a commercial sex trafficking industry notorious for selling and exploiting children.

The 11-year-old, two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old were expecting to be sexually exploited when they arrived at the hotel. But after being dropped off by their pimp — following what appeared to be the request of a customer — they encountered instead the young American lawyer with striking dark curly hair and her male colleague.

Cohn Wu’s colleague with her that day was an undercover investigator who had posed as a customer at the brothel in Svay Pak — a village about 11 kilometers from Phnom Penh that was well known for selling girls — some of them as young as 5 years old — for sexual exploitation.

The investigator arranged for a pimp to drive the four girls by motorcycle to the hotel in Phnom Penh, where — unbeknownst to the owner of the brothel — the girls would be interviewed and sent to an aftercare shelter.

“We interviewed them two at a time,” Cohn Wu told Devex. “They had obviously come into the situation … expecting they were going to be exploited, and then were in a situation where they were being told they could get out … All four of them said that they wanted to get out of that situation. They were frightened.”

This wasn’t Cohn Wu’s first experience interviewing victims of sex trafficking. Months earlier she and her colleagues carried out a similar operation in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Cohn Wu still remembers one girl in that country who — upon realizing she wasn’t going to be abused — curtseyed in front of her in a sign of respect to a female elder.

The juxtaposition of that curtsey with the situation the young girl was in was striking and “not easily forgotten,” Cohn Wu said.

Then shortly after that experience, the young lawyer in her early 30s was sent to Thailand where she would interview other young victims of sexual trauma.

By May 2002, Cohn Wu had field work experience on two continents, but was still less than one year into her job. As a newly minted IJM lawyer, Cohn Wu’s job was to understand everyday forms of injustice — such as sex trafficking — perpetrated against the poor in developing countries and to work with local public justice systems — often broken ones — to provide victims much needed protection.

Before joining IJM, the Harvard Law School graduate worked for 3 years at the large Washington D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter where she focused largely on international trade law — far removed from the violence experienced by the poor in developing countries.

“The transition from a large law firm to [IJM] was great, but I don’t actually think there would have been much that would have well prepared me for the brutality associated with people owning other people,” Cohn Wu said.

She related the violence and the “redundancy of humiliation” that young victims of sex trafficking described to her in their interviews: lining up half naked for customers and suffering beatings from their “owners” if they were tired, or if a customer complained that they didn’t smile while being abused.

“It almost would make you think there was a manual written about how to break down and really crush a person’s sense of self,” Cohn Wu said.

Building up justice for the poor

Since joining IJM in 2001, Cohn Wu has earned a reputation among her colleagues as a nonflashy, focused and determined leader who shows results.

In the early 2000s, Cambodia was a hotspot for violence and injustice that disproportionately affected the poor and Cohn Wu was there to witness it. The Ministry of Planning estimated that 30 percent of the individuals in Phnom Penh’s commercial sex industry were children — many from poor families that lacked economic opportunities. Cambodia’s police regularly turned a blind eye — accepting bribes from pimps and brothel owners eager to avoid arrest.

For such a brutal, illicit practice, information about child slavery and sex abuse was remarkably easy to access on Phnom Penh's crowded streets. Cohn Wu described one of her experiences going undercover — posing as a secretary while one of IJM’s investigators was pretending to be a businessman. They talked to a taxi driver who described freely where the girls were available, their ages, and what they would be available for.

Cohn Wu saw a public justice system that was plagued with a network of ill-trained and ill-equipped law enforcement units that favored the rich. Victims were often criminalized and aftercare resources minimal.

Following the operation that rescued the four young girls in May 2002, Cohn Wu’s colleague — the investigator on the case who posed as a customer — received a death threat. The brothel owner claimed to own the girls, and said the police — with whom she had a relationship — would help her get them back.

This case, which Cohn Wu said “brought to light some of the very complex challenges in combating sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia,” set the stage for a much larger operation in 2003 that Cohn Wu would in large part lead.

She met with the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, with Cambodian government officials, and worked with the anti-trafficking unit to rescue 37 young women and girls in Svay Pak — nine of which were under the age of 10 — arrest 13 suspects and finally convict seven perpetrators with sentences from 5 to 20 years.

Transformation revealed

Cohn Wu has helped develop and refine a method of justice system transformation that she and her colleagues ultimately put to use in Cambodia.

By partnering with police, lawyers, social workers and other members of the local justice system, Cohn Wu and her team worked to rescue victims, restore survivors, restrain criminals and represent victims in court. They identified weaknesses in the public justice system and worked to address them by providing resources and developing levels of accountability. They provided training to The Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection police in 12 provincial units of the Cambodian National Police.

Over the past decade, Cambodian government officials have made anti-trafficking efforts a key priority for the country. The legal framework for anti-trafficking was amended to allow for easier prosecution of both foreign and Cambodian perpetrators and new child-friendly procedures were instituted in the courts. A national plan of action to combat trafficking was put in place earlier this year which among other priorities called for the expansion of undercover operations to catch perpetrators.

According to an IJM study conducted in 2012 and 2013, the prevalence rate of minors in commercial sex establishments in Phnom Pehn, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville was down to 8.16 percent. And the prevalence of minors 15 years old or younger was 0.75 percent. These findings were based on data collected from 232 commercial sex establishments in Phnom Pehn, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. A March 2015 study conducted by IJM revealed that the prevalence rate of minors in commercial sexual exploitation dropped even further to 2.2 percent.

Other donor-led efforts against trafficking in Cambodia showed similar improvements. The U.S Agency for International Development, their partner organization Winrock International and the Cambodian government’s National Committee to Combat Trafficking are approaching the end of a four-year $5.4 million program to fight trafficking in the country. They announced this week that they had helped 1142 trafficking victims.

Still, the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Person’s report placed Cambodia on the tier 2 of their watch list for the third consecutive year, indicating that more work is still left to be done in the country. Cohn Wu recognizes that injustices in the form of trafficking still occur in Cambodia. And IJM has publicly pointed to areas of needed improvement such as attaining undercover investigative authority for anti-trafficking police, expanding training to more remote areas, and developing more robust legal procedures among other priorities.

But Cohn Wu emphasises that it’s important to recognize how far the country has come.

“Seeing the extraordinary transformation in how the justice system in Cambodia is addressing the commercial exploitation of children has been a huge encouragement and motivator for me,” Cohn Wu said. “Doing this work can be discouraging at times, but what we’ve seen in Cambodia over the past decade or so with a drastic reduction in the availability of minors in the sex industry proves that justice for the poor is truly possible.”

Proving what’s possible

With two young daughters and one young son of her own, Cohn Wu — now IJM’s senior vice president of Justice System Transformation — travels to the field less frequently than she used to. Now, most of her work takes place on the top floor of an office building in Arlington, Virginia, and in meeting rooms in Washington, D.C.

In her office overlooking the Pentagon and Arlington’s famous National Cemetery, Cohn Wu can see incoming airplanes carefully descend over the Potomac River, police cars on patrol and emergency hospital helicopters hover on the skyline — seemingly prepared to dart across the horizon at the first call for help.

Working in full view of the U.S. capitol presents a stark contrast to her work on the ground in Asia and Africa — where justice systems have been marred by corruption and have struggled to provide protection for the poor. But photos from Cohn Wu’s time in the field, propped on her walls and her desk keep her grounded and focused.

Now, instead of breaking up sex trafficking rings by posing with fake customers, Cohn Wu meets with world leaders in Washington, D.C., and directs meetings from her office about data collection and program monitoring and evaluation.

By 9:30 a.m. on one recent July morning, Cohn Wu’s office began to fill up with a small group of researchers and monitoring and evaluation professionals who crowded around an office table with notebooks and documents in hand. A colleague in Uganda virtually joined those in the room via a laptop computer propped on a desk.

Cohn Wu sat at the end of her office’s meeting table, dressed in a grey suit and surrounded by members of her team. She listened as her colleagues gave her updates on studies and ongoing fieldwork in places like Kenya, where police abuse and false imprisonment is common, the Philippines, where the number of children in the commercial sex trade is finally dropping, and Uganda where widows and orphans are often driven from their homes and properties — victims of property grabbing.

Thousands of miles away from the very people she’s trying to help, Cohn Wu’s role has changed.

“I think there is a critical role to play in Washington, in working with leaders here and having conversations about what [transforming justice systems] would look like on a larger scale in other places — addressing other areas of violence against the poor,” Cohn Wu said.

Cohn Wu has testified before the U.S. Congress about the need for basic levels of justice and security for the poor, and she has met with President George W. Bush.

The seasoned lawyer, now 45 years-old, said she’s still startled by stories of trafficking and other forms of injustice. She said she hopes she never adjusts to that feeling.

“I think I might retire when it stops really troubling me, because I think it ought to,” she said.

But it’s a delicate balance, allowing enough emotion in to fuel your passion, but not so much that it undermines your excellence, Cohn Wu said. Because, she said, the poor especially deserve excellence.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.

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