At the young age of 13, Ruse had to make a difficult decision. Her mother was sick and in desperate need of medical treatment, but their family, living in a rural village in Cambodia, was extremely poor and couldn’t afford the doctor’s fees.

Ruse was telling me her story while we sat on the floor of her apartment in Phnom Penh, and she described how an older woman in the village approached Ruse and her mother with a terrible proposition. There were a lot of men who would pay a great deal for a night with a young girl. Ruse then told me something I will never forget. “My virginity was the most valuable possession my family had.” So she sold it in order to pay her mother’s medical bills, knowing that once a girl in her village lost her virginity she would only ever be able to work in the brothel.


There are an estimated 115 million stories just like Ruse’s all over the world today, in which poverty forces children into dangerous, dirty, and degrading jobs. When they should be in school, these children are instead laborers in industries that are harmful to them, such as agriculture, mining, quarrying, fishing, factories, domestic work, and—as in Ruse’s case—commercial sexual exploitation. Roughly 5.5 million of these children are in forced labor situations, working as modern-day slaves.

That is why it is heartbreaking and shocking to me that both the Senate and the House have proposed to cut grant funding for the International Labor Affairs Bureau, America’s largest program to prevent and respond to child labor. Congress must quickly restore ILAB funding or tens of thousands of children will be soon put at risk of the worst abuses of the child labor market.

The programs funded by the Bureau have helped 1.94 million children escape from the worst forms of child labor, including sex trafficking. These programs are independently audited to ensure that taxpayer money is used effectively and transparently. The $59 million dollars allocated to these programs last year gave thousands and thousands of children the chance to enjoy a future full of opportunity rather than the long-term consequences caused by child labor.

In Cambodia for example, a four-year, $10 million program is serving 28,000 children in six provinces. In all these areas school enrollment is on the rise, and 93 percent of target communities have committees and structures in place capable of eradicating child labor.

Beyond the children and communities in which it is operating, the program is having an impact across other sectors of Cambodia’s economy. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is asking to replicate the program. Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration partnered with the program to develop guidelines to eliminate child labor, and the government is now working on a policy on child domestic workers. Had such efforts been underway when Ruse was 13, perhaps she wouldn’t have lost her most formative years working in a brothel.

Programs like the one in Cambodia are threatened around the world. They have effectively reduced child labor in 93 countries. In the Philippines, for example, ILAB programs reduced child labor by 74 percent. In each case, they are providing children educational opportunities and preventing their entrance into harmful jobs in dirty industries. They are lifting families out of desperate poverty so that they don’t have to send their children into the workforce. And they are helping local and national governments institute policies that prevent child labor.

Americans don’t believe in turning our backs on children and families in need. Americans would be appalled to discover that Congress has decided to end our assistance to the world’s 115 million children trapped in child labor.

I remember leaving Ruse’s apartment after we met in February, 2013, and thinking that a child’s life is like a precious vase. Ruse was removed from the brothel where she was held as a slave, and she came to World Vision’s program for women abused by sex trafficking. Through the program Ruse was able to reintegrate into society and hold a job. Ruse was like a precious vase that had broken. With some help, she successfully pieced her life back together. She has a bright and hopeful future. However it would have been better had Ruse’s live never broken in the first place.

The ILAB programs do just that. They prevent underage boys and girls from the commercial sex industry and abuse labor practices. If funding isn’t restored tens of thousands of children could be put at risk of exploitation over the next year. Years of progress are now in jeopardy. On behalf of those children who, like Ruse, could be soon faced with their own terrible propositions, Congress must urgently reconsider its defunding these important programs.

Stearns is president of World Vision U.S. and author of The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished.