Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cambodia's Child Sex Trade

It's after midnight and we're cruising along the potholed road that directs to Svay Pak, Phnom Penh's contemptible brothel district. It's very dark - the only light comes from flickering candles set in small Buddhist shrines on the roadside. There doesn't seem to be much activity on this hot summer night. Perhaps the Cambodian government's crackdown on the child-sex trade is having an effect. Back in March 2003 the government had sealed 50-odd Svay Pak brothels-known for housing underage Vietnamese girls-in an effort to clean up the nation's growing image as a paedophile's paradise.

Our car turns down a bumpy hill, and at the bottom we are jolted back to reality. What look like rundown garages interlining a back alley are really brothels full of young girls? Costuming tight clothes and bright lipstick, several sashay over to the car. None look older than 14. A shirtless boy, maybe ten, gestures for me to roll down the window. "You want girl?" He asks in broken English.

Sitting in another car is Shu - valoy Majumdar who is co-chair of the Future Group, a Canada - based nonprofit organization challenging the child-sex business. He's brought me to Svay Pak to show the scale of the business. He leans out of his window and lies, telling the boy he wants a girl much younger. Majumdar knows that children as adolescent as four are available but kept hidden by their pimps to avoid police raids. After a concise conversation in Vietnamese with a rough-looking brothel manager, the boy leads Majumder and three others down a narrow pathway to a small cabin.

Inside, Majumder takes a seat in a shrill metal chair beside a stained mattress. Within moments, two girls who claim they are six and eight join him. Just awakened, the girls stand silently together. The pimp slaps one on the back of the head and the girls being to awkwardly endear with Majumdar. Jarring, the six-years-old lisps "no boom-boom, just ngam-ngam", which is so called Vietnamese oral-sex slang. But then a photographer with majumder begins to take pictures. The pimps and his bodyguards draw gun believing majumder and his photographer are undercover informants. Thinking fast they defuse the situation by telling the angry pimp the pictures are for their business-organizing sex trips out of Thailand .the stratagem works, and the danger passes. According to United Nations estimates, thousands of youngsters around the world are forced into the sex trade each year. Some countries are cracking down on the trade.

In Cambodia, through the industry thrives. While having sex with a child is unlawful, law enforcement is ineffective. Efforts to stops sex trade are undercut by dishonest officials and by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, which has been loath to interrupt the windfall of a 'tourism' industry worth millions a year.' No matter how many laws we sign'. Says my Sochua, a long time political opponent of Hun Sen., child sex will exist as long as this present government is in power.

The sex trade in Cambodia expanded in the early 1990s to service US troops overseeing the transition to the current democratic government. The child sex began to appear when the UN troops departed and brothel owners found they could make more money catering to foreign and regional paedophiles. Today the average age of the estimated 20,000 sex workers in Phnom Penh is thought to be 15. 'Some men are fascinated by sleeping with virgins- thinking they are the first to show prepubescent lasses how to have sex,' says Beth Hedva, a psychologist who has mastered the child sex market.' Cambodia is catering to this market'.

War, revolution, and the barbarous Khmer rouge regime in the 1970s left the nation's social structures in ruins.

"Due to the revolution, family ties were splintered," says Lao Mong Hay, Cambodian law professor. "A generation grew up in surroundings where people did anything to exist. They didn't learn morals."

Most Cambodian is desperately poor-per capitia annual income is around $350. Child-sex worker tell hunting stories of being sold into prostitution by family members or mates.

"'Prostitution and the maltreatment of women is hundreds of years old, but this form of sex enslavement has no precedent in history," says majumder. "Occasionally Cambodian politicians are shamed into doing something about it. But international pressure is inconsistent."

Nearly four years ago prime minister of Cambodia ordered all the karaoke bars and discotheques in Phnom Penh sealed, saying they were bastions of prostitution. The closures were also aimed at appeasing international aid organizations that want to see the child-sex trade stopped.

But the closures didn't last. At many, it's business as usual, with young Cambodian girls sittings on their laps.

At a recovery shelter for child prostitutes in Kampong Cham province, about 100 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, 13-year-old Por Phy is sewing a buttonhole on a shirt she's making to wear to school. When Phy, born in a poor farming village, was ten, her parents admitted her to live at a Phnom Penh homeless center, claiming they couldn't afford to care of her. Within three days of her arrival, an American, whom the young girl would only ever know as Scott, approached the shelter saying he wanted to adopt her.' he told me the paperwork for my adoption was coming,' says Phy. "I didn't want to go with him, but he said he'd take me to America, which I heard was very nice."

The shelter, says Phy, was overrun with children (there are about 20,000 homeless kids in Phnom Penh) and perhaps the staffs were too busy to check Scott's credentials, or perhaps they sold the girl to earn some extra cash. But they allowed the American to take Phy to Sihanoukville, a southern port city where he taught English.

For a year Phy says, she felt safe. But one night Scott raped her and made her his sex slave, threating to kill her if she told anyone or tried to escape. There was no adoption. She stayed for two years, until the abuse become too much and she ran away.
Bagging for money on the streets of Sihanoukville, she met a woman who took her to a Phnom Penh brothel.

A month later police accompanied by the French Cambodian non-profit agency Agirpour les femmes' en situation precaire raided it. (AFESIP). She's been at AFESIP's Kampong Cham center since then and will stay until she's 18, has finished school and learned a job skill. She knows where her family is, but she's too embarrassed to return to them. "What do I tell them?" she asks. "How can I ever tell them?"

That sentiment is typical among the 1600 girls AFESIP has taken in since 1997. They say they feel too ashamed to return home, where people openly refer to them as "dirty girls". "Nobody seems to care about them,"says AFESIP legal advisor Aarti Kappor.

Without any help of regional government agencies, international organizations like, AFESIP investigate child prostitution, appeal police assistance to raid brothels, and rehabilitate sex workers. But even if agencies can convince police to raid a brothel, it will be back in business days later. "For every girl we rescue," says Kappor, "there are hundreds of others who are not."

At the Kampong Cham center, Kang Bophar, 13, tells me a woman sold her to Phnom Penh brothel from her village that lured her to the city with promise of job in a coffee shop. Instead, she sold Bopher for about $500 to a brothel. On her first day, Bopher, a virgin, serviced three customers. She lived with seven other girls in a small room padlocked from the outside and opened only to let the girls out to be with clients. "Every day I woke up thinking, today I will die," she says.

That wasn't idle worrying. While life expectancy for Cambodian women is almost 60, girls in the sex trade are lucky to live half that long. The UN claims that almost 30 percent of Cambodia's brothel-based prostitutes are HIV positive. Since most have never had a blood test, the percentage could be much higher. Some younger girls have even been forced to repeat hymenoplasties, a surgical procedure to attach a piece of skin at the vaginal opening to make the girl appear to be a virgin. (Asian clients will often pay a premium to be with a virgin.) If they refuse to go with a customer, girls are often tortured. "These children are only commodities. Treated as such they may be sold off when they have out-lived their usefulness. And many girls die from AIDS and other infections." says AFESIP cofounder Somaly Mam.

Reintegrating them into society isn't easy. Among the girls at the AFESIP recovery center in Phnom Penh, some see their salvation in marrying one of the foreigners they've had sex with. They write love letters to the customers, whom they know only by a first name. The script, written in English that they've learned in the brothels, often begins: 'I love u, I wish you'd come and get me."

Trang Thi Tong still wants to return to her village in Vietnam. She had been residing with her grandmother when a friend approached her with a job as a servant for a rich Cambodian family. The 12 years old Tong agreed, wanting to surprise her grandmother by sending home some money. Instead, she was dealt to Savy Pak brothel, where she stayed for a year. Now the 14-year-old, cuddling a teddy bear, she is in limbo: smuggled into Cambodia without identification papers, she can't return home if she can't prove her nationality. Not that there's much to go back to.

"In Vietnam,' she says,"I would be lucky if I can find work. I would be a burden to my grandmother. And no one will ever want to marry me."

On a small, plot of land on the Mekong River in Kampng Cham, we are greeted by Sa Pang as we arrive at her door. Also with us is Kuntea, who's been dwelling at the Phnom Penh recovery center since being relieved from the sex business. When Sa Pnag sees us, she rushes out of sight and returns with three plastic bags full of home-grown bananas and guavas. "This is for the girls at the center," says Pang, 50, with a toothless grin.

The two-room home, with no running water or electricity, houses Pang and ten members of her family. But not Kuntea, then 16, who went to Phnom Penh to visit a sister working in a clothing factory. Pang didn't want her to go. But Kuntea stole some money and went anyway. She never got there. Pang contacted the police, but they wouldn't help, saying they receive missing person reports all the time. So Pang went to Phnom Penh on her own, hiring taxi drivers to go into the brothels and look for her daughter.

She didn't find Kuntea, but to her relief; police discovered the girl during a brothel raid. She was disoriented from taking drugs, most likely methamphetamines. Kuntea says the drugs made her forget what happened to her. She remembers arriving in Phnom Penh and finding that her sister's address was wrong. She had no money to get back home. A woman approached her and, saying she could help, took Kuntea to a brothel.

"As soon as I arrived, they beat me and locked me up," says Kuntea. "They told me things would be better if I took pill. Everything became blurry after that."

Kuntea now lives at the recovery center and is training for a job in a factory or restaurant. She's also in counseling, trying to recover from drug dependency and her brothel experiences. Pang sends her daughter food from her family farm. "I miss her," she says, "but as long as she is safe, then I am happy."

Now, on of her few visits home, Kuntea ignores prying villagers crowding in, concentrating instead on brushing her four-year-old cousin's hair. At one point she wipes away a tear as she ties the girl's hair into a ponytail with a ribbon-the same ribbon that most girls at the recovery center wear. Kuntea's face reveals nothing, but the ribbons, at least, is an expression of hope.

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