Child-Sex Trade Thriving in Cambodia

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 24, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 24, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

Child-Sex Trade Thriving in Cambodia

IT'S AFTER MIDNIGHT and we're cruising slowly along the potholed road that leads to Svay Pak, Phnom Penh's infamous brothel district. It's very dark - there are no street lamps and the only light comes from flickering candles set in small Buddhist shrines on the roadside. Promisingly, there doesn't seem to be much activity along the road on this hot summer night. Perhaps the Cambodian government's crackdown on the child-sex trade is having an effect. Back in March, the government had closed most of the 50-odd Svay Pak brothels - known for housing underaged Vietnamese girls - in an effort to clean up the country's growing image as a pedophile's paradise.

Our car turns right down a steep and bumpy hill, and at the bottom we are jolted back to reality. What look like rundown garages lining a back alley are really brothels full of young girls. Wearing tight clothes and bright lipstick, several sashay over to the car. None of them looks older than 14, but they come on like seasoned streetwalkers, licking their lips and thrusting their tiny chests forward. A shirtless boy, who is maybe 10, pushes himself to the front and gestures for me to roll down the window. "You want girl?" he asks in broken English as the scent of cheap perfume wafts in.

Sitting in another car is Shuvaloy Majumdar, co-chair of The Future Group, a Calgary-based non-profit organization fighting the sex trade. He leans out his window and lies, telling the boy he wants a girl much younger than those on the street. Majumdar has brought me to Svay Pak to show the scale of the child-sex trade, and he knows that children as young as four are available but kept hidden by their pimps in an attempt to avoid police raids. After a brief conversation in Vietnamese with a rough-looking brothel manager, the boy leads Majumdar and three others down a narrow pathway to a small cabin.

Inside, Majumdar takes a seat in a creaky metal chair beside a stained mattress. Within seconds, two girls, who claim they're 6 and 8, join him. Just awakened, they're wearing cotton pajamas and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. At first, the girls stand silently and rigidly together. The pimp slaps one on the back of the head and the girls begin to awkwardly and unenthusiastically flirt with Majumdar. Shaking, the 6-year-old mumbles, "no boom-boom, just ngam-ngam" (Vietnamese slang for oral sex). But when a photographer who has accompanied Majumdar begins to take some pictures, the pimp and his bodyguards draw guns, thinking Majumdar and the photographer are undercover informants. Thinking fast, the visitors defuse the situation by telling the angry pimp the pictures are for their business - organizing sex tours out of Thailand. The ruse works and the danger passes.

Later, we head into downtown Phnom Penh to a popular nightclub, the Martini Pub. Nearly three years ago, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered all the karaoke bars and discotheques closed, saying the establishments were bastions of prostitution. But that didn't last either. The closures were aimed at appeasing international aid organizations who want to see the child-sex trade stopped. But when we arrive at the nightclub, it's business as usual. The patio bar is full of foreign men with young Cambodian girls sitting in their laps, laughing at their jokes. One fat, grey-haired Westerner staggers toward the door with four girls in tow. They head straight for the luxury hotel across the street.

ACCORDING TO United Nations estimates, tens of thousands of children (under 18) are forced into the sex trade around the world each year. Some countries, including Thailand - long considered the world's child-sex capital - are cracking down on the trade. In Cambodia, though, the industry thrives. While having sex with a child is illegal, law enforcement is ineffective. Efforts to stop the trade are undercut by corrupt officials and by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party government, which so far has been loath to interrupt the windfall of a "tourism" industry worth millions a year. "No matter how many laws we sign," says Mu Sochua, Cambodia's former minister of women's and veterans' affairs and a long-time opponent of Hun Sen, "child sex will continue as long as this government is in power."

The sex trade in Cambodia expanded in the early 1990s to service UN troops overseeing the transition to the current democratic government. The child-sex trade began to appear when the UN troops left and brothel owners discovered they could make more money catering to foreign tourists and local pedophiles wanting sex with kids. Today, officials estimate that the average age of the estimated 20,000 sex workers in Phnom Penh is 15. "Some men are fascinated by sleeping with virgins - they get excited thinking that they're the first to show a pre-pubescent girl how to have sex," says Beth Hedva, a Calgary psychologist who has studied the child-sex industry. "Cambodia is catering to this market."

The climate was ripe. War, revolution and the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s left the nation's social structures in ruins. The Vietnamese, who ruled for 10 years ending in 1989, did little to improve things. "Because of the revolution, family ties were shattered," says Cambodian law professor Lao Mong Hay, a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto. "A generation grew up in an environment where people did anything to survive. They didn't learn morals."

Most Cambodians are also desperately poor - per capita annual income is about $350. Child-sex workers tell hauntingly similar stories of being sold into prostitution by family members or friends. "Prostitution and the poor treatment of women and children is thousands of years old, but this form of sex-slavery has no precedent in history," says Majumdar. "Occasionally Cambodian politicians are shamed into doing something about it. But international pressure is inconsistent."

DESPITE IT being the rainy season, the day is sunny and hot, allowing 30 girls to work outside at the recovery shelter for child prostitutes in Kampong Cham province, about 100 km north of Phnom Penh. Sitting on the porch at a pump sewing machine, 13-year-old Por Phy (whose name, as with all the girls in this story, has been changed) finishes a buttonhole on a shirt she's making to wear to school with a blue skirt. When Phy sees me approach, she stops sewing, stands, places her hands together as if in prayer, bows and says the Khmer greeting: "Sua s'dei." She then gestures for me to follow her inside.

Phy was born in a poor farming village south of Phnom Penh. When she was 10, her parents sent her to live at a Phnom Penh homeless shelter, claiming they couldn't afford to care for her. Within three days of her arrival, an American, whom the young girl only ever knew 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 almost all of the male child-sex workers are street children who do odd jobs like shining shoes in addition to going with pedophiles who approach them). Perhaps the staff 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. "On the way, Scott told me it would be easier for him to make me his stepdaughter when I turned 18," says Phy. "He wasn't adopting me."

Scott, who was about 30, taught English in Sihanoukville and for a year, Phy says, she felt safe. But one night Scott raped Phy and made her his sex slave, threatening to kill her if she told anyone or tried to escape. She stayed for two years, until the abuse became too much and she ran away. But begging for money on in Sihanoukville, she met traffickers who took her to a Phnom Penh brothel. "I knew the people I met in Sihanoukville were taking me to a brothel, but I didn't want to go back with Scott," she explains.

A month later, it was raided by police accompanied by the French-Cambodian non-profit agency Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire. She's been at AFESIP's Kampong Cham centre since then and will stay until she's 18, finished school and has learned a job skill. She knows where her family is, but she's embarrassed about having been a prostitute and doesn't want to return to them. "What do I tell them?" she asks. "How can I ever tell them?" That sentiment is typical among the 1,600 girls in Cambodia that AFESIP has taken in since 1997. They say they feel too ashamed to return home - people openly refer to them as "dirty girls." "Nobody seems to care about these girls," says AFESIP legal adviser Aarti Kapoor.

In the absence of local government agencies, outside organizations such as AFESIP investigate child prostitution, solicit police help to raid brothels, and rehabilitate sex workers. Majumdar, for example, reported what he saw at Svay Pak to AFESIP. That may save some kids, 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 AFESIP official Aarti Kapoor, "there are others being trafficked into the trade."

AT THE Kampong Cham centre, Kang Bophar, 13, tells me she was sold to a Phnom Penh brothel earlier this year by a woman from her village to the north. The lady lured Bophar to the city with the promise of a job in a coffee shop. Instead, the woman sold Bophar for about $500 to the brothel. On her first day of work, Bophar, a virgin, serviced three johns. After a week, two foreigners paid to keep her for 14 days, during which she would escort the men to restaurants and nightclubs in between having sex. The brothel owner kept the money she earned, supposedly to cover the cost of her food and shelter. Bophar lived in a small room with seven other girls. It was padlocked from the outside and only opened 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 56, girls in the sex trade are lucky to live half that long. Officials claim nearly 20 per cent of Cambodia's prostitutes are HIV-positive, but since the majority of sex workers have never had a blood test, the actual percentage could be much higher. As well, the girls are often tortured and gang-raped at brothels by clients and pimps. Some younger girls are made to have repeated 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 in the belief that it will make a man younger and heal medical ailments.) If they refuse to go with a customer, girls are often tortured. "These children are commodities who will be killed when they've outlived their usefulness, or they die from the torture," says AFESIP co-founder Somaly Mam.

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

Trang Thi Tong, however, wants to return to her village in Vietnam. She had been living with her grandmother when a friend offered her a job as a servant in the home of a wealthy Cambodian family. Tong, then 12, agreed, hoping to surprise her grandmother by sending home some cash. Instead, Tong was sold to a Svay Pak brothel where she stayed for a year. But the now 14-year-old, cuddling a red and pink teddy bear, is in limbo: she was smuggled into Cambodia without any identification papers, and 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 in a garment factory or as a cook. I feel like I would be a burden to my grandmother. No one will ever want to marry me."

ON A SMALL PLOT of land on the Mekong River in Kampong Cham, we are greeted by Sa Pang as we arrive at her door. With us is Kuntea, Pang's daughter who's been living at a Phnom Penh recovery centre since being rescued from the sex trade. When she sees us, Pang jumps up from a low wicker table, rushes out of sight, and returns with three plastic bags full of homegrown bananas and guavas. "This is for the girls at the centre," says Pang, 50, with a toothless grin. Her two eldest daughters are weaving a red and green straw mat that will be sold for $1 at market. Pang's emaciated husband sits in a corner smoking an American cigarette. And a one-month-old baby boy is being swung in a hammock by an aunt. The two-room home, with no running water or electricity, houses Pang and 10 members of her family.

But not Kuntea, the youngest of Pang's six children. A year before, Kuntea, then 16, went to Phnom Penh to visit a sister who was working in a clothing factory. Pang didn't want her to go, but Kuntea, desperate to see her sister and the big city, stole some money for a taxi 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 in search of Kuntea on her own. She sold whatever she could, and borrowed money from her neighbours to hire taxi drivers to go into the brothels and look for her daughter.

She didn't find Kuntea, but to her relief, the girl was discovered by police during a brothel raid. She was disoriented from having taken a tablet several times a day - likely a methamphetamine. Kuntea says the pill made her not want to eat or sleep, desirable qualities for a sex worker. The drug also 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 to her village. A woman approached her on the street and, saying she could help, took Kuntea to a brothel in the Toul Kok district. "As soon as I arrived, they beat me and locked me up," says Kuntea. "They told me things would be better if I took the pill. Everything became blurry after that."

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

In Kampong Cham, Pang's house becomes crowded as neighbours stop by to see Kuntea on one of her few visits home, and to stare at me, a foreigner. Kuntea ignores the prying villagers, concentrating instead on brushing her four-year-old cousin's hair. At one point, she wipes away a tear as she ties the little girl's hair into a ponytail with a ribbon - the same ribbon that most girls at the recovery centre wear. Kuntea's face reveals nothing, but the ribbon, at least, is an expression of hope.


Maclean's November 24, 2003