A woman from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community who resorted to prostitution to keep her family afloat after losing her home in one of Cambodia’s bitterest land disputes says she has quit the sex trade and become a seamstress after sympathetic donors helped pay off her family's debts.
The woman, who asked to be identified as Bopha when telling her story to RFA last month, said that since going public with her experience she has received more than U.S. $1,300 in donations from individuals and nongovernmental organizations.
With the money she has been able to pay off her family’s hundreds of dollars’ worth of debts and buy sewing machines that have allowed her to return to work as a seamstress, she said.
“I feel like I’ve been reborn,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Through the donations I’ve received I will be able to rebuild my life.”
Bopha, 26, had turned to prostitution while struggling to make ends meet since being violently evicted from Borei Keila in 2012 to make way for a new development by private company Phanimex.
On Jan. 3 that year, Phanimex workers bulldozed homes belonging to some 300 families, prompting a violent clash in which scores of police fired warning shots and tear gas as residents hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails.
Bopha lost her job as a cleaner at a local market as her family and some 150 others excluded from a deal for on-site housing were relocated to a barren plot of land in Phnom Bat commune situated an hour and a half outside of the city, where many had no way to earn a living.
Bopha was one of many Borei Keila women who resorted to prostitution to stay afloat, with about 50 women returning to the city to work in bars and karaoke parlors and some of them engaging in sex work, according to a community representative.
Bopha, who supports her mother and two children, said that after receiving the donations and beginning work as a seamstress, she has been able to pay off her mother’s U.S. $450 worth of debts and rent an apartment for U.S. $80 per month.
'Now I just sing'
She still works in karaoke bars to make extra money, but no longer has sex with patrons, she said.
Bopha waited for customers at a park in Phnom Penh earlier in March 2014 before quitting sex work. Photo credit: RFA.
"Now I’m no longer working as a prostitute. I used to have [sex with] four to five customers per night, but now I just sing with customers."
"People ask me why I’ve stopped going out with customers, and I tell them that I’ve been relieved of my debts."
Bopha used to earn money as a seamstress on the side in addition to her cleaning job, but her sewing machine was destroyed when their home was demolished in the 2012 eviction.
She has used the donations to buy two sewing machines for a total of U.S. $300, and to pay for her children to study foreign languages.
She is now saving to buy a home, she said, and has bought herself a gold ring, the only piece of jewelry she’s owned since the forced eviction.
But she’s prepared to sell it if she runs into difficulty paying for a cosmetology course she’s hoping to take, she added.
Borei Keila community representative Chhay Kimhorn said that the donations that poured in for Bopha were a sign that many Cambodians understand the plight of the evictees, calling for city authorities to do the same.
"Our society has accepted her; however, the government and authorities have discriminated against her,” Chhay Kimhorn said.
“They didn't believe her story [about the prostitution], but we have stayed by her side. She was never a prostitute until after the eviction.” Promised housing
Bopha said she still hopes Phanimex will honor its promise to build two more buildings to accommodate the rest of the Borei Keila villagers left without housing.
Phanimex originally agreed more than a decade ago to construct 10 buildings to house 1,776 families in Borei Keila, in exchange for a license to build a new development on 2.6 hectares (6.4 acres) of the land.
But only eight of the buildings have been built so far.
Borei Keila residents, along with evictees from the Boeung Kak and Thmor Koul communities elsewhere in the city, have in recent years staged regular protests against their eviction, some of them resulting in residents being arrested or violently beaten by police.
Some 156 families evicted from Borei Keila are living in a garbage-strewn alley of makeshift tents and shelters near the newly built offices and apartments where their homes used to be, demanding the company provide more housing for them.
Phnom Penh City Hall Spokesman Long Dymong told RFA last week that the government needs more time to resolve the Borei Keila dispute, asking the families living in the tents to stay in temporary shelters built by the city until a solution is reached.
Villagers say they have refused to move into the temporary shelters because they are afraid that if they do so they will no longer be entitled to compensation. Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.