Some women evicted from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila slum have resorted to prostitution to support themselves after losing their homes and jobs in one of Cambodia’s bitterest land disputes.
The women are among some 150 families struggling to make ends meet since being moved to a barren plot of land an hour-and-a-half’s drive outside the city two years ago after property developer Phanimex reneged on an agreement to provide them with on-site housing in exchange for land in Borei Keila.
With no new jobs in the relocation area, some 50 women in the community have returned to the city to work in bars and karaoke parlors on the fringes of the city’s sex industry, with some of those women turning tricks for a living, according to a community leader.
One of the women, who asked to be identified as Bopha, said that since losing her job as a cleaner at a local market she has had no choice but to work as a prostitute.
"If Phanimex hadn’t evicted us, I wouldn’t have to face this,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
"But now I am a prostitute. Phanimex is killing me,” she said.
Bopha lost her job when her family relocated to Phnom Bat commune in Kandal province, some 35 kilometers from Borei Keila, following a violent forced eviction in 2012.
On Jan. 3 that year, Phanimex workers bulldozed homes belonging to her and some 300 other families, prompting a violent clash in which scores of police fired warning shots and tear gas as residents hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails.
Phanimex was demolishing the homes to make way for new offices, retail, and apartments in the area after failing to honor an agreement to build new housing for some of the Borei Keila residents on part of the land. Some evictees were moved to Phnom Bat, while others remain in limbo.
Bopha was pregnant during the clash and says she miscarried after security guards overseeing the forced eviction beat her while she was trying to protect her two children.
The sewing machine she used to earn extra income tailoring clothes was destroyed in the demolition along with the family’s home.
In the resettlement area in Phnom Bat, a barren plot of land with nothing surrounding it, the family had no way to make a living, Bopha said.
Like dozens of other families, they moved back to Borei Keila to live in a garbage-strewn alley of makeshift tents and shelters along with residents who were never relocated to new housing—but without Bopha’s husband, whom she divorced after starting work as a prostitute.
One night this month after dark, Bopha headed from Borei Keila to a park near the riverfront to look for customers.
“Are you waiting for someone to spend the night with?” she asked a man lingering in the park.
At the same time of night two years ago, she would have been asleep at home with her husband and children, she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
"I sit in parks waiting for customers. I’m so ashamed,” she said.
Bopha said she earns about U.S. $20 from each customer, which she uses to support her two children and mother and pay off the family’s debts.
"My mother owes people money, I can't ignore it," she said.
One of many
Bopha is one of many Borei Keila women with no choice but prostitution, community representative Chhay Kimhorn said.
Some 50 of them have taken up work in the entertainment industry, and some of them have resorted to prostitution like Bopha, she said.
“I myself am now working as a scavenger, but if I weren’t able to make ends meet anymore I would become a prostitute too to support myself,” she said.
Phnom Bat commune representative Touch Khorn, said that with no employment opportunities and poor conditions in the new settlement, many of the Borei Keila women were in a similar predicament to Bopha.
“Some women have been left with no choice but to work as prostitutes, or to cut their hair and sell it,” he said.
Most of the 100 people who have remained in Phnom Bat are surviving on donations from NGOs, he said.
The families have no electricity, no health care, and not enough land to cultivate any crops, and the children have to walk some 4 miles (6 kilometers) to reach the nearest school, he said.
Borei Keila residents, along with evictees from Boeung Kak and Thmor Koul elsewhere in the city, have staged regular protests against their eviction, some of them resulting in residents being arrested or violently beaten by police.
Phanimex originally agreed more than a decade ago to construct 10 buildings to house 1,776 families in Borei Keila, in exchange for license to build a new property on 2.6 hectares (6.4 acres) of the land.
But only eight of the buildings have been built so far.
In January this year, Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong visited those living in the makeshift shelters in Borei Keila, promising new temporary houses will be built.
Residents say they want a permanent resolution to the problem.
In February, police raided an unfinished apartment building in Borei Keila that community members excluded from the resettlement agreement had occupied for two days.
Asked about Bopha’s case, Phnom Penh City Hall Spokesman Long Dymong said her involvement in sex work was not the fault of the forced eviction.
“Some women do the work voluntarily,” he told RFA.
Bopha said she wanted Phanimex to find a long-term solution for the residents that would not relegate them to poverty.
“The company should resolve the dispute. They shouldn’t allow others to live in poverty any longer and end up as prostitutes.”
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.