PHNOM PENH—The girl from Prey Veng province has worked as a prostitute in the Cambodian capital for five months. Hard times, she said, have brought her here to earn money for her widowed mother and three younger siblings.
“I am unhappy with myself, but I pity my mother. No girl wants to do this horrible work,” the 15-year-old, who asked not to be named, said in an interview as she looked for business near the Suriya Supermarket.
“Sometimes, I get only one client in two or three days. Some clients ask me to have sex without using a condom, but I refuse. I say that if you sleep with me without using condom, I’d rather not take your money.”
Rising living costs are forcing more Cambodian girls under 18 into prostitution in urban areas such as Phnom Penh to support their families in the countryside.
The girls, spotted easily from around 8 p.m. as they scout urban streets and parks for customers, say they lack the education to find other work.
A dangerous trade
Several Cambodian girls who agreed to be interviewed said they engage in sex work despite its dangers because they cannot afford to quit.
“Clients take me to guesthouses. I get U.S. $10 per night. They gang-rape me and beat me,” another girl, 17, from Svay Rieng province, said.
In February 2008, the Cambodian government began enforcing the new “Law on the Suppression of Human-Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” after years of U.S. pressure to crack down on sex trafficking.
Human rights groups, however, say the law and its enforcement have made life harder for the women they aim to help.
Prostitutes caught in police raids are made to pay fines of up to U.S. $200 for their release, the 17-year-old girl said.
“They take us to district police headquarters and take our money. If we don’t have the money, we will be kept in custody for two or three days. So we have to run for our lives when we see police approaching us.”
“Police arrest us in the hope that the brothel owners will pay, but if we don’t have anyone to pay for our release we will be sent to one of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It’s o.k. to live at the NGOs, but then our families have nothing to eat,” she said.
“If [the NGOs] want to help me, they should also help my family. Otherwise I can’t quit.”
Lim Mony, program manager for women’s issues at the nonprofit group ADHOC, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said the number of girls and women involved in sex work is increasing because of higher living costs and the lure of modern luxuries.
“Voluntary sex work by girls on the streets is difficult to define. Many of these girls first were lured and tricked into being sex workers by traffickers. Then, because of that, they began voluntarily selling their bodies. Other women have been voluntarily engaged in prostitution from the start,” she said.
According to Article 35 of Cambodia’s law on “Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation,” the prostitution of children is punishable with a jail sentence of two to five years and a fine of four to 10 million riel (U.S. $1,000 to $2,500).
But Ean Pheara, an assistant at the Phnom Penh-based People Improvement Organization, said impoverished and uneducated children remain among the most vulnerable workers in the sex industry.
This year, he said, the People Improvement Organization—which provides education and vocational training—taught 240 children the skills they will need to avoid being trafficked.
Heng Sithon, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs General Directorate for Social Development, agreed that anti-trafficking efforts must focus on Cambodia’s youth.
Sithon, whose work with the ministry provides education to rural children and their parents on how to protect themselves from trafficking, said more children and women are subject to trafficking “partly due to the migration of rural women looking for work who then are tricked into working in the sex trade.”
More awareness needed
ADHOC, along with the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), says that despite public awareness campaigns, law enforcement against prostitution and human trafficking remains ineffective.
“Really what [they] should be looking at is, if someone gets into a situation where they are forced [into prostitution] or where they are being severely exploited, how can they remove themselves from that situation and how can they best get the help that they need,” Elaine Pearson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said.
“The basic effect of [enforcing the law] has been to drive the industry further underground. It certainly doesn’t mean that people have stopped selling sex altogether in Cambodia,” Pearson said.
“It’s become more difficult to monitor the conditions inside brothels, and it has made it more difficult for outreach workers ... to provide health services, to provide condoms to sex workers, and to provide education services which would actually improve the health and safety in that industry.”
In its most recent report on human rights around the world for the preceding year, the U.S. State Department noted that while the Cambodian Constitution prohibits prostitution, “there is no specific legislation against working as a prostitute.”
“Trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution was a serious problem, despite laws against procuring and kidnapping for purposes of sexual exploitation. There were reports that police abused prostitutes,” the report said.
“Despite sporadic crackdowns on brothel operators in Phnom Penh, prostitution and related trafficking persisted. Estimates of the number of working prostitutes ranged from 14,725 to 18,250. Sex tourism was a problem, fueled by pervasive poverty and the perception of impunity.”
Original reporting by Seang Sophon for RFA’s Khmer service. Service director: Sos Kem. Translated by Sothea Thai. Written in English for the Web by Joshua Lipes.