Prostitution flourishing in Cambodia

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Subject: Prostitution flourishing in Cambodia
From: Vanessa Lesnie (lesniev@LCHR.ORG)
Date: Mon May 01 2000 - 13:51:42 EDT

Detroit Free Press, January 28, 2000

Prostitution flourishing in Cambodia
By Mark McDonald
Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHNOM PENH -- Turn left off Mao Tse-tung Boulevard [sic], go past the
School of Fine Arts and you're suddenly in Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh's
largest red-light district. It's one of the busiest and raunchiest
centers of sexual commerce in Asia.

More than 500 Cambodian and Vietnamese prostitutes work in the
windowless wooden shacks that pass for brothels there. They linger in
doorways or clutch at passing motorcyclists, and they call out to the
men -- soldiers, cops, expatriates, tourists -- in a half-dozen

New prostitutes arrive every day, most of them from the hardscrabble
farms and rice paddies of southern Vietnam and rural Cambodia. They are
lured from their families by itinerant procurers, middle-aged women who
constitute a whole new class of sexual predator in Southeast Asia.

The Ministry of Health in Hanoi says that 20,000 Vietnamese women are
working as prostitutes in Cambodia and that half will return home
HIV-positive or with AIDS.

"There's a whole network, very secretive, very clandestine, that is
bringing these girls out of Vietnam," said John Deidrick, country
representative for Population Services International, a nonprofit group
that distributes subsidized condoms and birth-control pills to brothels,
bars and karaoke clubs.

The Vietnam-to-Cambodia connection is one part of an extensive, gruesome
underground network that traffics women and children throughout
Southeast Asia. A report by the International Organization for
Migration, for example, cites the "slavery-like practices" inflicted on
Asian women as they are forced into indentured work as prostitutes,
household servants, beggars and laborers.

But international agencies are mounting vigorous new efforts against
such trafficking in Southeast Asia, including a six-country program that
is being financed in large part by the United Nations Foundation.

"The problem of trafficking has reached critical mass at the highest
levels," said Lisa Ng Bow, a specialist with the UN Development Program
in Bangkok.

Bow said the UN's $2.8-million program not only will study trafficking
but will work to combat it. Part of that will mean taking on the

A procurer will pay an impoverished farm family a few hundred dollars,
which can be twice the family's annual income in many cases. The
daughter is promised work in Phnom Penh as a seamstress, a housekeeper
or a waitress. The procurer assures the family that their daughter will
soon be making plenty of money to send back home.

"The families are more or less selling their children," Deidrick said.

"The poor young girls here are tricked and deceived," said Dina Chan,
25, a Cambodian prostitute who is helping to establish a trade union for
sex workers in Tuol Kork. "When these countryside girls get to the city,
they are sold to pimps and brothel owners."

"And there are more and more of them coming here all the time,
especially virgins," said Kamm Yomn, another union organizer who leads
an HIV-AIDS program in Tuol Kork. "Many of them are 15, 13, even

Virgins in demand

Rural girls brought to Phnom Penh are almost always virgins, and they
command a high price when they first arrive, local prostitutes said. The
pimps keep them locked up and do not put them to work until they've been
shopped around to a series of bidders -- high-ranking military officers,
politicians, businessmen and foreign tourists.

Men pay huge premiums for virgins -- hundreds, even thousands of
dollars. Fear of HIV and AIDS is one reason for the booming trafficking
in virgins here: The World Health Organization estimates that 64 percent
of Cambodian prostitutes are HIV-positive.

Also, some Asian men say that having sex with a virgin reinforces their
strength and vitality.

"There's a traditional view that if you have an STD," or sexually
transmitted disease, "or you're HIV-positive and you have sex with a
virgin, that you can actually be cured," said Deidrick, whose group
works to improve the health of low-income people worldwide. "To sleep
with a 14- or 15-year-old virgin is considered healthy -- even

Chan was one of those indentured virgins. An orphan who got into debt
for overdue rent payments and tuition fees, Chan suddenly found herself,
at 17, being "owned" by a pimp in northern Cambodia.

"That man advertised me to the important people in the town -- the
police chief and the director of the forest department," she said.
"They're the only ones who could afford a virgin."

Eventually, the pimp sold her outright.

"I was sold to a man who ...took me to a pig slaughterhouse where he
worked, and he locked me in a dirty, smelly cell. Then he came back with
six other men. They all, one by one, raped me."

Typically, newly arriving prostitutes are locked in rooms at the back of
the ramshackle brothels.

"I cannot leave the house and I do not often see the sun," said one
Cambodian woman named Ra, who said she was kidnapped about three years
ago at 18, raped and forced into sex work in a Tuol Kork brothel.

Police part of problem

Police make occasional sweeps through the area, knocking down shacks and
arresting people, but it's a half-hearted exercise that all parties
accept with a sigh, a wink or a payoff, prostitutes say.

"The police come and arrest us, and they take our money, our jewelry,
sometimes even our few possessions in our rooms, like our bedcovers,"
Chan said.

"When they are convinced we simply have no money to pay them off, they
take us to another brothel and sell us to a new pimp, usually for $100
per girl. That's how we become indebted (again), and we have to pay off
that debt to the new pimp. This is trafficking, with the police selling
us into another cycle of slavery."

The city's police chief denies that his officers even arrest
prostitutes, let alone become involved in trafficking.

Such are the economics of life in red-light districts across Cambodia.

>From all indications, business is booming. The Dragon Hotel, the largest
sex hotel in Svay Pak, recently added a fourth story.


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