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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Confronting the darkness: Cambodian victims speak

Confronting the darkness: Cambodian victims speak

Two young victims, one lured by the promise of work and a second sold for her virginity, tell the Court of Women of the horrors of the flesh trade.

ORIGINALLY from Kampong Cham, the witness known only as Wanta moved to Phnom Penh when she was 12. One day, while she was selling sugarcane on the street, a regular customer offered Wanta a job in a garment factory outside Cambodia. The job would pay more than US$100 a month, she said.
Wanta accepted and, later that month, arrived at the border. "Officials examined my documents and asked me where I was going and for what kind of work," she said in a statement given to the court. "When I told them garment factory work, they warned me ... to be careful about the risks of being trafficked."

Wanta was transported to Malaysia, where she was showed her new place of employment - not a garment factory, but a brothel. "Here [my handlers] had me clean up and dress in not much more than underwear," her statement reads. "I asked them what was the point of wearing this, and they told me that I was now working as a prostitute. As soon as I heard this I began to cry.... The woman who ran the brothel told me that if I wouldn't work, then I wouldn't eat."

Wanta was taken from brothel to brothel, where she was forced to have sex with numerous men. Her handlers, believed to be Cambodian, told the girl that, because of the cost of transporting her, she owed them a great deal of money. "They told me that if there was any work to be done, I had to do it...."

Eventually, Wanta was taken to a karaoke bar, where, out of sheer desperation, she confided in a kindly client. "He assured me that if I could wait another few days, he would be able to get me out of there," the court heard. "Surely enough, a few days later, the police raided the karaoke bar, and I was taken to prison for six months."

After her release, Wanta was moved to another facility where she met representatives of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre (CWCC). She spent the next few months in their care before returning to Cambodia. "I didn't have anything, and I was apprehensive of seeking out family after this whole ordeal," her statement reads. "At the time, I didn't give much thought to reporting anything at all. Looking back, I know it was a mistake."

Back in Phnom Penh, Wanta spent her first month at a CWCC centre. "I had the chance to meet and get to know other women who all had been dealing with the same type of problems themselves," she remembered. With the organisation's help, she trained as a hairdresser and, for the past three years, has been running her own salon. But there is another, darker legacy.

"I've been troubled lately because I've been dealing with having the Aids virus," her statement reads. The only person Wanta feels she can talk to is her doctor. "I still haven't let my family know because I'm worried about bringing new issues into the family to trouble them. At the same time, I want to share my story so that if others are facing similar situations, they will have an idea of what to do."

WHEN her grandmother died, Chhoun Minea, who uses a false name to protect her identity, moved from Prey Veng province to Phnom Penh to live with her mother.
"We ran a small shop to survive," she said in her statement to the court. "My mother used to gamble and would leave me at home alone.
Eventually, my mother fell into debt. One day, a neighbour persuaded my mother to sell my virginity for US$700 to a businessman. I was 16 years old then. I was with the man for two days. My body was painful when I returned home."

Chhoun Minea's plight worsened when her mother fell ill. "I decided to leave school and find work to pay back the debt and to pay for medical care for my mother. I found a job at a snooker club with a low salary of $60 a month. My work started at 8am and went on to 9pm, seven days a week. With my low income, I was not able to pay for my daily needs apart from repaying the debt."

One day, a young man approached Chhoun Minea and promised her a better life. "I was so happy and believed that my dreams would come true. My dream was to have a good husband and good family. But my dream ended early on when I found I was pregnant. The man rejected his own baby. The man that I loved left. He left an additional weight on my shoulders. What was I going to do, and what would people think about me, a woman who has a baby but no husband?" The only thing that prevented her from taking her own life, she says, was the thought of her unborn child.

Chhoun Minea started washing clothes every day and, after giving birth, found a new job at a karaoke bar, where she worked as a waitress and massage parlour assistant for US$40 month. Then her mother died, and she was forced to borrow $300 from a lender to pay for the funeral.
With interest racking up at a dollar a day, she quickly fell deep into debt.

"I decided to work as a sex worker. This was the only way to pay back the debt and to survive," Chhoun Minea said. Club owners would find clients for her, or she would force herself to solicit in public. "This is against the law in Cambodia ... but it was the only way I could support my child."

In late 2007, she met a Cambodian Women Development Agency (CWDA) member working to promote health care who educated her on HIV/Aids. Since then, she's been getting health checkups every three months. She was also given counseling, which she says encouraged her to keep going. "I became a focal point for CWDA to empower women who worked as entertainment girls to go to access health care," her statement reads.

Today, Chhoun Minea still works in the sex industry, but she aspires to better things. Courtesy of the CWDA, she is training as a beautician and hopes one day to open her own salon and provide a better life for her son. "What the court is addressing, which is HIV and trafficking, I consider very important issues where the empowerment of women ... can make a difference in our lives."

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