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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Economics of survival, and the wish for home

Economics of survival, and the wish for home

IN almost every town in Cambodia one can find prostitutes. For a lot of Cambodians

there is a clear connection between prostitution and Vietnamese women. Estimates

on the percentage of Vietnamese among prostitutes in Cambodia vary widely, but usually

tend to exaggerate the number of Vietnamese prostitutes compared to the number of

Khmer prostitutes.

It was not my objective to 'count' Vietnamese prostitutes, but to hear some of their

life histories. I talked with Vietnamese prostitutes in the brothel area of Svay

Pak, 11 km north of Phnom Penh, as well as in some provinces. The brothels in Svay

Pak had almost all Vietnamese girls working in the house.

They were between 17 and 21. They didn't want to go into prostitution, but were forced

by others or by poverty. Still all of them had hope and wishes for the future. In

their view, working as a prostitute was only temporary- they all wanted to go back

to Vietnam.

The stories of Vietnamese prostitutes in Cambodia usually do not begin in the brothels

or bars, but in Vietnam. Their stories helped me to understand their economic motivations,

and their undiminished hope for home.

One girl had just arrived at the brothel the day before. Her mother had offered her

to the brothel owner in exchange for a loan of $200. This young woman had been in

Cambodia for three years; this was her first day as a prostitute. She explained that

she was born in a poor family in Vietnam, the youngest of nine children. Her parents

had great difficulty earning money because they lacked land to crop. Three years

ago, she and her mother decided to come to Cambodia, engaging first in a small business,

selling food at the market.

It was there that she met a Vietnamese man who worked as a clock repairman. They

were married and had a baby soon afterwards. But her husband was not good to her,

she said; he didn't love her and she had a hard time living with him. Eight months

ago she decided to divorce, though this created financial difficulties for her and

her mother. They didn't have money to live on. Her mother decided that the baby should

go back to Vietnam to live with one of her sisters. While her mother was to bring

the baby to Vietnam with the money they borrowed from the owner of the brothel, the

daughter would work as a prostitute to repay the loan. But there would be some delay.

She could not start working yet, because she was breast-feeding her baby. Her breasts

still had milk.

This is not a unique story. For most girls, poverty is the main reason for becoming

a prostitute. Some of them were brought to a brothel by their own family. One brothel

owner explained that it is usually the mother who brings the girls to his brothel.

They make a contract which says how many months the girl has to work; this depends

on the amount of money he lends to the mother. The girls are required to work every

day until they have re-paid the loan. The only exceptions are for periods of menstruation;

then they work to clean the house.

The girls have little or no resentment at being sold by their families. As one said:

"My uncle and aunt [i.e. the brothel owners] told me I can help to build a new

house. They gave money to my family to build the new house and now I have to earn

it back. I need to work here for maybe six or seven months more and then I can go


Some women are tricked into prostitution, but an exchange of money is always involved,

and debt shapes the relationship between the brothel owner and the prostitutes.

A prostitute in Kratie came to Cambodia when she was 15, invited by a man she had

met in Vietnam. In Cambodia she would have a nice and happy time if she wanted to

go with him for a visit, he told her. After they arrived in Cambodia, he brought

her to a house in Svay Pak. She didn't know it was a brothel. He only said she had

to wait for him while he went inside to meet someone. She never saw him again. Later

she found out he had sold her to the brothel for three chi of gold ($US47).

But many girls do make their own decision to work as a prostitute. They did not want

to be prostitutes, rather being a prostitute offered them the only way, they said,

to find a solution to financial difficulties, the only possible way to them to earn

some money with which they can support their family in Vietnam.

Customers pay between 6,000 and 10,000 riel, depending on their wealth. The girls

usually receive one to three customers a day. One girl in Kratie said that in the

past she had two or three customers a day; now she sometimes had only one per month.

Usually the girls are required to pay half of the money they make to the brothel

owner for living in his/her house. The other half is used to pay back the debt, to

buy new clothes, make-up and medical services.

In some brothels the owner keeps all the money and maintains an account of all the

income and expenses of each girl at the end of the month. If a girl needs money to

buy something or to see a doctor, she has to borrow. In this way debts can get higher

and higher, while the brothel owner keeps control of all the money. The financial

dependence that results also makes it very difficult for the girls to go anywhere

outside the brothel. But fear is another reason that keeps these young women in the


Usually the girls don't go outside the brothel because they are not allowed to do

so. Some of the girls expressed their wish to visit the pagoda. Lack of money, absence

of a pagoda nearby and fear keeps them from leaving. One girl said she used to go

to the Catholic Church in Vietnam. She said that she learned about Jesus' life: "Jesus

doesn't allow people to be prostitutes. It is no good. Sometimes I go to church I

want to cry. Then I pray for forgiveness."

The girls say that they need to stay in the brothel to receive customers. One of

them said that even if she went to visit girls in other brothels, it could cause

her problems. Even if girls live near one another, they don't dare speak with each

other. If another girl runs away from a brothel and they are known to be friends,

accusations can result against the prostitutes who stay.

This happens more and more often. A few days before the interview two girls tried

to go out of a neighboring brothel. One girl said the brothel owner told her not

to go out, because Cambodian policemen could arrest or hit her. She had no identity

card or residential papers. If she stayed in the brothel, her brothel owner would

take care of her and protect her from the police. If she went out she would lose

this protection.

Two months before I interviewed girls in Kratie, local police had organized a huge

raid against the brothels. One girl said that before the raid there were a lot of

Vietnamese prostitutes in the town, perhaps more than 100. The police came to the

bars and restaurants where they worked and asked them for their papers. All of the

Vietnamese prostitutes were arrested and sent to prison. Now the provincial governor

only allows Khmer girls to be prostitutes, not Vietnamese. She was afraid that the

police would come and arrest her like the other Vietnamese prostitutes.

Vietnamese women are often regarded as the tools which Vietnamese use to enter Cambodia.

This theme finds its roots in the history of a Vietnamese princess who was given

to a Khmer King in the seventeenth century in order to pursue Vietnamese encroachment

on Cambodian territory, and the theme recurs to the present. Prolong Cheat News (4/15-12-1995)

reported that Vietnamese girls could cross border posts easily because of their powers

of seduction. Kim (1993) describes how, according to him, Vietnamese prostitutes

intrude into Cambodian society. He said: "Our Khmer culture hates the problem

of prostitution", and continues: "The power of [the] flesh has poisoned

a number of Khmer youth who become very addicted that leads to many problems in society.

And slowly some Khmer women sell themselves. This disease for the society gives a

bad name to the Khmer women throughout the country." (Kim 1993)

Prasso (1995) states that prostitution is considered by Cambodians to be un-Khmer.

"The rationalization is, because all Khmer women are virtuous, all prostitutes

must be Vietnamese."

But there is a market for prostitution. CARE's report "Men are Gold, Women are

Cloth" discusses the importance of commercial sex workers (CSW's) for the sexual

pleasure of the Cambodian men. "Men visiting CSW's is a normal part of the culture

as... men cannot control their sexual desires, and require immediate gratification"

(Phan and Patterson 1994). According to Prasso (1995) "the majority of the Khmer

men now (in urban areas) have their first sexual experience with a prostitute."

But not only Khmer men, also Vietnamese, expatriates and tourists make use of prostitutes

in brothels, coffee shops, massage parlors or dancing places.

But Vietnamese girls find that private beliefs differ from attitudes shaped by public

fears of the intentions of Vietnam. Several of the girls said the Khmer men prefer

to have sex with a Vietnamese prostitute. Vietnamese girls are considered to be prettier

and more experienced than Khmer. However, as most of the Vietnamese girls don't speak

Khmer, or only very basic Khmer, communication with Khmer and foreign customers is

poor. One of the girls said that she didn't mind. She prefered to have Khmer customers

rather than Vietnamese, because Vietnamese always ask her a lot about her life. She

didn't want to tell them; she wanted to keep it in her heart, she said. Another girl

said Vietnamese customers were bad men. They told her they want to marry her, but

never came back. The Khmer customers only wanted to sleep with her and afterwards


Most of the women had relatives in Vietnam to go back to. Sometimes the families

of the girls knew about them working as a prostitute, but not all girls tell their

family about the kind of work that they do. One said: "I didn't tell my grandmother

I work as a prostitute now. If I tell her, she'll get angry with me, because since

her grandparents lived, there was no one in the family who worked as a prostitute

before. If she knows about me working as a prostitute... maybe she'll die because

of it."

Some of the girls told their relatives in Vietnam they sold coffee or did some small

business. Even in Cambodia they feel like they are looked down upon. One girl said

other people in town look at her "with those eyes as if they hate me and look

down on me."

The Vietnamese girls who work as prostitutes usually have a doubly hard life in Cambodia,

being both prostitutes and Vietnamese.

Of course this is not the only story of Vietnamese prostitutes. And there are lots

of Cambodian women with the same kind of background. But in daily life there seem

to be very limited relationships between the Vietnamese prostitutes and their Cambodian

counterparts. The restricted possibility of movement for prostitutes which are stuck

in a brothel, the language problem, and the whole image of the kind of work they

do, makes it difficult for Vietnamese prostitutes to get in contact with "real

Cambodian life."

The only way out of this trap is to work hard to earn money to set up some business

of their own and to fulfill the wish most of them have: to go back to Vietnam.



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