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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kids fall into vice trap - survey

Kids fall into vice trap - survey

T he flesh trade is hitting Cambodia harder than ever with the average minimum

age of children forced into prostitution dropping from 19 to 15 over the last

year, a survey released earlier this month showed.

The survey, conducted

by the Cambodia Women's Development Association (CWDA) in Phnom Penh's red light

district Tuol Kok in February, found nearly 35 percent of all prostitutes

interviewed were under 18 years of age.

Earlier CWDA surveys revealed

the average minimum age of prostitutes in Phnom Penh's brothels was decreasing.

The annual surveys, which were conducted in connection with an HIV-Aids

awareness program, found that while the prostitutes' minimum age was 18-19 years

in October 1992, it had dropped to 15-16 years in April 1993.

This

year's survey found that 47 percent of all prostitutes had been sold into

brothels, and 86 percent of these were sold by parents, neighbors, friends or

relatives they trusted. Many had also been kidnapped and forced to work as sex

slaves.

Local and international NGOs and representatives from the

Ministry of Social Action, who have held two meetings on the issue, agree

immediate action is needed to clamp down on the flesh trade which is becoming

big business.

"We started receiving complaints about abduction of minors

a year and a half ago, and they have increased over the past few months," said

Margaret de Monchy, project officer for Children in Especially Difficult

Circumstances (Cede), Unicef. "After following up some of the complaints we

found many led to prostitution."

Announcements about missing children are

aired almost daily on Phnom Penh television. However, tracing the kidnapped

children, mostly girls, is difficult as many are thought to have been smuggled

across the border and sold to Thai brothels.

CWDA President Kien Serey

Phal, said social workers at her organization were reporting finding girls as

young as 13-14 years old in the city's brothels. The average age of children

reported missing on television is 6-10 years.

One of the main reasons for

the decrease in the average age of prostitutes is thought to be the HIV-Aids

scare. "Children are thought to be Aids-free and therefore 'safer', and virgins

are in demand," said Unicef's de Monchy.

Surveys by CWDA and the human

rights NGO Vigilance showed virgins were usually kept under the supervision of

the brothel owners and cost $400 to $700 for a week. As they grew older, they

moved into open prostitution in brothels and earned up to 8,000 riels per

customer.

Cases of abduction include a 14-year-old girl who was

kidnapped while walking down a street in Battambang, Cambodia's second largest

city. Two men drove her to the capital Phnom Penh, where she was forced to work

as a prostitute in Tuol Kok, a red light district.

A 13-year-old from the

Kompong Cham was sold into a brothel in Poipet, on the Thai-Cambodia border. She

last remembers being with her parents before she was apparently drugged. The

owner of the brothel decided she was too young and re-sold her to a rich family

to work as a maid.

Another 13-year-old, living in a shack on the banks of

Tonle Bassac River, Phnom Penh, was taken by a friend to visit an "aunt". Once

there, she was drugged and sold into a nearby brothel. Her friend later

confessed, and the police were able to trace her.

These are just a few

examples of minors being abducted and forced into prostitution.

The

opening up of society after decades of civil war and repressive governments,

economic liberalization, the relaxing of border controls, increased tourism and

the presence of the 22,000-strong Untac peacekeeping forces to help conduct the

May 1993 elections, are cited as major causes. "Change in the country has been

too quick and sudden," said Kassie Neou, co-director of the Cambodian Institute

of Human Rights (CIHR), a local NGO.

One third of all Cambodian families

are headed by women, many of them poor widows. Poverty often pushes families to

sell their daughters into prostitution. An expatriate reported seeing a

Cambodian woman trying to sell her daughter in Phnom Penh's New Market for

15,000 riels. Others have reported that girls on sale have been pointed out to

them in restaurants.

A related issue is that of street children. A 1992

Childhood Asia-Unicef survey of street children in Phnom Penh and Battambang

found that nearly 71 percent had lost at least one parent and "generally had no

financial support or adult supervision."

"Street children could be

abducted into prostitution by the hundreds and few would ever know," a Phnom

Penh-based social worker pointed out.

The problem is compounded because

many abductions are not reported. People usually try to trace children through

their own contacts in the police. "Very often, children who belong to families

with the right connections are traced," de Monchy said, referring to the recent

abduction of a 14-year-old Phnom Penh girl. She was traced to Battambang with

the help of a relative who worked for the police.

Lack of awareness is

the main stumbling block cited by most people who work with prostitutes and

children. NGOs, who plan to start an awareness campaign on the issue soon, hope

it will at least convince people to take the first step - start reporting

abductions, before the situation worsens. -Press Trust of India

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