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No turning back for virgin trade victims


A sex worker who sold her virginity and then later moved onto working as a prostitute sits in a rented room where she receives customers in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Mathew Watson/Phnom Penh Post

Victims of Cambodia’s virgin trade often face extended exploitation as they turn to prostitution and isolate themselves from their home communities, anti-exploitation groups said, calling for increased education and a shift in mentality toward the trade.

Nget Thy, executive director for the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, told the Post sexually exploited virgins were “incredibly challenging” for NGOs to rehabilitate.

“Brokers have an ideal market – they know many men want to do this, and that the families are so poor they can often be talked into it … we’ve had girls as young as 13 in these situations.”

Girls who had originally been sold as virgins by their families would be later taken in by local authorities or NGOs after they had turned to a life of prostitution, Thy said.

“These girls think they have lost everything once their virginity is gone – there is such significance placed upon it in Cambodian society – and once it’s gone they feel ashamed and hopeless and often will not return home … it’s all very sad.” Licadho president Dr Pung Chhiv Kek said the trend of aid donors and media outlets focusing attention on foreign pedophiles was “dangerously misleading”.

“There is a strong and urgent necessity to address this in a more comprehensive way,” she said. Operations director for anti-human trafficking and exploitation group SISHA, Eric Meldrum, agreed, but pointed out a distinction needed to be made between pedophilia and the cultural acceptance of virgin sex in Cambodia.

“Pedophilia is a psychological disorder, a desire and sexual arousal by children that can take many forms – watching child pornography, making online videos, and rape.

“For these men it’s not about that, it’s the value of having sex with a virgin, she could be 18 or 19-years-old.

“(Sex with virgins) is a learned cultural behaviour, something valued in Asian culture… yes lines can be blurry and it’s not to say there are no Khmer pedophiles, but the number of pedophiles involved in the massive virginity trade here would be low,” he said.

Project officer for Action Pour Les Enfants, Vando Khoem, said boosting awareness of the virgin trade was critical, but a shift in mentality could take generations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at



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