Phala, a waif-like 14-year-old girl from Takeo province, was recently sold by her
older sister to a Phnom Penh brothel for U.S. $400.
"My sister told me it was not a bad thing but after a week I wanted to go home,"
said Phala. "But the brothel owner told me: 'Don't be ashamed, everybody is
selling themselves now and the money is good.' Now I think they were right. Selling
sex is ok."
With businessmen, tourists, and thousands of U.N. peacekeeping troops flooding into
Cambodia since the signing of the Paris peace accords, prostitution is booming in
State of Cambodia public health officials estimate that in 1991 there were about
6,000 prostitutes in Phnom Penh. By the end of 1992 the number was up to 20,000 and
brothels were also beginning to appear in most provincial towns.
This flood of provincial women and girls who are being lured or forced into the burgeoning
industry is causing great concern among health and social workers.
"We realize that Cambodia is restoring peace and economic stability but some
things are unacceptable. Cambodians must be made aware of the situation," said
Nut Chea, an official of the Tuol Kork district, Phnom Penh's "red light district."
Health experts say the proliferation of brothels and other commercial sex establishments
is exposing the country to a potential health crisis.
According to some estimates, 80 percent of the prostitutes in Cambodia are infected
with some form of sexually transmitted disease, including the deadly AIDS virus is
Health workers say poverty and social disruption brought by two decades of war are
the main reasons for the spread of prostitution. But they also cite the free-for-all
economy that has developed since the signing of the accords.
"Most come from the poorest families," said Peng Piersa, head of the Office
of Combatting Prostitution at the Ministry of Social Affairs. "Some have been
expelled from their families for having premarital sex, while others choose to go
into prostitution themselves because they have made a mistake or are upset with their
lives. Others have been raped by a neighbor and have no possibility of marriage."
Kien Serey Phal, vice president of the Phnom Penh Municipal Women's Association,
said that her organization tries to educate prostitutes on the health hazards of
their work. She admits her group has had little success in convincing many of the
women to quit.
"Unfortunately we have no way of helping them," said Phal. "All we
can do is try and educate and help them if they want us to. But we can't force them
to give up their profession because they need to do this to survive."
Social workers said Cambodian girls' traditional respect for their parents makes
some vulnerable to being sold into the business by their families.
Phal cited the case of a girl who was engaged to be married but agreed to be sold
by her mother to a brothel despite the near certainty it would ruin her prospects
"The daughter at first refused, but the mother, who had some heavy debts to
settle with her neighbors, begged her to take pity on her. So the girl agreed to
sell her virginity," Phal said.
Depending on their beauty, young virgins can fetch between U.S. $400 and $700 in
the Cambodian flesh market. After one week, the cost of sex with the girls decreases
to between 10,000 and 30,000 riels (U.S. $5 to $15) and continues to decline the
longer the girl works in the brothel.
Brothel owners also trade and sell the girls working for them, with the price again
determined by age and beauty.
Three girls working along the Tuol Khok embankment told the Phnom Penh Post that
they were well-treated by their bosses. But they also told tales of being deceived
or initially forced into the profession against their will by a friend, boyfriend,
or even a family member. The deceiver gets a one-time "finder's fee" of
U.S. $50 to $70 on top of the girl's price.
Srey Toch, 16, who works as a prostitute at a Phnom Penh restaurant, said she came
to the capital with a woman who had befriended her and offered to find her a high-paying
job in the city.
"I didn't know this woman before, but she seemed to be a good friend,"
Toch said. "She said she took pity on me because I had a difficult life in the
provinces. But then she sold me to the restaurant owner for one domlung (U.S. $400).
"I know I shouldn't work at this kind of business, but I have no one to help
me," she said. "Now I'd be so ashamed if my neighbors back home knew I
was a prostitute. At least what I do here is better than asking people for money,"