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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex workers turn actors to give serious message

Sex workers turn actors to give serious message

IN the red light district of Toul Kork, at the intersection of three roads where

usually nobody gathers, the place is packed tonight. Families, women, curious boys

and soldiers surround a stage, watching a play "This Is My Life."

Twelve girls are re-enacting their own lives, with a common thread. It's a story

well-known in this area, a story of being sold into sexual slavery, of beatings and


Saem is one of them.

At the age of 18, she was freed last August from a Battambang brothel where she was

held prisoner for six months.

Today, she recounts her story the same way that she acts it in the play, with great

attention and a willingness to testify about her experience, to try to prevent the

same thing happening to others.

The play tells the story of two orphan sisters who live with an uncle and aunt. The

uncle dies in an accident and the aunt is ill.

The younger sister runs away to look for work to earn money for the family. She gets

a job at a soup shop.

The play is a mixture of the stories of the 12 actors. Saem's story also started

at a noodle soup shop.

"I left my family in Kieng Svay and came in Phnom Penh to work. I am the oldest

child and I had to help my mother, who is a widow, try to earn a living for my two

brothers," she explains.

"I earned 30,000 riel ($12) a month. I worked there for nearly two years. Then

I went to work raising my aunt's children.

"A friend of hers came to offer me a job selling beer. She came several times

and was very kind to me. She promised me the salary would be $50 a month."

In the play, Saem acts the part of that woman.

"It's quite easy for me to act as the pimp. I just have to do what the lady

did with me. I just say what she told me."

Pausing for a minute, she stresses: "It wasn't me who sold someone. I was the

one who was sold."

On the stage, Saem walks with a determined stride, and speaks loudly.

"As I am acting, I close my eyes and I think what I actually lived through in

the brothel."

As the play progresses, it's evident that it's a familiar story to many in the audience.

People gather in groups and talk about similar experiences.

"Near my house a family sold their daughter last week. She was 15-years-old

and she was sold for $400," says a woman watching the play. While several men

argue about how truthful the actors' stories are, another woman in the audience remarks

that she herself was sold to a Stung Treng brothel, escaping when her husband rescued


On stage, the older sister who stayed with her aunt has just been sold by her boyfriend.

By chance, she meets her younger sister in the same brothel.

Saem remembers how, in real life, she arrived at a brothel after being sold. "The

first day I arrived at the brothel, I did not know where I was. I just saw six other


"The man told me that I had to put on make-up and find customers. 'If you earn

a lot of money then you can go, because you will have repaid the money I used to

buy you'," she says.

"I did not know anything about men at that time. I was very shy. The first customer

tore my clothes and forced me. He raped me."

Then Saem had to have five to six customers a day.

"The pimp wanted me to have ten men. I never wanted that. I wanted to take care

of my health. He beat me to make me earn more money."

In the play, a pimp beats the prostitutes. There doesn't seem to be much acting -

the punches look real, and painful, as does the grabbing of the girls' hair.

In the audience, men erupt into laugher as they watch the pimp beat the prostitutes.

Asked why, they don't say much.

"It's not funny," says Borey, a teenager who was laughing, adding: "But

the play seems to be a joke, even if I know that some girls are actually sold."

In the play, the two sisters' ordeal finally comes to an end: the police arrive at

the brothel to investigate the death of a girl and allow the sisters to leave.

In reality, that was what happened. A prostitute died, at the hands of her pimp according

to police, in the brothel next door to Saem's.

Spurred into action and supported by NGOs, the police raided 40 Battambang brothels,

freeing some 200 prostitutes.

Since then, life has picked up for Saem and many of the others. She joined a vocational

training program run by the International Catholic Migration Commission, which also

supported the production of the play.

Saem is taking a hair-dressing course and hopes that her new skill will allow her

to open a business. She chose not to return to see her family until she had started

her training, so she would have some good news for them.

"I was very afraid of my mother. I did not tell her the truth. I do not want

her to know where I was during the six months I was away from home.

"Maybe she will know because of the play. Now it doesn't matter because I have

a skill and I can settle in my own business."

Saem will soon finish her training, and intends returning to her home village to

start afresh.

"When I left the brothel, I was very pitiful of myself and sad. Today, I have

a skill. I have my eyes, my legs. I can start a new life. I am no more like a blind

person," she says.

As for the play, Saem hopes it will help prevent other people from "living the

same story" - but worries that, in reality, more girls and women are destined

for brothels.

Of the audience, she says: "I think that half of the people understand but if

they need money, they will sell their daughters anyway. The other half are not even


Says Borey, the laughing teenager: "It will be difficult to stop the sale of

girls. You know, brothels are always looking for virgins."



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