Kneeling on the wooden floorboards of the Cambodian Prostitute Union’s (CPU) “drop-in” centre, Bopha’s voice began to tremble as she spoke of the obstacles her daughter faced at school.
Bopha, whose name has been changed to protect her identity as a sex worker, said her daughter’s problems began soon after she was registered at the Kalob Primary School in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
The teacher, she said, asked for $0.25 each day and another small monthly payment for water and electricity. Bopha, who told The Post she can rarely afford three meals a day, balked at the requests. But the teacher would not reduce the price of the bribe. “I told the teacher I don’t have money to pay every day, I’m a sex worker.”
Word of Bopha’s profession circulated quickly around the school.
“When the students there know that, they make fun of [my daughter], they discriminate,” she said. Verbal assaults from schoolchildren flew at Bopha when she brought her daughter to school.
“‘You are shameless, why do you bring your daughter here?’” they asked. Bopha struggled to keep her composure as she began recounting the humiliation her daughter experienced. The teacher “put her to sit at the back [of the classroom]”. There, she says, “it’s very hard to catch up on the lesson because she is small”.
The challenges sex workers face are not confined to the streets, nor do they spare their loved ones. Their children must themselves navigate a life of instability, poverty and pervasive discrimination, including when it comes to accessing public education.
Regardless, Bopha insists her daughter never misses a single day of school. “I hope my daughter has a better future, and is not a sex worker like me,” she said. “That is why I sent her to study.”
To better understand the difficulties sex workers’ children face in Cambodian society, Kasumi Nakagawa, a gender-studies researcher with 20 years of experience working in Phnom Penh, launched a project in 2015 to interview more than 40 women in the sex industry and their children. Enlisting the help of “60 or 70 students” from Pannasastra University, Nakagawa and her research team found that the children’s lives were subject to frequent disruption due to their mothers’ jobs.
This is not unique to those in the sex work industry – much of the Cambodian population, including many construction and farm workers, migrate for their jobs and struggle to pay for education – but for sex workers, social stigma and chronic instability adds another barrier.
This trickles all the way down to a lack of documentation required to enrol children in state schools.
“Many kids . . . don’t have their birth certificate,” Nakagawa said. “Many mothers did not know they have to register their kids . . . [and] when they are sex workers already, they hesitate to go to the [government] office for that because the office might discriminate against them.”
Theary, 39, not her real name, works in a massage parlour and supports her two children, who attend school at the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), where many of the students’ parents are sex workers living in Tuol Kork district. She faced bureaucratic hurdles in trying to enrol her children in primary school.
To do so, she was asked to show not only a birth certificate but a letter from the teacher who taught her children at the centre, and a short “biography” to demonstrate her child was from the area served by the school, signed by her village chief.
The registration process, which Theary believes was more arduous than for others because of her children’s association with the WNU centre and her difficulties financing their schooling, outraged her. “I feel like I’m not a person, not a citizen,” she said.
It is unclear whether or not demands for birth certificates and other forms of identification deliberately target sex workers, as all families are required to present documentation for enrolment.
“You should have at least something to let people know you live somewhere, to identify that person; it is a private obligation to get those documents,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron told The Post.
More tangible is the state of invisibility to which sex workers and their children relegate themselves in order to avoid discrimination.
“[Sex workers] have to change the location of residence quite often, because in the beginning when they move into one area, [the neighbours] don’t know the exact occupation of what the mother is doing,” Nakagawa said. “But they come to know the mother is a sex worker [and] they start to gossip and the children are bullied . . . Parents are telling the kids don’t mix with those children because they are dirty, they are the children of the broken women.”
Asked about Bopha’s story of her daughter’s bullying, Chan Dyna, the president of the Cambodian Prostitute Union (CPU), said her mistake was to identify herself as a sex worker.
“When you identify yourself as sex worker, you have such things happening,” Dyna said. “I do not recommend a sex worker identify herself to the school or the teacher, or otherwise [they] face consequences like that.”
Kalob primary school principal Yem Saron, however, said teachers at his school did not discriminate against the children of sex workers but that students could be subject to bullying.
“Teachers treat them fairly,” he said. “I think the sex workers’ kids got bullied by their classmates, they make fun of those kids . . . If there is serious bullying, parents should report it to us.”
To sensitise the school to their needs, Saron said he recommends sex workers identify their professions to teachers so they can keep an eye out for mistreatment. Currently, he said, most sex workers who send their children to his school prefer to hide their identities.
With regards to students paying teachers bribes, Saron denied this occurs. “By principle, teachers cannot take the students’ money,” he said. If the teachers do receive money, he said, “it comes from the hearts of the parents”.
Chuon Naron, the minister of education, doubted stories of discrimination in the education system. “School principals are not interested in if they are sex workers,” he said. “How can you know?” he asked, before affirming that “everyone has equal access to state schools”.
A safe haven
Despite the challenges they face, children like Theary’s 10-year-old son, Ratanak, not his real name, still find ways to get an education.
He said that while he is afraid of his often foul-tempered teacher, he enjoys going to school. “School is fun because there is a playground,” he said, adding that he currently has the eighth-highest grades in his class of 35 students, which his mother proudly confirmed. “I want to be a doctor,” he said, as his mother rolled her eyes behind him. “I don’t have any money,” she lamented, turning her face to hide a smile.
Kanhchana Leng, one of Nakagawa’s students at Pannasastra University, found cause for hope among the children of sex workers while working as a volunteer English teacher in WNU’s Tuol Kork centre.
After helping Nakagawa conduct interviews with sex workers and their children, Leng said she wanted to find a way to help. With permission from WNU, she began teaching English at the centre in the mornings. Among several dozen students in her class, just “four or five”also attended state school.
Teaching at the centre presented a unique set of difficulties. “They stop studying sometimes they stop a week, two weeks, one month, because of problems with the police,” Leng said. “The [mothers] move to live in their hometown, or they move to another place, so, they cannot study regularly [or] they have to stop.”
Leng wants to return to the centre one day with funds to sponsor recreational activities. “We have to help them out of this,” she said. “If we can help, we should help.”
But lasting change may depend on the children’s integration into the state school system, along with efforts to eradicate the stigma attached to sex work.
Phally, not her real name, a 42-year-old sex worker living in the capital, sends her 12-year-old daughter to the WNU school. While she is grateful for the centre’s work, she acknowledges it does not provide the same level of education one would expect at a state school. “That centre only teaches the very primary level, to be confident,” she explained. “I am not sure I can afford to send her to a state school.”
Her hesitancy to send her daughter to a state school is perhaps reinforced by the failure of her two sons, now aged 21 and 18, to complete their schooling in Kampong Thom province, where her mother lives, because of a lack of funds.
Still, while they were in school the sons were able to escape the shadow of their mother’s profession and mistreatment because of it by studying outside of the capital. “My sons were OK,” she said, “because they [their classmates and teachers] did not know what I was doing”.