O VER twelve months since Cambodia "opened its doors" with the new investment
law, it is prostitution that is one of fastest growing industries.
Less visible, but equally as thriving, is the sale of children into the sex industry
feeding a growing demand for AIDS-free and disease-free virgins.
According to child advocacy groups Cambodian children, mainly girls, are being supplied
to both local and regional brothels in what is a highly-organized, lucrative and
officially illegal business.
NGO's surveys indicate around 35 percent of women working in the industry are under
17 years old, so if estimates that around 35,000 sex workers in Cambodia are correct,
more than 5,000 children are now "on the game".
And the average age of sex workers is going down - 18 years old recorded in Phnom
Penh in 1992; down to 15 years of age in 1993 according to a survey carried out by
the Cambodian Women's Development Association (CWDA).
More recent surveys from the International Labor Organization (ILO) advisor to the
Ministry of Social and Veterans Affairs, Marie Franc Botte, and other agencies, found
ten and 12-year-old boys and girls working as prostitutes.
In an effort to halt the trade which experts say is operating across the region with
Cambodia as the "child donor", seven Mekong River countries will meet in
Phnom Penh between December 12-15.
The UNICEF-sponsored workshop - "Trafficking of Children for Sexual Exploitation"
- is the first of its kind. Police, Justice, Interior, Social Affairs and Women's
secretariat officials will attend.
NGOs will meet in an open forum on Dec 11, then in a three-day closed session around
45 delegates from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar
will discuss ways to stop the flow of children into prostitution.
The will discuss law enforcement and protection, better cross-border liaison, better
relations with INTERPOL, and rehabilitation of children will be discussed, said UNICEF's
Margie De Monchy.
She said trying to stop trafficking and child prostitution was a complex issue due
to extreme poverty and cultural problems.
"We need to think hard about the age categories, because there is a big difference
between a 10-year-old and an 18-year-old, both of whom may still be legally defined
as a child," De Monchy said.
"In a poor family a daughter may feel a sense of duty to help feed the family.
We have to be sensitive to that," she said.
But De Monchy said Cambodians were shocked by pre-pubescent children working as prostitutes
and the brutality and thuggery rampant in the trade.
"We hear about kids in the brothels being whipped, burned and drugged and we
know of children being lured tricked and kidnapped into the industry, so we need
to look at the extremes and tackle the most critical problems as well as the long
term ones," she said.
AIDS was the big worry. High levels of AIDS and STDs among sex workers generally
pointed to an inevitable spread of diseases among child prostitutes.
De Monchy said she hoped countries with more experience in fighting child-sex rackets
will be able to share their knowledge and ideas with "post-war" countries
dealing with it as a new issue.
"It's important for Cambodia to see that this is a problem in many countries,
it's not unique to Cambodia, but Cambodia is very vulnerable to be pulled into the
network," she said.
However, it is apparent that Cambodia is not just "vulnerable" - NGOs say
it's now fully involved in child trafficking and sales, and there is high-level backing.
ILOs July 1995 report says Phnom Penh Central police acknowledge child trade networks
from Cambodia to Thailand and that "networks of young girls to Japan" have
recently been uncovered.
The inward trade, Botte says, appears mainly to come from Vietnam, where young girls
are brought in for a three month stay. Other agencies report young Chinese, Laotian
and Filipino girls also working here.
It's lucrative. A sale of a child to a brothel usually nets around $200-$300 and
her first sale as a virgin brings the brothel $400 to $500.
After that the child's value drops quickly and she will likely be traded from one
brothel to another in what NGOs believe is an organized network.
NGO reports show that more than half of the prostitutes claim to have been sold,
abducted or tricked into brothels, often by neighbors, relatives or friends. That
figure increases the younger the girl.
Director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights (CCPCR),
Yim Po, says: "This is a secret trade and the younger children are kept in a
secret safe house or locked into hotel rooms and provided on demand to big businessmen
or high officials who want to pay for happiness."
Young virgins are supplied at weekly rates to businessmen on organized tours, particularly
from Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, say NGOs.
Prostitution of boys seems to focus on street kids, but once again well-organized
Western and local paedophile gangs seem to be operating, according to NGO reports.
Tackling the problem is dangerous because brothel owners have backing from police,
politicians, military and big businessmen, Po said.
Despite such high-level ties, De Monchy said that concern across the political party
spectrum is encouraging.
She said the recent establishment of a Cambodian National Council for Children, headed
by the two Prime Ministers, will raise the issue at the "highest levels".
But while the Government, most notably First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
has threatened to take immediate action to outlaw the sale of children, local police
say they still have no law to act to stop such trade.
Chief of Phnom Penh's Police Penalty office, Mok Chitto, said he regards child sex
as the "first among criminal acts".
"We are waiting for a law on hand to be effective," Chitto told the Post.
A law on trafficking, kidnapping and sexual exploitation, which includes 20 years
sentence for child traffickers, was approved by the Council of Ministers in August,
according to Sin Serey, the Government's under-secretary general. However, there
is no date set by the National Assembly to debate the draft.
While the Cambodian Constitution bans prostitution and SNC laws provide for convictions
and punishment, few arrests have taken place.
LICAHDO records show that from 24 cases of child trafficking and sexual abuse (mainly
rape) committed by Cambodians since Feb this year, 12 have resulted in arrests but
there are no details on whether those people have been charged or convicted.
Yim Po said police in Koh Kong, for instance, regarded the transiting of women and
children over the border to Thailand as "a normal income earning activity"
and that smugglers are fined and warned but not arrested. Anecdotal evidence support
De Monchy however is optimistic about Cambodia's response to the problem and says
"some of the best rescues of children come from ordinary people, cyclo drivers,
taxi drivers and police in Phnom Penh who have grabbed kids from cyclos".
Others are more guarded: "Anyone who tried to stop the trade in young girls
here would be dead tomorrow," said one.