T he flesh trade is hitting Cambodia harder than ever with the average minimum
age of children forced into prostitution dropping from 19 to 15 over the last
year, a survey released earlier this month showed.
The survey, conducted
by the Cambodia Women's Development Association (CWDA) in Phnom Penh's red light
district Tuol Kok in February, found nearly 35 percent of all prostitutes
interviewed were under 18 years of age.
Earlier CWDA surveys revealed
the average minimum age of prostitutes in Phnom Penh's brothels was decreasing.
The annual surveys, which were conducted in connection with an HIV-Aids
awareness program, found that while the prostitutes' minimum age was 18-19 years
in October 1992, it had dropped to 15-16 years in April 1993.
year's survey found that 47 percent of all prostitutes had been sold into
brothels, and 86 percent of these were sold by parents, neighbors, friends or
relatives they trusted. Many had also been kidnapped and forced to work as sex
Local and international NGOs and representatives from the
Ministry of Social Action, who have held two meetings on the issue, agree
immediate action is needed to clamp down on the flesh trade which is becoming
"We started receiving complaints about abduction of minors
a year and a half ago, and they have increased over the past few months," said
Margaret de Monchy, project officer for Children in Especially Difficult
Circumstances (Cede), Unicef. "After following up some of the complaints we
found many led to prostitution."
Announcements about missing children are
aired almost daily on Phnom Penh television. However, tracing the kidnapped
children, mostly girls, is difficult as many are thought to have been smuggled
across the border and sold to Thai brothels.
CWDA President Kien Serey
Phal, said social workers at her organization were reporting finding girls as
young as 13-14 years old in the city's brothels. The average age of children
reported missing on television is 6-10 years.
One of the main reasons for
the decrease in the average age of prostitutes is thought to be the HIV-Aids
scare. "Children are thought to be Aids-free and therefore 'safer', and virgins
are in demand," said Unicef's de Monchy.
Surveys by CWDA and the human
rights NGO Vigilance showed virgins were usually kept under the supervision of
the brothel owners and cost $400 to $700 for a week. As they grew older, they
moved into open prostitution in brothels and earned up to 8,000 riels per
Cases of abduction include a 14-year-old girl who was
kidnapped while walking down a street in Battambang, Cambodia's second largest
city. Two men drove her to the capital Phnom Penh, where she was forced to work
as a prostitute in Tuol Kok, a red light district.
A 13-year-old from the
Kompong Cham was sold into a brothel in Poipet, on the Thai-Cambodia border. She
last remembers being with her parents before she was apparently drugged. The
owner of the brothel decided she was too young and re-sold her to a rich family
to work as a maid.
Another 13-year-old, living in a shack on the banks of
Tonle Bassac River, Phnom Penh, was taken by a friend to visit an "aunt". Once
there, she was drugged and sold into a nearby brothel. Her friend later
confessed, and the police were able to trace her.
These are just a few
examples of minors being abducted and forced into prostitution.
opening up of society after decades of civil war and repressive governments,
economic liberalization, the relaxing of border controls, increased tourism and
the presence of the 22,000-strong Untac peacekeeping forces to help conduct the
May 1993 elections, are cited as major causes. "Change in the country has been
too quick and sudden," said Kassie Neou, co-director of the Cambodian Institute
of Human Rights (CIHR), a local NGO.
One third of all Cambodian families
are headed by women, many of them poor widows. Poverty often pushes families to
sell their daughters into prostitution. An expatriate reported seeing a
Cambodian woman trying to sell her daughter in Phnom Penh's New Market for
15,000 riels. Others have reported that girls on sale have been pointed out to
them in restaurants.
A related issue is that of street children. A 1992
Childhood Asia-Unicef survey of street children in Phnom Penh and Battambang
found that nearly 71 percent had lost at least one parent and "generally had no
financial support or adult supervision."
"Street children could be
abducted into prostitution by the hundreds and few would ever know," a Phnom
Penh-based social worker pointed out.
The problem is compounded because
many abductions are not reported. People usually try to trace children through
their own contacts in the police. "Very often, children who belong to families
with the right connections are traced," de Monchy said, referring to the recent
abduction of a 14-year-old Phnom Penh girl. She was traced to Battambang with
the help of a relative who worked for the police.
Lack of awareness is
the main stumbling block cited by most people who work with prostitutes and
children. NGOs, who plan to start an awareness campaign on the issue soon, hope
it will at least convince people to take the first step - start reporting
abductions, before the situation worsens. -Press Trust of India