While there is still a widespread belief that Vietnamese women come to Cambodia
to leech the country of money through prostitution, with the occasional more
extreme view they are here to spread HIV/AIDS, recent studies show a different
An International Organization for Migration study, "Trafficking
of Vietnamese Women and Children to Cambodia," and a draft CARE report, "Cross
Border Cross Reality" both found financial desperation, often brought on by
family hardships, were the significant motivation for life as an immigrant
But the myths persist. The IOM survey said that "The idea of
the seductive power of Vietnamese women forms a recurrent theme in explanations
of how the Vietnamese will try to take over Cambodia.
theory or fantasy regarding the influx of Vietnamese women or girls as spies of
a greater power that will eventually take over, are a far cry from the stories
the women and girls themselves recount about their reasons for and experiences
in coming to Cambodia.
Care found that the Vietnamese women and children
coming to Phnom Penh, both independently and those trafficked, were generally
poor, ill-educated, and a significant number had recently had personal crises
such as a marriage break-up or family difficulties.
The report says that
after the recent economic reforms in Vietnam, while there were benefits to the
population, "the situation for those that are landless, unskilled and illiterate
has worsened." This is the group that brothels draw on for sex
Extensive interviews with 12 sex workers provided examples of
the situations which drove the women to prostitution.
"My mother was
sick, and we did not earn any money. That is why I decided to work. I wanted to
earn money for my mother's medical care," said one worker in the
"I had to save my mother's life. My pain was not as serious as
that of my mother's ... I told my mother that I worked here washing clothes for
wages. I did not dare to tell her the truth. If she knew this, she would not let
me do so."
Others made similar comments.
"Because of the family's
poverty I must commit myself for the sake of the family. I must work to repay
the debt," said another.
Though in one case there was a perceived social
pressure that lead to life in the brothels.
"I saw people happy and
wanted to be happy too ... this was my first time getting far from home ... (I
needed money) to buy a motorbike and return home ... just to avoid being looked
down upon by those who say a girl will never earn any money to buy such a bike
... once we are rich or richer they will make friends with us for
The choice of Cambodia can be traced back to UNTAC times when
there was a high demand for sex workers and a then-comparatively high market
price for sex. The market is no longer so favorable and high incomes of the
UNTAC period have never returned.
There was also a perception among the
sex workers that Cambodia was more liberal in its enforcement of
anti-prostitution legislation compared with Vietnam.
In the Care study
one sex worker said: "In Vietnam the selling of sex is not permitted. A woman
who sells her sex will be imprisoned. In Cambodia selling sex is possible though
The highest-value item in a brothel is a virgin. The going
price is from $100 to $500. But the women themselves are lucky to ever see even
a fraction of that amount, and in some cases brothel owners claim the women owe
them a debt which even a substantial one-off payment cannot eradicate.
saw someone coming here [Cambodia] and I asked my mother to let me come here too
and sell my virginity for money to repay the [family] debt ... I only knew that
I could sell my virginity and go back home. But still I did not have any money
after I had lost my virginity. I have to continue working to repay the debt [to
Another woman said she was simply deceived by a brothel
owner who told her she was not a virgin and she believed her, despite not
knowing "what virginity was."
But while the women in the above examples
made a conscious decision to work in the sex industry others were not given that
Some young women are persuaded to follow a recruiter to
Phnom Penh where they are promised good wages and honest work but once here they
find themselves sold to a brothel.
In the IOM study a 17-year-old girl
described how the recruiters operate.
"The people who persuade young
girls to come to Cambodia are mostly women. They are like friends, but they sell
their friends. They tell the girls that they can sell merchandise or work as a
waitress ... they only take young girls, of 16 or 17 years old," she
Another woman said she thought she was going to Stung Treng to work
in a coffee shop but when she arrived she found she had been sold by a friend to
a brothel for 50,000 riel. The brothel owner refused to release her and she felt
helpless because she could not speak Khmer.
But despite the realities the
studies still found a persistent belief that Vietnamese women were inherently
One community leader argued that it was a cultural trait of
"Nearly 100 percent of the Vietnamese girls here are
prostitutes. It is their tradition, even if the daughter is from a rich family
... they mostly sell their daughters themselves."
A health worker in
Ratanakiri claimed that the Vietnamese women working in brothels were much
better off than their Khmer counterparts.
The worker said that the
parent's of the Vietnamese women received money from the recruiter and then got
to split the profits with the brothel owner while the Khmer women get
"The Khmer women are all deceived by the recruiters and meebon
(brothel owner) ... the money she earns goes to the meebon."
perception that the Vietnamese women were more financially aware and better
treated was repeated in other interviews.
"The Vietnamese women only work
for one or two months and they have a lot of jewelry. ... The Khmer women work
for two years and have nothing left."
"The Vietnamese women don't care
about their honor, because they know that when they go back to Vietnam they will
still become wives. It is very interesting, they earn money for a motorbike, or
a new house and when they get married they stop work. ... The Khmer women can't
The IOM report says "these comparisons lead very much to the
image of Vietnamese women doing everything for money, with a clear goal and
without shame or fear of losing honor. This is explained by the idea that
Vietnamese women who have worked as prostitutes still remain marriageable once
they return to Vietnam.
"The Khmer women are, to the contrary, described
as victims of deception and exploitation who have no idea how to get money out
of such a dishonorable situation."