S he is 16. She has a large smile, and when she laughs it is as if you are listening to a fountain. She likes to
sing and play badminton. She is impish, and loves to make fun of the barang who turn red after too much sun.
From the girl that she was and should be, Sophea is a prostitute.
Sophea is back at a brothel. Back to the men who are going to abuse her. That is the only hope that she thought
was open to her, the only light she thought was in her life. She is back to selling her body every day, to maybe
10 or 20 men a day.
Is this the only hope that remains for a 16-year-old girl in Cambodia these days?
Sophea is an orphan. She was adopted by a family in Kampot, who used her as their maid. After a while, they sent
her back to the streets. She ended up in a brothel. She was sold there by somebody, or chose to go there as her
only way to find money; I do not know.
Eventually she was freed from the brothel by a French woman who had known her for a long time. I met Sophea at
that time, just after she was brought to Phnom Penh, when she was being looked after by the French family.
I do not know her well. We had some language problems but I considered her my friend. From time to time, we would
take a walk, singing, along the river-front.
Sophea was looked after by a street children's NGO. Early this year, she went to Battambang to join a program aimed
to help former prostitutes get new skills and lives for themselves. She was learning to be a hairdresser.
Apparently, she did not like it. Maybe she was just too independent. In October, some people came to talk to her
- perhaps to tempt her with money, I do not know.But later she left. Now she is back in a brothel in Battambang.
There, she will be receiving visits from her own countrymen, whether they be generals, soldiers, civil servants
- Cambodians, some of whom hold positions of power and, if you asked them, would probably pride themselves on doing
their duty to serve their nation. If she were in Phnom Penh, she would probably get foreign clients as well, but
perhaps not so much in Battambang.
Sophea is not the only one. Sophea is just a drop of water in a lake of young girls being sold, abused, exploited,
raped, sold again, raped again. They are disgusted, they are sick, they are desperate; abused, physically and emotionally.
They have bruises on their arms, on their breasts. Their vaginas hurt because they are young and because they have
sex with so many men, often violently.
There is also Srey May. A lovely young girl of 17, she started working in a dancing club after her boyfriend abused
her, after her mother beat her. Her mother wanted money, so Srey May went to the club each night and did what she
could to make money. One night she was raped by a gang of policemen.
Eventually, she went to the Martini club after a friend told her that she could earn more money there. Now, sometimes
she gets $10 a night, sometimes more. But many of the men ask her not to use a condom; they don't like it that
way. Maybe she will have a sexually-transmitted disease to look forward to, maybe Aids.
Nearly every night, you can see Srey May at Martini if you want to. If you see her during the day, away from the
club, she proudly shows off her 14-month-old daughter. Srey May doesn't know who the father is, but the baby looks
very much like it has some foreign blood.
May says she is selling herself to be able to look after herself and her child, to buy milk for her baby. No doubt
her foreign customers think they are doing her a favor, helping to support a family. After all, it's a reasonable
way to make a living to look after your child, selling your body, isn't it? The foreigners wouldn't mind if their
daughters did it.
What about Mony? I call her Mony; she was too ashamed to give her name. She is from Phnom Penh Thmey, a squatter
area where it is not uncommon for families to sell their daughters.
Pimps regularly come around here, trying to tempt families. The families are poor, hopeless, and $40 is a lot of
money. A daughter becomes a piece of meat, sold for the going price. The pimp who arranged the sale of Mony to
a brothel was the wife of a district official.
Mony cannot speak too much about those times. She cries a lot. She doesn't dare to try to explain what it was like,
that first time at the brothel, when she was raped. At night, though, she wakes up crying, recalling perfectly
in her mind every minute of what happened. Now being looked after by an NGO, Mony may or may not be able to regain
These are just three young faces, three stories, three tragedies. There are other faces, other stories, of Cambodian
children who have become lost in an adult's world without any chance of recovering their childhood, their naiveté.
These words will do nothing to change the lives of Sophea, Srey May or Mony. I just wanted to have them written.