P rostitution is the oldest profession, followed by spying, the second oldest. These professions are older than astrology, astronomy, teaching or foreign services.
There are prostitutes in every country, in every corner of the world, in rural and urban areas regardless of the people's religious faith.
Cambodia is no exception. Prostitution could be found throughout its history.
Even during the Khmer Rouge period when their administrators were supposed to be pure, uncorrupted, revolutionary and were unable to be lured by sexual desire, there was talk of women selling sex for food for their families or for themselves as the local rations became a starvation diet.
Even though it is the oldest profession, women don't usually chose that profession voluntarily.
Women are, almost always, forced into selling sex for survival. It has been observed in many countries that the number of prostitutes increases at times of economic difficulties.
The recent economic restructuring, which means reduction of social welfare services in health and education, that has taken place in many countries of the world has sent the number of prostitutes, child labor and child prostitution sky rocketing.
This phenomenon can be observed most sadly in Eastern European countries in the last decade.
In Cambodia a similar phenomenon took place. Economic liberalization that took place gradually in the second half of the 1980's included privatization of land and the lifting of state subsidies in the areas of health care and education has sent some women off the beaten tracks of social and economic development.
But the crunch came later. The deployment of the 22,000 personnel of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac, which started in 1991 and intensified in 1992 and 1993, created such pressure beyond the nation's economic capacity.
When inflation reached three digit figures, the Cambodian people, especially those in the countryside, withered miserably. This was when the country folk could not withstand the pressure any more, went on their knees, bitterly dropped their traditional moral values, closed their eyes and sent their daughters, in thousands, off to earn a living in a way which they could not imagine before - prostitution.
The number of prostitutes increased from 6,000 in 1991 to 20,000 in 1992 and 30,000 in 1993 nationally.
This has been an embarrassing subject for many Cambodians, especially the Cambodian authorities. For a period of time they discarded the subject with: "They are Vietnamese."
Well, many of them are not. According to Kien Serey Phal, the Director of the Cambodian Women's Development Association (CWDA), which has been working with prostitutes in Phnom Penh in the last three years, suggests that out of the estimated 10,000 prostitutes in Phnom Penh, at least half, if not the majority, are Cambodians.
According to a research done by CWDA early this year, over 90 percent of Cambodian prostitutes came from other provinces, especially those neighboring Phnom Penh.
The reasons they gave for leaving their place of origin were overwhelmingly related to poverty. Now living away from the traditional support system that they used to enjoy when they were in their villages, they are enduring the abuse perpetrated by the clients and brothel owners and many of them have acquired diseases - sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV.
Back in the villages many parents, too painful to admit that their daughters are prostitutes, pretend not to know the exact task of their daughters - perhaps it is waitressing or domestic helpers, they hope in vain.
They receive money from their daughters now and then. This should make them happy, but they are not. They feel ashamed, they cannot look at the people of their community straight in the eyes. Everyday they yearn for the return home of their daughters who can then earn a living "decently".
Perhaps their hope would be met by the recent Mayor's order to close down brothels?
NGO workers working on women's issues do not think so. Some women whose husbands visit the brothels, however, support the Mayor's order, hoping that this will end the promiscuous behavior of their husbands.
Twenty four international and local NGOs, on the other hand, signed a statement of concern on the closing of the brothels.
One of their main concerns is that closing the brothels will leave the prostitutes with nowhere to go.
The research done by CWDA showed that almost all of them want to leave their present profession, but they have few marketable skills, little education and will not be able to earn a living any other way at this stage.
Officially closing down the brothels. therefore, will only force them to function in secret, which will make prostitution an illegal and underground industry.
This will undoubtedly give the clients and the brothel owners more power to control the prostitutes. This could include the reduction of price charged by the prostitutes and would enable men to make more frequent visits which is contrary to the wishes of their wives.
The use of repressive measures and violence against the prostitutes will certainly increase as the women cannot report to the authorities for fear of being arrested and for fear of reprisals or condemnation.
NGOs are also concerned at the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
Some of these NGOs have been working with the sex workers for the last three years.
Their programmes include distribution of condoms, doing research surveys and providing health education to commercial sex workers.
They have gained the trust of the sex workers, who seek assistance whenever they need. The NGOs are concerned that closing down the brothels will mean that they won't be able to do their job any more and that both men and sex workers will be less likely to seek treatment and this will result in accelerating the spread of STDs and HIV.
Innocent women whose husbands visit brothels are more likely to acquire the disease, as a result of this.
So what is the way out? How can we get these women from the physical abuse and the diseases and put them back on the track of the much needed social and economic reconstruction that the nation is embarking?
One cannot successfully do so without addressing its underlying causes. The sex workers obviously need education, skills and jobs in order to sustain their livelihood after leaving the brothels.
Skill training for these women should be one of the priorities of the national programmes for development.
Where is the promised foreign investment that would provide jobs?
Foreign investment is not here because the Khmer Rouge are looming investors say.
There is no political stability and the attempt for national reconciliation failed despite the United Nations' efforts.
The influx of foreign investment in the past few years has unfortunately gone into service industries such as hotels and restaurants, which originally set up to serve the UN personnel who have since left and is now serving the limited number of tourists.
Experiences of other poor countries of the region have shown that promotion of tourism if not careful, however, serves to fuel prostitution.
The experiences of those countries demonstrate that at this point in time, while Cambodia takes its first step into the international arena, it should review its development policies and its allocation of resources, to ensure social cohesiveness, where the rural folk can benefit from the government's programmes and not see them as agents that turn their daughters into prostitutes.
- Boua Chanthou has been writing about Cambodian women since 1980. She is currently a consultant to the Secretariat of State for Women's Affair. This article was written in a personal capacity.