THIRTEEN smiling young girls in white shirts and blue skirts welcomed visitors to
join in what could have been a schoolgirl garden party.
But it was the 87th International Women's Day and, at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, a
group of girls were nervously waiting to tell about some of realities of the lives
of Khmer women and girls.
Hidden behind a white screen, four of them - aged 12-17 - told how they had been
forced into the world's oldest profession. National Assembly member Men Sam Onn and
Prince Ranariddh adviser Mu Sochua were hardly able to hide their emotions as they
sat as guests of honor at the official opening of the Agir pour les Femmes en Situation
Précaire (AFESIP) rescue center.
The four described their experiences: "My mother sold me for 200,000 riels.
She said I would work as a children's nurse but I discovered it was a brothel."
- "I was sitting outside the house for a long time after I had quarreled with
my mother and my neighbor offered me a glass of water. I felt very sleepy and I woke
up in a dark room. Men forced me to take off my clothes and knocked me out. When
I woke up my body hurt and I knew that I had been raped." - "I had two
to ten clients a day." - "I was raped by my stepfather."
"We have all possible cases," said AFESIP director Somaly Mam-Legros. Since
commencing rescue operations in January, two girls have been returned to their homes.
Volunteer Jean Turrel insisted the association is only a transition center: "We
rescue the girls, protect them by providing shelter, emergency health care and food,
but we strive to return the victims to their families."
The association provides vocational training before they are returned. Sovan, 14,
sold for 200,000 riels, will only go back when she can earn money so that her mother
doesn't sell her again. Three girls returning at the end of the month will work as
a cleaner, a dressmaker, and a nurse.
Pierre Legros, of Médecins Sans Frontiéres, said: "Prostitution
is illegal in Cambodia, but in practice it is perfectly tolerated since big money
is involved," he said.
According to Legros, fifteen centers such as AFESIP are needed in Phnom Penh, since
there are an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 prostitutes in the city with 35 percent under
An investigator who declined to be identified described the process: "It is
a dangerous task and I have to be careful not to be recognized," she said, adding
that she has to find good excuses to talk to the girls. "I go up to 10 times
to the brothel to talk to the girls, to play cards with them, establish confidence
and figure out how they came,"
Minors are usually imprisoned in a sealed room. Some are afraid to escape, because
they owe money to pimps. She claims that clients usually pay 6,000 riels and that
the girls are lucky to receive half.
"The clients beat me when I refused to do the job, because they had paid for
it," said 17 year-old Samnang, who was abducted in Phnom Penh and forced to
sign a contract stating she had borrowed $500. She stayed three months in a brothel
before she could pay the money and escape. "Most of the clients don't want to
use condoms," she said.
Legros says the rate of HIV is staggering. "Prostitution is a catastrophe in
Cambodia mainly because this is the way AIDS is transmitted here. Taking the girls
out is a sort of prevention policy," he says. Most NGOs try to provide health
care at home because hospitals will be 100 percent occupied soon.
A 17 year-old prostitute is slowly dying of AIDS on the top floor of AFESIP. "She's
weighs only 24 kilos now and we trying to let the girl die with a minimum of dignity,"
Cambodian Women's Development Association [CWDA] director Khien Serey Phal said trafficking
was increasing at an alarming rate. "It is both a Cambodian and international
problem because women and children are not only trafficked in Cambodia, but also
sold in Thailand, Vietnam and other countries," she said. "Cambodia has
to collaborate regionally to tackle this problem."