PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – When Kieu was 12 years-old, her mother asked her to do a job for the family. Kieu’s father, a fisherman in the Cambodian riverside village of Svay Pak, had fallen ill with tuberculosis, rendering him unable to fish. The family grew farther and farther behind on repaying it debts. The situation grew desperate.
“I did not know what the job was,” says Kieu. She could not have begun to imagine the horror that awaited. Her mother took her to a hospital to have her examined by a doctor who issued her a “certificate of virginity.” Then Kieu was dropped off at a hotel where a man of “maybe more than 50” with three children of his own raped her — for two days.
Kieu’s mother had sold her daughter’s virginity. The family received $500 for it, but that was a far cry from covering the thousands of dollars the family owed loan sharks. Kieu’s ordeal was far from over.
Her mother soon after sold her to a brothel where, according to Kieu, “they held me like I was in prison.” She was forced to stay for three days, raped repeatedly by three to six men a day. Upon returning home, her mother sent her away for two more stints at brothels. Learning she was to be sold again, Kieu fled her home.
Kieu is just one of countless victims of Cambodia’s child prostitution epidemic. According to UNICEF, a third of the 40,000 to 100,000 people in the Cambodian sex industry are children. The problem is so pervasive that the UNICEF office in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh has a project officer designated specifically for “children in need of special protection.”
Don Brewster, a 59-year-old American resident of Svay Pak, Kieu’s home town, is also devoted to combating this epidemic. A former pastor, Brewster now works with the organization Agape International Missions providing services for victims of trafficking. Svay Pak, a shanty town on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is widely regarded as the epicenter of the child sex trade in Cambodia. As Brewster recounts, “When we came here three years ago and began to live here, 100 percent of the kids between 8 and 12 were being trafficked.” He says his organization works with children as young as four.
What makes Cambodia a hotbed for child prostitution? Though there are a number of factors that contribute to the horrible practice, the driving force is extreme poverty. Most residents in Svay Pak live on $2 a day — sometimes less.
And it was economic desperation that drove Kieu’s mother, Neoung, to sell her own daughter. In her words: “The debt that my husband and I have is too big, we can’t pay it off. What can you do in a situation like this?”
Due to its prevalence of child sex workers, Cambodia has become a key destination for pedophiles and child sex offenders. Sex tourists generally hail from rich, developed countries including those in the west, South Korea, Japan and China though research indicates that the primary exploiters of child prostitutes are Cambodian men.
And there are a number of reasons why the exploitation of children continues on such a mass scale. Mark Capaldi, a senior researcher for Ecpat, an organization devoted to fighting the sexual exploitation of children, identifies a number of factors: “Insufficiently enforced laws, corruption, and the failure to address more overarching problems such as poverty and the negative side effects of globalization have made it a challenge for the country to shed the unenviable reputation as a destination for child sex.”
A 2009 survey of 80 Cambodian brothels found three quarters of them selling sex with children. Yet, raids remain infrequent. Cambodia’s anti-trafficking laws are weak and do not even allow police to conduct undercover surveillance of suspected traffickers.
Further, General Pol Phie They, head of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking taskforce established in 2007, concedes that “We are still limited in prosecuting these violations because first, we lack the expertise and second, we lack the technical equipment. Sometimes, we see a violation but we can’t collect the evidence we need to prosecute the offender.”
There is also the challenge of identifying victims. Cambodian secretary of state Chou Bun Eng has said that “It’s hard to identify the cases as they do not look at themselves as trafficked women.” In the case of many child sex workers, this is because their parents and family members are the ones selling them to brothels.
As for Kieu’s mother, Neoung, who made just such an unthinkable sale, she does regret her actions: “I know that I did wrong so I feel regret about it, but what can I do?” This may be cold comfort to her daughter, whose abuses are unimaginable. Unfortunately for her and for far too many Cambodian children trapped in sexual slavery, Neoung’s words ring achingly true: “We cannot move back to the past.”
– Kelley Calkins