PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia, unfortunately, has the infamous reputation as a center for child sex trafficking. Thousands of children in Cambodia each year are forced into sex trafficking, contributing to the growing amount of sex tourism. More disturbing, however, is the increasing trend of selling virginity.
Why is the virginity market rampant in Cambodia?
The issue is complex and affected by a variety of reasons. Virginity is often valued in the first place because of myths and cultural ideals about purity.
A surprisingly prevalent and completely false belief in certain parts of Asia holds that having sex with a virgin will bring about good luck, give the abuser magical powers of youth and even cure HIV. This myth raises the value of virginity in the eyes of locals participating in Cambodian child sex trafficking. Its persistence has certainly contributed to the thriving trade.
However, aside from this belief, virginity is also valued in the country’s culture as an emblem of pureness. Cambodia has shockingly high gender disparities across different levels of society, and the idea that women are best when they remain pure is a deeply ingrained example of gender inequality.
In fact, according to Tong Soprach, who researches sex practices in the country’s youth, “There’s a national saying that men are like gold and women are like cloth. If you drop gold in the dirt, it washes clean and still shines. If you drop cloth, the stain never comes out.”
Many factors allow for the Cambodian sex trade to persist, one of them being the country’s corrupt government and years of instability. Many incidents of forced child sex trafficking go unreported because police officers are, astonishingly, customers themselves.
Victims are fearful of reporting the crime because it may lead to further sexual abuse from these authorities, a narrative that occurs far too often. The crimes go unnoticed, unpunished and are free to continue.
Numerous high-level government representatives are known to have bought young women for their virginity. Government officials have even acknowledged accepting bribes to let sex trafficking slide. Their position of authority allows them to skirt any consequences.
However, perhaps the most important factor supporting the Cambodian virginity trade is poverty. According to The World Bank, over 20 percent of the country’s population lives under the international poverty line, and many facets of poverty lead to children being much more likely to become victims of sex trafficking.
Children from impoverished families are more often found in public settings, whether working, begging or taking care of other family responsibilities, increasing the risk for abduction.
Struggling parents may wish to send their children to a support center in hopes they would receive better care; however, some “orphanages” in Cambodia are smokescreens for child prostitution centers. It can be difficult to know the difference.
In addition, many desperately poor parents willingly sell their children’s virginity in exchange for urgently needed cash. This leads to another reason the virginity trade persists in Cambodia: difficulty creating community support.
While parents who knowingly sell their children are clearly in the most despairing economic situations struggling to survive, few can justify their decisions, making it difficult to garner support to fight against the trade.
Sébastien Marot, director of a Cambodian-based NGO, has spoken about the difficulty of securing supporters for the cause. “People respond to emotional stories and they hand over their money without understanding underlying causes or long-term solutions. When you talk to people about this, there’s a view that there are plenty of poor people in the world who don’t sell their daughters, so it can’t be blamed on poverty or desperation. But there are many interwoven social factors. You have to look at the whole picture.”
Many facets of Cambodian society and structure come together to create an environment that allows child sex trafficking to prosper among poor families.
No, the severe level of trafficking in Cambodia is not happening in all impoverished areas around the world, but that does not mean that poverty is irrelevant or that Cambodian parents who sell their children to the trade are the main abusers. The main abusers are the customers of the trade. Poverty is creating the supply.
Public realization of this is essential in stopping the virginity trade. Mu Sochuca, former Cambodian Minister of Women’s Affairs, phrased this, “We need to win public support for an effective rule of law that punishes those who buy sex, not those who sell it.”
The situation is complex. Gender inequalities and cultural beliefs that treasure the pureness of virginity are widespread, permitting customers to feel justified participating in the trade. The corruption of Cambodian authority both adds to the abuse and allows it to continue. Overwhelmingly high levels of poverty create “a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on.” It’s a recipe for disaster.
The role that poverty plays in the Cambodian sex trade is especially important to recognize because it allows for a better understanding of why the trade is as large as it is and what is allowing it to continue. Efforts can be made to directly target traffickers and abusers, but until the population pulls itself out of poverty or the international community gets fully behind the cause, the supply of desperate families will remain.
– Emily Jablonski
Sources: CNN, The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, Independent
Photo: Women of Vision