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Women's Rights Often Come Last in Cambodian Sex Trade - 2002-11-20


Endemic poverty and porous borders make Southeast Asia a center for the trade in human lives. The United Nations says as many as 200,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked each year in the region, most forced into servitude and the sex trade.

Nineteen-year-old Naet left her home in the southern Takeo province when one of her relatives found her a job in Phnom Penh as a house cleaner. She did not find out what else the job would entail until she arrived.

"My uncle said that they needed someone to work with a family in Phnom Penh. But when I got there, the husband used a towel to put in my mouth and raped me. Then the wife sold me to a brothel for $200," she said.

Naet said her uncle thought the job was legitimate. But rights groups say that in the majority of cases, relatives or friends trap unknowing young women in prostitution.

"They are the people who live close to the girl, they are the neighbor, they are the relative, they are the boyfriend," said Sun Sothy, the acting director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center. "Before they bring the girl, they try to persuade them, come to city, you will get a good job, a lot of money, you will get an easy life. That's how they persuade these girls."

Parents in Cambodia's impoverished countryside often leap at the prospect of a job in the capital for a country girl, who can send cash back to the family. In some cases, desperate relatives will take a fee from a trafficker and force a girl to go. The attraction of jobs crosses borders, with young Vietnamese women also being lured into the sex trade in Cambodia.

Cambodia's Women's Development Agency did surveys of the past decade that showed more than 50 percent country's sex workers are trafficked or forced into the business. Cambodia has an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 sex workers, most in Phnom Penh. But in a desperately poor country, and a conservative culture that labels women who have been raped as "spoiled," defining what it means to be forced to work is a near impossible task.

Another women's group, Action for Women in Distressing Situations, known as AFESIP, said that about 60 percent of the country's prostitutes stay in the trade to support their families. "Most of those people are just thinking how can they get money to feed their family. There's only one way-to find a job in the city. The parents do not think their daughter, when she comes to Phnom Penh, when she comes with someone else, that they will be sold to a brothel. They just hope they get job," a member of the organization says.

Prostitutes can endure horrible conditions in Cambodia. The girls are often beaten with chains, shocked with electric wires, burned with mosquito coils and forced to eat chili peppers, especially if they do not earn enough money. "If I refused a customer they would torture me. They asked me to make myself beautiful but I didn't know how to do it, so they tortured me. Sometimes I said to guests that I didn't like this kind of service. Some would understand. But sometimes they beat me in front of the guests," she said.

Rights activists say Cambodia has the legal framework to fight trafficking. The country even recently vowed to work with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam to curtail cross-border trafficking. But rights workers say law enforcement remains weak.

"If you have over 1,000 cases of woman and children being trafficked and only two cases of traffickers being prosecuted, I think there's something about the judiciary, something about the implementation of the law. There's a big problem there," said Mu Sochua, the minister of Women's Affairs.

The problem is not just official inaction. Aid agencies in Cambodia say that often officials take part in the trade, by helping brothel owners.

AFESIP estimates that 80 percent of Cambodia's brothels are protected by police officers or soldiers. Brothel owners pay them to turn a blind eye or even to beat a woman who tries to escape or refuses to have sex.

Police officers who do try to fight traffickers have few resources. They complain the involvement of other authorities complicates their task. One officer with the Interior Ministry's anti-trafficking division said local authorities often refuse to cooperate with investigations.

"Spend one day to the Cambodian and Vietnamese border and you will see a very nice car, Land Cruiser, with air conditioning and the car plate is of Cambodian official or something and inside Vietnamese girls who have been brought to the border to Phnom Penh," said Sao Chhoeurth, the technical coordinator of AFESIP. "So as you can see it's very well organized between one country or the other by the Mafia or by the community recruiter."

Rights workers say that until Cambodia cleans up its police and judiciary, eases rural poverty and educates villagers, trafficking in the country will continue to flourish.