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Cambodia: Child sex shame

Publish Date: 03 Nov 2004

Source: BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
By Julian Pettifer

Cambodia's child sex shame

After generations of war, corruption and poverty, the sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia has become an epidemic, and only now are a few hesitant steps being taken to protect the young and punish their abusers.

The children of Cambodia are desperately vulnerable, and their plight has been aggravated by the rapid growth of international tourism.

Not all foreign visitors are attracted by Cambodia's beaches and by wonders of Angkor Wat.

According to some surveys, up to 20% are sex tourists - and among them are those seeking children.

But according to Naly Pilorge of Licadho, a Cambodian human rights organisation, it is important not to overstate the influx of Western paedophiles as a cause of child exploitation.

Speaking to the BBC's Crossing Continents programme, she said: "Up to 70% of our caseload for children is rape.

"Mostly the perpetrators are family members or men in the local community. Of the reported cases, we have a small number of foreign paedophiles."

Among Cambodian and other South East Asian men, there is a strong demand for young virgin girls.

This is driven by the fear of Aids and the belief that they can rejuvenate themselves by sleeping with a virgin.

Tragic tales

Some Chinese-run hotels are regularly supplied with young girls, many of them abducted or purchased from their families and trafficked across the border from Vietnam.

Once the child's virginity has been sold for about $500, she is traded on to a brothel.

At a safe house in Phnom Penh run by the French-based charity Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situations Precaire, I spoke to two girls rescued from brothels.

Lan had just turned 19 and could not recall at what age she was first sold to a man.

"It was so long ago," she told me.

But she did remember that her first client was Chinese, that he paid $400 for three days with her and that she was constantly under guard.

The other girl, Dieu, was a waif-like 15-year-old but looked much younger.

Her story is all too familiar in Cambodia. She was recruited in neighbouring Vietnam and trafficked across the border, believing she was going to work in a café.

Instead she found herself in a brothel where her virginity was sold to a Cambodian man for $250.

Collecting evidence

Most child protection work in Cambodia has been done by NGOs and international agencies but there are a few government initiatives as well.

On the law enforcement front, the National Police now has its Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit, one of many institutions supported by the massive foreign aid programme.

At the unit's smart new headquarters, I dropped in on a training course.

About 40 officers, both men and women, were learning how to collect evidence using digital cameras and then store the images on laptop computers.

All the equipment had been donated by the British Embassy.

Overseeing the project is Christian Guth, a former Chief Inspector with the French National Police.

Guth is convinced that the Anti-Trafficking Unit is beginning to make a difference.

He told me that arrests for sexual offences have risen from virtually zero in 1997 to almost 400 last year.

"More than 200 of these were rapists," he said.

"The most important issue is the rape of children. We have cases of children aged four, five, six-years-old, and even the case of a one-year-old baby."

Infamous district

The head of the Anti Trafficking Unit is Police General Un Sokunthea.

I wanted to question her about an infamous red-light district called Svay Pak that is mentioned on every sex tourism website and in every pornographic magazine.

Svay Pak is a village near Phnom Penh, said to be the best hunting ground of all for those seeking to buy sex with children.

The general was delighted to talk about it. She told me that her officers are in the middle of a 100 day campaign to clean up Svay Pak, and she challenged me to go and see for myself.

She was adamant that if I went, I should not be offered sex with a child.

I decided to take up the general's challenge and set off with Sonny, my Cambodian translator.

Sonny had been to Svay Pak several times before and as we drove, he painted a lurid picture of streets thronged with teenage pimps, and lined with brothels full of young girls and children.

Deeper malaise

Sonny did not believe we would find that anything had changed. But Sonny was wrong.

When we reached the village, he was amazed that all the shop-fronts which used to be brothels were now shuttered and plastered with "for sale" signs.

There was no sign of human merchandise and the only thing I was offered was a cold beer.

Although I was impressed by the transformation of Svay Pak, those working in child protection were not.

Business has just gone elsewhere, they said. And anyway, Svay Pak is just a symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Only when sex offenders are not just arrested but tried, convicted and punished will they cease to act with impunity.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 4 November, 2004 at 1100 GMT.  The programme was repeated on Monday, 8 November, 2004 at 2030 GMT.

Story from BBC NEWS:  

Published: 2004/11/03 13:01:34 GMT