Child prostitution flourishes in Cambodia despite crackdown
BUYING sex with a 12-year-old girl in Cambodia takes less time and effort than changing money in a bank or paying a telephone bill.
For $1, a motorbike will take you on a 20-minute ride up the chaotic highway north of Phnom Penh, weaving through a riot of bicycles, dogs, trucks and tractors, to the village of Svay Pak.
In the rough dirt road that runs through the village, two girls in their early teens play badminton. Three younger girls chase a chicken around in circles. Some teenagers in garish tight polyester dresses saunter past, deep in conversation.
All of them are for sale.
Svay Pak is a brothel village, a cluster of brick and concrete shophouses where immigrant prostitutes from Viet Nam offer "boom-boom" - sex - and "yum-yum" - oral sex - for $5 a time in cramped, clammy rooms and makeshift plywood cubicles.
Similar brothel villages can be found all over Cambodia. Many prostitutes are trafficked from Viet Nam, but most are ethnic Khmers, the majority race in Cambodia.
Recent surveys have estimated more than a third are under 18.
"Many thousands of children are still being abused in Cambodia's sex industry," said Laurence Gray, regional co-ordinator for development agency World Vision's programme for children at risk.
The physical and mental damage is severe.
World Vision works with some 300 sexually exploited children in Phnom Penh. Nearly 60 per cent are malnourished, 46 per cent have sexually transmitted diseases and 18 per cent have HIV.
The mental scars are less quantifiable but no less real.
In Svay Pak dozens of women stand in the doorways of their brothels, waving and blowing kisses at customers arriving in the village. Others crowd around the foreign men drinking in Svay Pak's ramshackle beer bars, sweating in the afternoon sun.
Most of the women are aged 16 to 20. But visitors who have come looking for even younger girls only have to wait.
Soon the whispering starts.
"You want a young girl? Very good for you," says "Luc", a 12-year-old Vietnamese boy pimping girls no older than he is. "Come with me and I'll show you."
In curtained-off alcoves in the brothels, customers can sit drinking chilled beer and choose from a selection of underage girls. Many of the Svay Pak brothels have some for sale.
Brothel managers, usually women, bring a selection of girls in their early teens, telling them to lift their skirts and T-shirts to show prospective clients their bodies.
The managers offer advice on each girl's sexual experience and ability. Some customers like girls with a reputation for "good service". Others are looking for virgins.
Sex with a girl aged 10 to 13 costs about $30. Younger girls cost more. A virgin costs a few hundred dollars.
Many of the foreign men who come to Svay Pak prefer younger girls, partly in the hope of avoiding disease.
"They're clean," Luc says. "They haven't been with many men."
But disease is everywhere. Up to half of Cambodia's prostitutes are estimated to be infected with HIV.
Things were supposed to have changed in Cambodia.
Last year Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a decree ordering the country's karaoke parlours and discotheques to close, saying they were havens for prostitution and drug abuse. He vowed to send tanks to demolish bars that defied the ban.
Local authorities across the country were told to shut down brothels. The government said the crackdown would end the trafficking of women and the sexual exploitation of children.
Humanitarian groups working with prostitutes said the order would destroy the livelihood of tens of thousands of women, but welcomed the prospect of a crackdown on child prostitution.
Cambodia's child sex industry thrives amid the poverty that grips the country, the preference of many local and foreign men for underage girls, and the failure of the country's law enforcement system to deal effectively with the problem.
Only one foreigner is in jail on a conviction for sexual abuse of children - Englishman John Keeler, arrested while making an explicit videotape with four girls aged eight to 10.
Other foreigners are usually cleared by the courts - after bribing officials, according to humanitarian agencies.
Gray says Cambodia's government is committed to fighting child prostitution, but that translating good intentions into firm action against paedophiles is proving difficult.
"Unfortunately this is an issue that requires further attention," he said. "The government makes policy positions that condemn this, but getting resources from within government to combat it is still a problem."
(Agencies via Xinhua)