At a cursory glance, it’s easy to regard Phnom Penh as Bangkok’s less developed, poorer and “innocent” cousin. In many ways, this is true.
Here, there are many majestic pagodas situated in almost every corner, making them practical landmarks while navigating the small city. The King and Buddhist monks are highly revered by its people.
Every single day, the drones of four-wheeled tuks-tuks can be heard early in the morning without fail while ubiquitous street vendors accessorize the city landscape.
Like Thailand, there are more than a dozen of cramped markets selling all sorts of cheap silk and wooden handicrafts. The ingredients used in Khmer cuisine are similar to Thai minus the hotness.
Before the recent economic depression, hundreds of thousands of women trooped to work in garment factories, spending hours putting together clothes for big labels such as Gap, Banana Republic, Abercrombie and Finch, Ralph Laurent and Tommy Hilfiger. Earning about USD50 to USD80 a month, most of these clothes cost more than their monthly salary a piece.
Yet, many girls aspire to be garment factory workers. They drop out from schools, leave their homes in the village to attend training for three months before joining their “sisters” in the exploit by industrialized nations. What we spend for USD80 at a fraction of a minute, can feed their entire family for a month.
What makes Phnom Penh innocent compared to Bangkok is the absence of red light districts where sex industry is part of the tourist attraction. You still see the occasional local young girls escorting “barangs” (foreigners) in the city, but not as conspicuous as in Bangkok.
That’s how most tourists would think of Phnom Penh; just a charming developing city with happy and friendly people. If they have lived here long enough like me, and work in the field that I do, there is a much uglier and sinister side of the city than Bangkok.
Unlike Thailand, majority of the sex workers in Cambodia are being forced into prostitution.
Unlike Thailand, there is no specific districts or locations where strip bars, brothels and sex shows operate on a nightly basis.
Here, everything is carried out more discretely and hence gives the impression that sex is not for sale in Cambodia. Because it’s so discrete, nobody knows the brutality of this sleazy and inhumane business.
Not only is sex for sale here, the girls and boys are as well. Many of them have been sold by their own family as sex slaves to meet the perpetual sexual demands of expat and local men while temporarily feeding the basic needs of their families.
This is not the only ugly and sinister part. Many of these girls and boys are under the age of 16. Here, it is a paradise for paedophiles.
In Cambodia, the responsibility of taking care of the family lies in the daughter. Boys are often given more opportunity to attend schools while girls remain at home to take care of household chores or get a job.
If this isn’t enough, there is another solution.
They are sold to traffickers or pimps. These girls are supposed to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. The trick is, they don’t receive any payment in return and hence holding them as financial hostage forever.
Sexual slavery, like any other form of slavery, is a multi-million dollar industry.
If the girls try to escape, they are beaten up, tortured and threatened to death. They receive similar treatment if they don’t smile and seduce customers or have the audacity to reveal any hint of coercion from their handlers. So, customers go on thinking that they sell their bodies voluntarily.
Remember, they don’t even get paid.
Because Cambodia is considered less developed and poorer, it’s infested with hundreds of international NGOs, pouring in millions of dollars to help the people, to free them from any kind of bondage. In the end, the majority of people who do benefit from this “industry” are NGO workers, companies who provide the logistics for NGOs, the government and the lowest of the lower income group.
I recently had the opportunity to visit an international NGO providing free formal education and vocational skills training programmes to children and youths living in Steung Meancheay, a garbage dump in Phnom Penh.
When I entered the training compound, I was astounded by the extravagant infrastructure on its 5 hectare land. After more than one hour of tour around the whole area, I concluded that this is the Disneyland of Vocational Skills Training Centre.
With 600 full time staff and USD5 million annual budget for its operating cost alone, it’s no wonder that the hospitality, cooking, hairdressing and spa training areas are able to simulate what you would get at a five star hotel.
All 200 students are smartly dressed in clean and pressed uniforms. The products used at the hairdressing training are all genuine L’Oreal and Evian brands, none of the counterfeited ones used by the other training centres.
They are even expanding their training centre to include a full size swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts for their students. It’s even better than the school I attended in Malaysia.
The Head of Public Relations told us that all students are guaranteed jobs with the tourism industry upon graduation.
While I listened with great amazement, my heart was filled with sadness. Sadness for the millions of children from low income group who are not able to share such privilege.
I have been visiting many governmental and non-governmental training centres for disadvantaged group in Cambodia. It is part of my job to gather information on how to improve the training curriculum of the NGO I am volunteering for. None of them could ever compete with the Disneyland of Vocational Skills Training Centre. The quality of training is far below reasonable standard and most of the trainees do not benefit from job placement upon graduation.
One day, I asked a local colleague of mine whether any of the rescued women who have been sold as sex slaves (the NGO I work for provides rehabilitation, training and reintegration of trafficked women) comes from Steung Meancheay.
He replied, “None.”
I expressed my surprise, seeing how much poorer the families living in the dumps are and hence presumably more desperate.
He answered solemnly, “Nobody wants to touch these girls from Steung Meacheay. They are dirty and they have diseases.”
Then, it dawned on me. Unless you’re rich or an “untouchable” ; the lowest of the lower income group, you will continue to struggle and suffer like the majority of the people I meet here.
Note: This article was first published at Loyar Burok, a leading human rights portal run by a group of young lawyers in Malaysia.