Vannith Uy is the owner of what translates from Khmer as a “mobile nail salon”, although the word salon is a stretch. It’s a bicycle with a plastic crate on the back filled with hand lotions and nail polishes. Uy, 42, rides it around her Phnom Penh neighbourhood – a tangle of alleys near the river where the residents’ domestic lives spill out of their open front doors – until a customer flags her down. She performs a manicure or pedicure on the spot, sitting on a plastic stool by the side of the street.
Three years ago, when she arrived from the countryside, Uy had a different plan. She wanted to open a hair and beauty salon on proper premises in the Cambodian capital. “But my family could find only dirty jobs,” she says. “I wanted a place where my daughter and I could work together.” So Uy did something she describes as her “only choice”: she sold her 18-year-old daughter Chamnan’s virginity to a wealthy local man for £900.
The man was a police general who frequented the beer garden where Uy worked as a kitchen help, she says. He bought Chamnan for six days and nights. He installed her in a hotel room on Phnom Penh’s outskirts and visited her many times to have sex. She was allowed to call her mother once a day. By the third day, Uy recalls, Chamnan was so weak and distressed that the man summoned a doctor on his payroll to give her painkillers and a vitamin shot “so she had the strength to keep going until the end of the week”.
Uy received cash payment in full, but her planned salon never materialised. The money that had represented a life-changing sum – equivalent to around five years’ salary in her home village in Kandal province – soon trickled away. After she’d paid her sick husband’s medical bills, given cash to her ageing parents and bought Chamnan a gold necklace to “raise her spirits”, there wasn’t much left. Uy had greatly underestimated the task of clawing her way out of hardship; her stricken expression as she talks suggests she also miscalculated the personal costs of selling her daughter’s body to try.
Where to begin unravelling the shadowy, painful layers of Uy and Chamnan’s story? It is not straightforward. Often overlooked by more dramatic tales of enslavement in brothels, the trade in virgins is one of the most endemic forms of sexual exploitation in Cambodia. It is a market sustained by severe poverty and ingrained gender inequality. Its clients are influential Cambodian men and other members of Asia’s elite who enjoy total impunity from a corrupt justice system. Most misunderstood of all, many of those involved in the transactions are not hardcore criminals. They are mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours.
Cambodia is far FROM the only place where women and girls are treated as commodities. But in this country of 15 million people, the demand for virgins is big business that thrives due to cultural myth and other local factors. “Many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness,” says Chhiv Kek Pung, president of Cambodia’s leading human rights organisation, Licadho. “There’s a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on here, and the rule of law is very weak.”
The belief that sex with virgins increases male vigour has long held sway among powerful men in Asia, including Chairman Mao and North Korea’s Kim dynasty. “Unlike sex- tourist paedophiles who seek out children under 10 years old, local men don’t care so much about a virgin’s age – only her beauty and the fact she’s pure,” says Pung. Parents who sell their daughters’ virginity have little concept of child rights. “They regard their offspring as their property.”
Based on Licadho’s work inside communities, Pung estimates that “many thousands” of virgins aged between 13 and 18 are sold every year. As well as rich Cambodians, men from countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand are regular buyers, too. “They travel here on business and have everything prearranged by brokers: a five-star hotel, a few rounds of golf and a night or two with a virgin,” says Eric Meldrum, a former police detective from the UK who now works as an anti-exploitation consultant in Phnom Penh.
The lack of hard figures is partly due to the trade’s secrecy, Meldrum adds. Brokers operate underground, changing tactics and locations often. Plus the fact that close relatives are often involved means it rarely fits into strict definitions of sex trafficking – when people are tricked or abducted and sold into open-ended slavery – so it doesn’t show up in those statistics either.
But there’s another reason the trade is virtually invisible. Says Licadho’s Pung: “In terms of activism, few organisations highlight virgin buying even though it’s a devastating abuse of young women.” It’s seen as difficult to generate sympathy for the issue among foreign aid donors, she explains, so many NGOs sidestep the issue. (Licadho is one of the exceptions.) “The fear is that, while people might feel sorry for the girls, they’d be too outraged about parents selling their daughters to open their wallets.”
That moral complexities are sometimes ignored by those purporting to help was sensationally underscored in late May. Somaly Mam, a self-styled former sex slave and Cambodia’s most famous anti-trafficking campaigner, was forced to resign in disgrace from the US-based foundation that bears her name. The glamorous Mam boasted Hollywood actor Susan Sarandon and Facebook dynamo Sheryl Sandberg among her top supporters. She was feted widely in the media. On the back of heartbreaking stories about herself and Cambodian women under her wing, she raised millions of dollars at glitzy New York galas. Her downfall came after an investigation by a Cambodia Dailyreporter revealed that significant parts of the stories she told were untrue.
One young woman whom Mam claimed to have rescued from a brothel after a vicious pimp gouged out her right eye had actually lost the eye, it emerged, as the result of a facial tumour. Mam’s own story of woe – that she was orphaned and sold to a brothel at the age of 12 – was also dismantled.
The awful irony of Mam’s rapid fall is that she didn’t need to lie. Sex trafficking and exploitation exist in Cambodia, just often in less made-for-TV ways than her tragic tales suggested. (Brothels in red-light areas housing enslaved child prostitutes, for example, have been almost wiped out over the past decade.) Dishonesty aside, the greatest pitfall of her fraudulence was not so much that it misrepresented the scale of the problem. It was that it misrepresented the solutions. In promoting herself – and allowing others to do it for her – as a survivor single-handedly rescuing girls from evil predators, she made finding answers seem all too easy.
“People respond to emotional stories and they hand over their money without understanding underlying causes or long-term solutions,” says Sébastien Marot, the director of Friends International, an NGO based in Phnom Penh that works with vulnerable children. But in the case of the virgin trade, he says, progress is hard. Pung agrees. “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.”
At Vannith Uy’s HOME, a dark, wide room that she rents for £10 a week at the back of a grander house, she tells me about her struggle to find work when she first arrived in Phnom Penh. Her husband had a back injury and she had two children, Chamnan and a younger son, to support. The capital overflows with rural migrants, all competing for the same menial jobs. “The only work I could find was as a kitchen help in a beer garden. I found Chamnan a job serving ice at the same place.””
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