A third of Cambodians live on less than a dollar a day, economic mobility is limited and shark loans are rampant. Many families have been resorting to prostituting their young daughters out of financial desperation. Often times, brokers—themselves once victims of sex trade—would convince mothers to sell their virgin daughters. Debt-stricken and living below the poverty line, thousands of Cambodian girls are sold by their own mothers to be deflowered. The average price for a virgin is $1,500, an equivalent of about 4 years of income for many Cambodians. Some of the victims are often as young as early pubescent. Many clients belong to Asia’s wealthy elite both from Cambodia and other countries.

Cambodia has an unofficial but written ancient code of conduct for women called the Chbab Srey. The dictates of the Chbab Srey are well inculcated into the social fabric. There are still families who do not view their daughters as having the same value as their sons. There is also a pervasive myth in many Asian countries that through engaging in a sexual intercourse with a young virgin, men will be able to enhance their virility.

In addition, imbued with corruption, Cambodia makes for a very difficult environment for police to operate. It is believed that so far no one—absolutely 0.0 percent—has been convicted for statutory rape for engaging in intercourses with virgin girls. Not only that but, due to the aforementioned cultural code of conduct, female premarital chastity is also highly valued. There is even a national saying that “men are like gold and women are like white cloth,” meaning that men are more valuable than women, and if they are stained they can be washed. Unfortunately, there are still people who live by this maxim. Women, on the other hand, are less valuable and once stained, the stain never comes off. Furthermore, among many poor families, the daughter’s virginity is often seen as an asset that can be liquidated.

Thus, girls who are victims of virginity trade are also ostracized by the society. Many of them are stigmatized and find it extremely difficult to escape prostitution to find other jobs or get married. The case of Kieu—a girl who was 12 when her virginity was sold—demonstrates harrowingly and luridly the ordeals girls who have been sold by their parents go through.

At the age of 12, Kieu was sold by her mother—who blamed grinding poverty for her decision—to a man who raped her for two days. Afterwards, her mother sold her to a brothel where, according to Kieu, she was detained as if she was a prisoner. There, she was forced to engage with several men per day. Upon returning, physically and emotionally broken, her mother decided to give her to two other brothels including one 250 miles away on the Thai border. Certainly, Kieu’s heartbreaking tribulations are not unique; every year, thousands of sex tourists make Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Cambodia their prime destinations. In Cambodia alone, UNICEF estimates the number of children working in the sex industry to account for a third of all sex workers (40,000-100,000 sex workers in total.)

Although poverty and difficult economic situation are in no way admissible justifications for the parents, the painful experiences of these victims highlights the need to alleviate poverty. The parents themselves—belonging to an aftermath generation of the Khmer Rouge regime—are poor, uneducated and in their view, they are deprived of other means of survival. Consequently, the preexisting cultural prejudices, which devalues girls and women, does not subside due to the overall lack of access to education and the developmental stagnation at the grassroots level. As for the girls, what could they do to protect themselves when their own mothers—the people whom they trust most—are willing to sell their bodies?

– Peewara Sapsuwan

Sources: CEDAW, CNN, The Concordian, The Phnom Penh Post