• Fact: Every day, in Cambodia, parents sell their children for sex.
  • Fact: Many Cambodian parents decide to sell their children, some of whom are as young as one month old, because they feel that selling their own flesh and blood is the only way to survive.
  • Fact: There has emerged in Cambodia an ugly market of virginity, in which rich and powerful men coerce mothers into selling their daughters’ innocence.
  • Fact: Cambodia does not have an anti-trafficking law on the books.

Svy Pak is a shanty town on the outskirts of the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It is one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of one of Asia’s poorest cities. The population lives on less than $2 per day. As such, a child’s virginity is considered to be an extremely valuable asset because of the prices willing to be paid for it. Doctors in Cambodia perform what’s known as a “virginity check” on a child and then issue a “certificate of virginity.” This is meant to ensure buyers who want virgins that they are getting them. In some cases, a child’s virginity is sold before he or she is even born, and deposits for virginities can be easily made on toddlers. Selling one’s child for sex provides a steady source of income for families willing to make the sacrifice.

The child sex trade has blown up in Svy Pak. The town is known to pedophiles around the world as the go-to place for buying little girls. In 2008, Apage International Missions (AIM) found that 100 percent of the kids in the town between the ages of eight to 12 years of age were being trafficked for sex. The organization has rescued children as young as four years old from traffickers. UNICEF estimates that one third of the population in the sex industry is children in Cambodia, and amounts to 40,000 to 100,000 kids total.

Cambodia is a country where children have a long history of being a major export product. A young girl by the name of Kieu was sold by her mother at the age of 12. Over the course of six months, her mother sold her virginity and then forced her to work at five brothels in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Only when her mother began to make arrangements at the sixth brothel to rent her daughter out for sex did Kieu run away to find safety. CNN spoke to her mother, who said, “It was because of the debt, that’s why I had to sell her.”

The men who abuse these children fit many different profiles and backgrounds. Some are pedophile sex tourists who actively seek out sex with prepubescent children. Others are more opportunistic, situational offenders who simply take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to engage in sex with children. Then there are those for whom health-related beliefs about the protective or restorative qualities of virgins catalyze their interest in child sex.

Sex tourists tend to come from affluent countries all over the world, such as European countries, South Korea, Japan and China. But research suggests that Cambodian men remain the main exploiters of child sex trafficking in their country. Although the selling and buying of sex is illegal, not one Khmer man has ever been convicted for purchasing virgins. The police argue that they are limited in prosecuting these violations because of a lack of expertise, technical equipment and evidence collection tools. Corruption is also a barrier for law enforcement, as Cambodia is number 160 of the 175 countries on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

The actions of the parents in Cambodia who sell their children for sex is deplorable and inexcusable. Since the beginning of time, people have been poor, but they have not always been selling their children. Something must be done.

– Erika Wright

Sources: ABC, CNN 1, CNN 2, The Guardian, Spiegel Online
Photo: Brandon Patoc Photography