Three years ago, when Vannith Uy arrived in Phnom Penh from the countryside, 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.”
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