Cambodia’s shame: innocence for sale

The following article was published on the Penh Pal bog today (7 July). I’m re-blogging it because it’s so important a subject. So many lives ruined, and yet somehow it seems to have slipped out of the care of Cambodia’s many NGOs.

7th July 2014

Writing in Britain’s Observer yesterday, Abigail Hawthorn, who lives in Asia, and writes about global women’s issues for the American edition of Marie Claire, tells the sad story of an impoverished Cambodian mother who sells her daughter’s virginity to a wealthy police general for $US1500. (Also reprinted in the Phnom Penh Post)

For anyone who has spent time here in Asia, this is an all too common story.

“Many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness,” Hawthorn quotes the president of Licadho, Chhiv Kek Pung, as saying. “There’s a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on here, and the rule of law is very weak.”

In many ways, this preoccupation with virginity as a commodity is a uniquely Asian phenomenon. It is not just powerful Cambodia men that fuel the trade (although the bulk of the trade is local). Men from other Asian countries, such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand regular travel here on business and have expect to have a ‘virgin’ as part of the package.

Where the pleasure can lie in raping a terrified innocent is a mystery to most men with any human sensitivity. The practice would seem to support the idea that rape is less about sex than it is an expression of violence against those that are weak and vulnerable.

Some years ago, I met a guy in Thailand from South Asia who was educated in the US. Bizarrely, he boasted about how, while having sex, he liked to pound his female partners into the mattress to the point where it made them bleed.

This, he seemed to believe, was proof of his masculinity.

He was less than happy when I suggested it was more likely these women were simply menstruating — and by being exposed to their blood, he risked possible exposure to HIV.

In her article, Hawthorn makes the point that while sex trafficking has long received more press, the trade in virgins is much more common here, sustained by intrenched poverty, a deep-seated sense of obligation of children to parents, ingrained gender inequality, and a long cultural history of acceptance of the practice.

Even amongst the wealthy here, marriage has traditionally been regarded as more of a business arrangement between families than based on any notion of romantic love. And desperation amongst those living close to the edge is often the key driver of a decision to sell the one thing that seems to have a monetary value in many poor communities.

Licadho’s Pung also makes the point that this may be sad but it’s not ‘sexy’ for the numerous anti-trafficking NGOs and foreign aid donors. The narrative is simply too complicated, given the difference in cultural attitudes to the role of daughters.

“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,” she explained.

When they do intervene, many NGOs working in the sector see it as their duty to remove the young women at risk or already a victim from her family. While this may be well-intentioned, it may deal with one problem while creating another — as family is critical for the majority of people in this part of the world.

All too often the problem is also cast in moral terms — curious given that the real victims usually have little control over their circumstances — when economics is seems a more likely answer.

While cultural attitudes clearly support this trade, at its heart is the wretchedness of poverty.

This is what needs to be changed.