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.


Pssst, mister, wanna buy a kidney?

10392371_758270994193915_6931077558708379679_nHere’s the story from today’s Phnom Penh Post: Mot Hiriphin, age 26, deeply in debt, is told he can solve his problem by selling a kidney. Wealthy businessman from Poipet is in need of kidney. Kidney for wealthy businessman, for Mot, $4,200. Everyone happy. Until Mot finds out the businessman actually paid $12,000. Mot feels cheated, goes to the cops, story makes local news. (Note that Mot’s complaint isn’t that poverty forced him to sell his organs, but that he got cheated on the deal).

Purely by chance I came across a facebook post in which a young man in Morocco asks if anyone wants his kidney, as he has no money. Sounds like Mot’s story. How much of this is going on in the world? I googled. Found there’s a facebook page, I-want-to-sell-my-kidney. Gruesome.

Willing sellers will find willing buyers, but the implications are not nice – and facebook facilitates human organ trafficking. Close down facebook!

(The photo at the top is from the facebook page of the Moroccan boy – Christ knows what’s going on, but he seems to be getting it on with a female cop – it’s a strange world).

Phnom Penh gangster

HangmanA Phnom Penh gangster. Taken on the balcony of a room behind the Old Market (Psar Chas), overlooking street 110. “Gangster” has a specific meaning, essentially petty criminals specialising in bag-snatching and burglary. Distinguished by tattoos like this one – anyone who has a tattoo like this has marked himself off from normal respectable society. Usually, of course, the tattoo is covered by a shirt. “Gangsters” tend to have brief lives, much of it spent in jail. If people catch them committing a crime the mob’ll beat them to death – sometimes the police try to save them, sometimes not, but most often they simply don’t arrive.

The gangs are violent – this from a Phnom Penh post article in 2010:

“Earlier this month a student was killed and others suffered serious injuries after fights against rival gangs in the centre of the capital, and samurai swords are still the weapon of choice for the gangs. The fighting is brutal and the injuries horrific, but the authorities do not seem to be able to stop it.”

The article makes some very good points about what leads kids to join gangs, but essentially it strikes me as the inevitable result of a society and economy that can’t provide employment, recreation, or even much family life for its young people.

Interesting article here about life in the poorer parts of the city – mentions gangs and much else, though nothing in depth.