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OCTOBER 16, 2010 1:12PM

Sweet Painted Lady

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I’m not an avid television viewer and given the choice would probably choose a comedy or good drama to watch rather than a documentary. But this week I found myself captivated and deeply disturbed by an hour long programme exploring the subject of sex trafficking in Cambodia. A very young, bubbly and ostensibly naive female commentator reported on her findings from this part of Asia and her research centred mainly around one eighteen-year-old Cambodian girl’s story.

The sex trade in Cambodia is not only alive and well, but flourishing. Girls as young as twelve and thirteen are being trafficked into the system as a way of earning collateral for their family’s debts. Virgins bring in the most money and many young girls are tricked by family into joining the ranks of prostitution before they are even aware of their own sexuality.

In a country once torn apart by civil war, it seems corruption still prevails in every area of life and the prospects for the future are not looking any brighter. It’s chilling to hear of thousands of underage girls being sold into sexual slavery and to think there are over a hundred thousand prostitutes under the age of eighteen.

Visitors to Cambodia may be impressed by how upbeat and modern parts of this country appear to be, but still thirty-five per cent of Cambodians earn less than thirty pence a day and live in abject poverty. With little employment or education, families soon find themselves in debt and it seems the easiest way to earn money is to allow or sell your beautiful, young female relatives to work for pimps and brothels.

Girls as young as twelve are reportedly beaten, stabbed, drugged, raped and threatened at gunpoint every night in what is considered their work.  Further research leads us to believe that in certain brothels and for the right price, even four-year-old girls can be used as sexual playthings for the depraved and perverted clients.

Men will pay up to seven hundred dollars for a virgin and between ten and thirty dollars for service.  The girls themselves will see little of this money and can be subjected to between fifteen and twenty sessions a night.  That in itself is alarming enough, but add to this the unwanted pregnancies, the sexually transmitted diseases and one of the highest incidents of AIDS in the world and it becomes even more so.

 It is not just in the bigger cities where this appalling business is carried out; there are brothels hidden in the sheltered countryside where underage girls are sent after being betrayed by their own families for profit. Beer gardens, massage parlours and karaoke bars are all legal and swarming with stunning young girls awaiting customers, many looking and acting far older than their actual tender years.

One might assume the increase in travelling and visiting Westerners is the reason why so many brothels prevail, but in actual fact five-hundred thousand dollars a day are spent by Cambodian men on the sex industry.

The khmer culture is so complex, it is said not even Cambodians understand it, but hypocrisy, illegal profit and corruption are rife. In theory both men and women are supposed to enter the state of marriage as virgins and pre marital sex is allegedly deplored. Hence, the thousands of frustrated men willing to pay prostitutes for anonymous, illicit sex and the thousands of women willing or forced to sell their bodies as a way of settling family debts, with probably no chance of ever becoming a desirable bride or hope of a better future.

Despite charities, organisations, shelters and crisis centres all trying to do something about this deplorable situation, business for the pimps is booming. Promised government intervention seems to result in only temporary closure of some brothels, which are soon back in business and recruiting more and more underage girls.  Police raids on brothels are hampered by pimps getting tipped off and a lack of urgency on behalf of the police themselves, many of whom paid for the privilege of joining the force and are as equally crooked.

This is life in the raw where the basic essentials aren’t freely available and choices are often not an option. Backbreaking work on farms for twelve hours a day may bring in some money, but girls used to the prostitute’s way of life are hardly likely to choose the alternative. Even if the brothels were closed down, what would all these girls do then?

 I’m basically a simple soul who finds it difficult to understand why we cannot live in a world dominated by peace, equality and justice. I’m not a political animal or one to enter debates on world issues I admit I probably know little about in reality, but this situation disturbs me on many different levels.

As a human being, I feel horrified people live this way, either through choice or pressure. I also feel ashamed to be part of a race that may not condone all this, but fails to acknowledge, care or do anything much about it.

As a woman, I feel disgusted that we can still be seen as mere sex objects and are still used by men, either voluntarily or enforced for pleasure and profit. Sex sells; always has and always will, but the depths of depravity and amounts of money involved are obscene.

As a mother, I feel appalled that anyone could allow their daughters or female relatives to be sold for sex, but without being a member of a culture where this seems acceptable it is not my place to judge or condemn.

 As the mother of a son married to a Cambodian girl, I feel I have some rights to be concerned and to want to know more about this bizarre culture. My daughter-in-law has history I know, but I don’t think I will ever know the full truth about her or ever fully trust her motives. I could write a novel about this unique situation which is part of my everyday life, but as yet there is no conclusion. I’m not one who believes in fairy tale endings, but only time will tell.

As a grandmother, I feel threatened and hurt when circumstances could mean my son and his family may eventually settle in Cambodia. I see two innocent children, bursting with potential and happy with the only life they’ve ever known in England and it breaks my heart to conceive there’s even the remotest possibility they could end up living in or being part of such a corrupt and damaged society.  I can only live in hope.


Dec 09 13


  Oh sweet painted lady

Seems it’s always been the same

Getting paid for getting laid

Guess that’s the name of the game.  

Sweet Painted Lady – Elton John

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This was an extremely moving and insightful piece Linda. I've never known you to be judgmental, and indeed with the concerns and personal connection you have, it is admirable you can be so patient. I understand the Cambodia you describe, as I am familiar with many cultures her permit, even encourage such behavior. It is sad and heartbreaking for sure.

How fortunate for your daughter-in-law to be in the UK now, where she may raise your grandchildren to be different in attitude. The whole world doesn't ignore the problems, it just seems like it sometimes.

What a distrubing and at the same time heartfelt post.
"I can only live in hope". yes. There is always hope. What absoluteley adorable children.
It's shameful, Linda, and I have a feeling it's also true in Thailand and other places around the world. I couldn't imagine your daughter-in-law wanting to return to Cambodia, once she'd escaped it.
Your overview of the documentary is excellent; your comments on our sick society appropriate. I too pray that your son and his wife will find a way to remain in England where their children will have a chance.
Buffy - Thanks for reading a lot of what you are already aware of and the positive comments.

Trilogy - Yes, they're lovely kids and I just hope we can keep them here where they have a chance of a bright future.

Boanerges - Thanks again for reading. The situation is very complex and I guess home is home, wherever we originate from.

alfred - Thanks again for your faithful support. Much as we are familiar with the conditions, the programme was quite an eye opener.
This was a great post, Linda. I believe I may have watched the same program you mentioned. Then again, there have been more than one.

Humans can be the worst of animals. I cannot imagine the frustration felt by social workers trying to save these children.

PS: I just re-faved you. You disappeared off my list!