Ngao, Ann and Neoung live amid poverty in the Cambodian fishing village of Svay Pak. When faced with a financial crisis, each made the extraordinary decision to sell their adolescent daughter to sex traffickers.
A neighborhood in Cambodia is a global hotspot for the child sex trade. The people selling the children? Too often, their parents. CNN Freedom Project and Mira Sorvino, award-winning actress and human rights activist, investigate.
By Tim Hume, Lisa Cohen and Mira Sorvino
Photography by Jeremie Montessuis for CNN
Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN)
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When a poor family in Cambodia fell afoul of loan sharks, the mother asked her youngest daughter to take a job. But not just any job.
The girl, Kieu, was taken to a hospital and examined by a doctor, who issued her a “certificate of virginity.” She was then delivered to a hotel, where a man raped her for two days.
Kieu was 12 years old.
“I did not know what the job was,” says Kieu, now 14 and living in a safehouse. She says she returned home from the experience “very heartbroken.” But her ordeal was not over.
After the sale of her virginity, her mother had Kieu taken to a brothel where, she says, “they held me like I was in prison.”
She was kept there for three days, raped by three to six men a day. When she returned home, her mother sent her away for stints in two other brothels, including one 400 kilometers away on the Thai border. When she learned her mother was planning to sell her again, this time for a six-month stretch, she realized she needed to flee her home.
“Selling my daughter was heartbreaking, but what can I say?” says Kieu’s mother, Neoung, in an interview with a CNN crew that travelled to Phnom Penh to hear her story.
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Like other local mothers CNN spoke to, she blames poverty for her decision to sell her daughter, saying a financial crisis drove her into the clutches of the traffickers who make their livelihoods preying on Cambodian children.
“It was because of the debt, that’s why I had to sell her,” she says. “I don’t know what to do now, because we cannot move back to the past.”
It is this aspect of Cambodia’s appalling child sex trade that Don Brewster, a 59-year-old American resident of the neighborhood, finds most difficult to countenance.
“I can’t imagine what it feels like to have your mother sell you, to have your mother waiting in the car while she gets money for you to be raped,” he says. “It’s not that she was stolen from her mother — her mother gave the keys to the people to rape her.”
Brewster, a former pastor, moved from California to Cambodia with wife Bridget in 2009, after a harrowing investigative mission trip to the neighborhood where Kieu grew up — Svay Pak, the epicenter of child trafficking in the Southeast Asian nation.
“Svay Pak is known around the world as a place where pedophiles come to get little girls,” says Brewster, whose organization, Agape International Missions (AIM), has girls as young as four in its care, rescued from traffickers and undergoing rehabilitation in its safehouses.
In recent decades, he says, this impoverished fishing village – where a daughter’s virginity is too often seen as a valuable asset for the family – has become a notorious child sex hotspot.
“When we came here three years ago and began to live here, 100% of the kids between 8 and 12 were being trafficked,” says Brewster. The local sex industry sweeps up both children from the neighborhood — sold, like Kieu, by their parents – as well as children trafficked in from the countryside, or across the border from Vietnam. “We didn’t believe it until we saw vanload after vanload of kids.”
Global center for pedophiles
Weak law enforcement, corruption, grinding poverty and the fractured social institutions left by the country’s turbulent recent history have helped earn Cambodia an unwelcome reputation for child trafficking, say experts.
UNICEF estimates that children account for a third of the 40,000-100,000 people in the country’s sex industry.
Svay Pak, a dusty shantytown on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, is at the heart of this exploitative trade.
As one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in one of Asia’s poorest countries – nearly half the population lives on less than $2 per day — the poverty in the settlement is overwhelming. The residents are mostly undocumented Vietnamese migrants, many of whom live in ramshackle houseboats on the murky Tonle Sap River, eking out a living farming fish in nets tethered to their homes.
Svay Pak, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is the epicenter of Cambodia’s child sex trade. Many of its residents are undocumented Vietnamese migrants, living in a community of ramshackle houseboats connected by rickety walkways.
It’s a precarious existence. The river is fickle, the tarp-covered houseboats fragile. Most families here scrape by on less than a dollar a day, leaving no safety net for when things go wrong – such as when Kieu’s father fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, too sick to maintain the nets that contained their livelihood. The family fell behind on repayments of a debt.
In desperation, Kieu’s mother, Neoung, sold her virginity to a Cambodian man of “maybe more than 50,” who had three children of his own, Kieu says. The transaction netted the family only $500, more than the $200 they had initially borrowed but a lot less than the thousands of dollars they now owed a loan shark.
So Neoung sent her daughter to a brothel to earn more.
“They told me when the client is there, I have to wear short shorts and a skimpy top,” says Kieu. “But I didn’t want to wear them and then I got blamed.” Her clients were Thai and Cambodian men, who, she says, knew she was very young.
Don Brewster, a former pastor from California, is the founder and director of Agape International Missions, an organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating the victims of child trafficking in Cambodia and smashing the networks that exploit them. He moved to Cambodia with his wife in 2009 after a harrowing investigative mission trip to the neighborhood.
“When they sleep with me, they feel very happy,” she says. “But for me, I feel very bad.”
The men who abuse the children of Svay Pak fit a number of profiles. They include pedophile sex tourists, who actively seek out sex with prepubescent children, and more opportunistic “situational” offenders, who take advantage of opportunities in brothels to have sex with adolescents.
Sex tourists tend to hail from affluent countries, including the West, South Korea, Japan and China, but research suggests Cambodian men remain the main exploiters of child prostitutes in their country.
Mark Capaldi is a senior researcher for Ecpat International, an organization committed to combating the sexual exploitation of children.
“In most cases when we talk about child sexual exploitation, it’s taking place within the adult sex industry,” says Capaldi. “We tend to often hear reports in the media about pedophilia, exploitation of very young children. But the majority of sexual exploitation of children is of adolescents, and that’s taking place in commercial sex venues.”
The abusers would often be local, situational offenders, he says. Research suggests some of the Asian perpetrators are “virginity seekers,” for whom health-related beliefs around the supposedly restorative or protective qualities of virgins factor into their interest in child sex.
Whatever the profile of the perpetrator, the abuse they inflict on their victims, both girls and boys, is horrific. Trafficked children in Cambodia have been subjected to rape by multiple offenders, filmed performing sex acts and left with physical injuries — not to mention psychological trauma — from their ordeals, according to research.
In recent years, various crackdowns in Svay Pak have dented the trade, but also pushed it underground. Today, Brewster says, there are more than a dozen karaoke bars operating as brothels along the road to the neighborhood, where two years ago there was none. Even today, he estimates a majority of girls in Svay Park are being trafficked.
Virgins for sale
Kieu’s relative, Sephak, who lives nearby, is another survivor. (CNN is naming the victims in this case at the request of the girls themselves, as they want to speak out against the practice of child sex trafficking.)
Sephak was 13 when she was taken to a hospital, issued a certificate confirming her virginity, and delivered to a Chinese man in a Phnom Penh hotel room. She was returned after three nights. Sephak says her mother was paid $800.
“When I had sex with him, I felt empty inside. I hurt and I felt very weak,” she says. “It was very difficult. I thought about why I was doing this and why my mom did this to me.” After her return, her mother began pressuring her daughter to work in a brothel.
Toha listens to her mother explain how she came to sell her to sex traffickers. She no longer lives with her family, opting instead to live in a residence for trafficking survivors run by Brewster’s organization — but still provides her family some financial support from her new job.
Not far away from Sephak’s family home, connected to the shore via a haphazard walkway of planks that dip beneath the water with each footfall, is the houseboat where Toha grew up.
The second of eight children, none of whom attend school, Toha was sold for sex by her mother when she was 14. The transaction followed the same routine: medical certificate, hotel, rape.
About two weeks after she returned to Svay Pak, she says, the man who had bought her virginity began calling, requesting to see her again. Her mother urged her to go. The pressure drove her to despair.
“I went to the bathroom and cut my arms. I cut my wrists because I wanted to kill myself,” Toha says. A friend broke down the door to the bathroom and came to her aid.
Mothers as sex traffickers
CNN met with the mothers of Kieu, Sephak and Toha in Svay Pak to hear their accounts of why they chose to expose their daughters to sexual exploitation.
Kieu’s mother, Neoung, had come to Svay Pak from the south of the country in search of a better life when Kieu was just a baby. But life in Svay Pak, she would learn, wasn’t easy.
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When her husband’s tuberculosis rendered him too sick to properly maintain the nets on the family’s fish pond, the family took on a $200 loan at extortionate rates from a loan shark. It has now ballooned to more than $9,000. “The debt that my husband and I have is too big, we can’t pay it off,” she says. “What can you do in a situation like this?”
“Virginity selling” was widespread in the community, and Neoung saw it as a legitimate option to make some income. “They think it is normal,” she says. “I told her, ‘Kieu, your dad is sick and can’t work… Do you agree to do that job to contribute to your parents?'”
“I know that I did wrong so I feel regret about it, but what can I do?” she says. “We cannot move back to the past.”
But she adds she would never do it again.
Sephak’s mother, Ann, has a similar story. Ann moved to Svay Pak when her father came to work as a fish farmer. She and her husband have serious health problems.
“We are very poor, so I must work hard,” she says. “It’s still not enough to live by and we’re sick all the time.”
The family fell on hard times. When a storm roared through the region, their house was badly damaged, their fish got away, and they could no longer afford to eat. In crisis, the family took out a loan that eventually spiraled to about $6000 in debt, she says.
With money-lenders coming to her home and threatening her, Ann made the decision to take up an offer from a woman who approached her promising big money for her daughter’s virginity.
“I saw other people doing it and I didn’t think it through,” she says. “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t do that to my daughter.”
On her houseboat, as squalls of rain lash the river, Toha’s mother Ngao sits barefoot before the television taking pride of place in the main living area, and expresses similar regrets. On the wall hangs a row of digitally enhanced portraits of her husband and eight children. They are dressed in smart suits and dresses, superimposed before an array of fantasy backdrops: an expensive motorcycle, a tropical beach, an American-style McMansion.
Life with so many children is hard, she says, so she asked her daughter to go with the men.
She would not do the same again, she says, as she now has access to better support; Agape International Missions offers interest-free loan refinancing to get families out of the debt trap, and factory jobs for rescued daughters and their mothers.
The news of Ngao’s betrayal of her daughter has drawn mixed responses from others in the neighborhood, she says. Some mock her for offering up her daughter, others sympathize with her plight. Some see nothing wrong with she did at all.
“Some people say ‘It’s OK — just bring your daughter (to the traffickers) so you can pay off the debt and feel better,'” says Ngao.
A new future
Not long after her suicide attempt, Toha was sent to a brothel in southern Cambodia. She endured more than 20 days there, before she managed to get access to a phone, and called a friend. She told the friend to contact Brewster’s group, who arranged for a raid on the establishment.
Although children can be found in many brothels across Cambodia — a 2009 survey of 80 Cambodian commercial sex premises found three-quarters offering children for sex – raids to free them are infrequent.
The country’s child protection infrastructure is weak, with government institutions riven with corruption. Cambodia’s anti-trafficking law does not even permit police to conduct undercover surveillance on suspected traffickers. General Pol Phie They, the head of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking taskforce set up in 2007 to address the issue, says this puts his unit at a disadvantage against traffickers.
“We are still limited in prosecuting these violations because first, we lack the expertise and second, we lack the technical equipment,” he says. “Sometimes, we see a violation but we can’t collect the evidence we need to prosecute the offender.”
He admits that police corruption in his country, ranked 160 of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, is hampering efforts to tackle the trade in Svay Pak. “Police in that area probably do have connections with the brothel owners,” he concedes.
Toha’s nightmare is now over. She earns a steady income, weaving bracelets that are sold in American stores, while she studies for her future. Her dream is to become a social worker, helping other girls who have been through the same ordeal.
Brewster believes that corruption was to blame for nearly thwarting Toha’s rescue. In October 2012, after Toha’s call for help, AIM formulated plans with another organization to rescue the teen, and involved police.
“We get a warrant to shut the place down,” recalls Brewster. “Fifteen minutes later, Toha calls and says, ‘I don’t know what happened, the police just came with the owner and took us to a new place. I’m locked inside and don’t know where I am.'”
Fortunately the rescue team were able to establish Toha’s new location, and she and other victims were freed and the brothel managers arrested – although not before the owners fled to Vietnam.
Toha’s testimony against the brothel managers, however, resulted in their prosecutions.
Last month, at the Phnom Penh Municipal Courthouse, husband and wife Heng Vy and Nguyeng Thi Hong were found guilty of procuring prostitution and sentenced to three years in jail. Both were ordered to pay $1,250 to the court, $5,000 to Toha, and smaller sums to three other victims.
Brewster was in court to watch the sentencing; a small victory in the context of Cambodia’s child trafficking problem, but a victory nonetheless.
“Toha’s an amazingly brave girl,” he says on the courthouse steps, shortly after the brothel managers were led down to the cells.
“Getting a telephone when she’s trapped in a brothel to call for help, to saying she would be a witness in front of the police…. She stood up and now people are going to pay the price and girls will be protected. What it will do is bring more Tohas, more girls who are willing to speak, places shut down, bad guys put away.”
Like the other victims, Toha now lives in an AIM safehouse, attending school and supporting herself by weaving bracelets, which are sold in stores in the West as a way of providing a livelihood to formerly trafficked children.
In the eyes of the community, having a job has helped restore to the girls some of the dignity that was stripped from them by having been sold into trafficking, says Brewster.
It has also given them independence from their families — and with that, the opportunity to build for themselves a better reality than the one that was thrust on them. Now Sephak has plans to become a teacher, Kieu a hairdresser.
For her part, Toha still has contact with her mother – even providing financial support to the family through her earnings – but has become self-reliant. She wants to be a social worker, she says, helping girls who have endured the same hell she has.
“(Toha)’s earning a good living and she has a dream beyond that, you know, to become a counselor and to be able to help other girls,” says Brewster. “You see the transformation that’s happened to her.”