[fromGuardian Weekly, Friday 3 July 2009 09.00 BST]
In March 2008, Cambodia saw the implementation of a new law entitled: Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. Aimed at offering protection to women in prostitution by making the selling of sex illegal, it has resulted in clean-up operations and police raids of red light areas. Women in prostitution are being arrested, reporting police brutality and imprisonment. It’s also resulted in decreased safety for women as brothels are closed down and women are forced into street work. Mei, a young prostitute in Phnom Penh, describes how she fell into prostitution and the horrific experiences she has had as a result of the new law
My name is Mei and I’m 19 years old. I live in Phnom Penh but I’m from a small village in Prey Veng province. I went to school when I was younger, but I had to leave to work in the rice fields when I was 13. My family is poor and when there is no food to eat, you have to do what you must to support them – as I’m the oldest it’s my responsibility.
When I first came to Phnom Penh, I got a good job in a garment factory. I was making $50 a month but, after I paid debts, I could only send home $20 a month. This wasn’t enough for my family. I worried all the time about them; my mum is old and ill, and I wanted my brother and sister to stay in school.
At the time, I was living in a room with other factory workers, and one of them had a friend who worked in a beer bar. My friend said she was earning good money from this and that I could do it too, so I went there to work. At first things were OK as I earned more money. I would sit outside the bar and ask men to come in and drink. The men would ask me for sex but I always said no, I wouldn’t sell my body. Sometimes they’d grab me or fondle my breasts, which I hated, but if I complained the boss would shout at me.
A man called Sothy used to come to the bar a lot. He was so nice to me, he spoke to me romantically. One night, he offered to walk me home. I went with him, and he asked me to his room. I really liked him so I said I would, we sat and talked. When I wanted to go, he wouldn’t let me. He pinned me to the bed and raped me. I was a virgin and the pain was huge and I bled a lot. He told me he would beat me if I told anyone and that no-one would care anyway as I was a beer girl.
I was so scared after this and so ashamed that I wasn’t a virgin anymore. The owner of the bar said he had a friend I could stay with, somewhere safe, and he took me to a guesthouse in the Toul Kork area. I realised it was a brothel when we arrived, but he said I didn’t have to sell sex but could work as a cleaner. He lied.
After a week, the “aunty” there said I had to sell sex, that I owed her money. Because I’d lost my virginity, I was ruined already so I had no choice. When a man came to the brothel, he took me into a room. He took off all my clothes and had sex with me. He paid me $6. I realised then in my heart that I’d become a prostitute. I cried a lot. The other girls said it would get easier but it didn’t. I slept with between five and 10 men a day. I tried to stop myself from being there in my head and drank a lot.
Last year, a new law was introduced and the police came and arrested everyone in the brothel. I was taken to the police station and they asked me for $100. I didn’t have it so they kept me in a cell for three days and beat me with sticks. In the end, they let me go. After that, I started going to the park or street, but it’s much less safe for me. At the brothel there would be a gangster to help if there was trouble, but I’m on my own now. I’m scared to even carry condoms because if the police find these, they arrest you.
I’ve been hurt many times since working outside and gang-raped often. Recently, a man came and we agreed $8 for the whole night and he took me 20 kilometres out of Phnom Penh. When we arrived, there were four other men waiting for me. They had two knives and I was very frightened. They told me not to scream. I was scared they were going to kill me. But in my heart I thought: “I’m a good person, the spirits in this area will protect me.” After three men had raped me, a man passed by on a motorbike and I screamed and ran to the man, naked. The other men ran off then.
Another time, a man came and took me to a pagoda and there was a Buddhist monk there. I was so shocked. I begged not to be raped. The monk looked very skinny, like he might be HIV positive, but also sleeping with a monk is against my religion. He kept me for the whole night. I’m so ashamed – this has caused me great spiritual pain.
It wouldn’t have happened in the brothel. The law is supposed to protect women, but it doesn’t. I don’t know how I cope, all I can do is cry. Sometimes when I try and express my anger, I can’t. No woman wants this life, but what can I do, I have to care for my family. This is my karma. I must have done very bad things for this to happen to me.
• Mei was speaking to journalist Claire Colley.