Many have applauded the closure of the brothels that once sustained Svay Pak commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, but Srey Lak, like many of the area’s inhabitants, is unimpressed.
Standing in the commune’s main dirt road, the 21-year-old said she has little faith in the government’s pledge to establish an upscale commercial center here as an alternative to the industry that once provided child and adult prostitutes to tourists and locals.
Cambodia “is not like other countries where business and industry are doing well,” said Srey Lak, who studied at the private Banana Center in Phnom Penh and now helps at her mother’s small cosmetics shop in Svay Pak, where sex workers would have been able to buy beauty products.
“Many of my friends are graduating, and they can’t find jobs,” she said on Tuesday.
Situated in Russei Keo district about 11 km from the capital, Svay Pak is too remote to attract legitimate investment, and does not have surrounding factories that could help sustain a business zone, Srey Lak said.
Government officials announced last month that Svay Pak’s brothels had been closed for good and that the area will be aggressively promoted as an upscale commercial center for legitimate business.
“Only brothels can make good business here,” Srey Lak said.
Most of the sex workers once employed in Svay Pak have returned to Vietnam or have picked up and moved on to other areas in the country, villagers and anti-trafficking experts said.
Human rights group Adhoc has received information that some of the child sex workers in Svay Pak have been relocated to brothels on Street 63 in Phnom Penh, Sokhan Ol, an Adhoc trafficking monitor, said on Tuesday.
“They just moved,” Sokhan Ol said. “They still continue to sell children.”
Other sex workers from the commune have reportedly been relocated to Siem Reap and Koh Kong provinces, and to Sihanoukville. Some are working at bars popular among foreign men in Phnom Penh, anti-trafficking experts said.
In Svay Pak, a large community of long-term residents, who once provided food and transport to sex workers and their clients, and who earned a modest income off side-businesses to the flesh trade, say their standards of living have decreased drastically since the closure.
Many of those interviewed said they hoped the brothels would reopen.
“It’s very difficult to live here since the brothel closures,” said Yav, a 22-year-old motorbike taxi driver. “We have very, very little money.”
Yav stood next to a group of about 10 men squatting next to a cafe in the dust playing cards, their motorbikes parked nearby.
Before the closures, Yav said, he made between $2.5 and $3.75 per day. Now he makes between $0.75 and $1.
Though Svay Pak has been silenced, police continue to visit the commune looking for sex workers, said one 72-year-old temporary laborer who lives off the main dirt track in a community of wooden shacks where girls as young as 8 were once offered for sex.
When police can’t find sex workers, they resort to seizing property from Svay Pak inhabitants, he said.
Svay Pak commune police declined to comment on the accusation Tuesday, saying they were not authorized to speak to the press. Many of the child sex workers were scrap collectors who were summoned to the wooden shacks by middlemen to have sex with clients, the 72-year-old said.
“Brokers would say, ‘Come with me. You will make money,’” the man recounted.
Often the children’s parents were unaware of their activities, and the man recalled seeing some parents come to retrieve their sons and daughters after their absence had been noticed.
Some residents, however, are happy that Svay Pak is now just another, ordinary village.
The village is a much better environment to raise children in, said a 39-year-old mother in the commune.
“I have a 13-year-old daughter, so when we went somewhere, they knew we were from Svay Pak, so they thought [she was] a sex worker,” the woman said.
Making sure child prostitution does not rekindle in Svay Pak will be a matter of political will, not business initiatives, said Darnaudet Thierry, President of anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants.
“If anyone wants to start Svay Pak again they will. It could be somewhere else tomorrow,” Thierry warned.
And the issue is, Thierry said, “Does the government think it’s an issue, having girls as young as 5 working as prostitutes in their country?”
Srey Lak said that some of the adult sex workers from Svay Pak are now freelancing outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Away from Svay Pak, the sex workers cannot be reached by NGOs to provide them with counseling and condoms, she said.
“You can’t control them,” she added. “It’s like ants when you spray water, they go everywhere.”
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