For about two years a neighbor who lives across the street from Meas Nary, 41, and her husband Va Saroeun, 62—suspects in the brutal torture of their 11-year-old servant—watched the couple’s comings and goings in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district.
She saw the high school teacher and her retired civil servant husband leave their massive, gated Phnom Penh Thmei commune villa to drive to work, to jog up and down that long, quiet block.
She saw them enter and leave, but she never saw anyone else. Neither did the shop owner a few doors down. Neither did the woman at the nearby food stall.
And this is how the husband and wife were able to keep the 11-year-old girl as a servant, beat her repeatedly with clothes hangars, pull out her flesh and hair in clumps with a pliers, and keep the orphaned child from turning to anyone for help.
Until she was rescued by police from the couple’s swanky house on Thursday, the abused child, known only as Srey Neang, was invisible.
Neang’s is an extreme case, but she is hardly alone in the shadow world of Cambodia’s modern-day domestic servants.
A 2007 study by local rights group Licadho and Christian group World Vision found an estimated 21,000 children employed as domestic laborers in Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham, Battambang and Siem Reap, though it’s possible the number is far higher.
The last study carried out by the National Institute of Statistics and the International Labor Organization, in 2003, found there were nearly 28,000 child domestic workers in Phnom Penh alone.
“We don’t have any data on whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing,” said John McGeoghan, a project manager at the International Organization for Migration, which in 2007 published a large-scale case study on child workers.
“They are a hidden population. What we do know is they are very vulnerable,” he said.
It is this state of being hidden that puts Cambodia’s child domestic workers at especial risk of abuse, of trafficking, of a lifetime of danger.
The IOM study found that 51 percent of sex workers were former child servants.
A report released last month by the US Department of Labor noted four products that are likely made using child labor: Bricks, shrimp, salt and rubber. In many ways, though, cracking down on those industries is a relative breeze. When a child works in a brick factory, or on a plantation, people can see that, said MP Joseph, Chief Technical Advisor of the ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor in Cambodia.
“Private homes are not workplaces. Access is not available. Targeting children working there is far more difficult. They are invisible,” Mr Joseph said.
In June 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen approved the National Plan of Action on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. That program was an update to a 2004 Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training prohibition of hazardous work performed by those under 18.
Domestic work fall under the “hazardous” category, but can be legally performed by children as young as 12, in certain instances.
Domestic child labor is considered a “worst form” of child labor, said Mr Joseph. “It is included as one of the worst forms–it’s targeted for immediate elimination.”
“Having said that, I must say that it is one of the most difficult to reach,” he added.
On Dei Thmei street yesterday, neighbors talked about the girl’s shocking physical condition: Her bloody ear, her missing hair, her coin-sized scars.
They talked about how little interaction they’d had with the couple: How wealthy they seemed, how closed off. When asked their names, most neighbors declined to give it. “Security,” they said for withholding their names from a reporter.
It was clear yesterday exactly what is happening with the suspects, Meas Nary and her husband, and Thoeng Reth, 62, the woman who originally sold the young girl to the couple for $400 in 2008 after the child’s mother died in Kampot province.
Hing Bunchea, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor, said at 5 pm yesterday that the trio had been sent to Prey Sar prison on Sunday afternoon after being charged at the court.
However, Prey Sar prison director and deputy director, Mong Kim Heng and Teng Buthy, said that the suspect had not yet reached the prison.
Contacted for clarification, Mr Bunchea revealed that the couple had actually only been sent to prison on Monday although he could not say at what time. Contacted again at 6 pm, the prison officials said that the suspects had just arrived.
Sen Sok district police chief Mok Hong confirmed that the couple were in his custody until around 4 pm, and were then sent to the prison.
As for the young girl: “She’s sleeping now, we’re focused on getting her medical help, basic healthcare, she’s very malnourished,” said Sue Hanna, children’s program manager at Hagar International, the organization that is now caring for her.
“She has severe trauma. She has a lot of memories that will affect her for life,” she added.