Police Sweeps Help Clean Up Child Prostitution

Cambodia allows sex trade, but now takes aim at those forcing girls into the practice.

Meas's recent experience has been hard, but her future looks brighter.

Three months ago, the 16-year-old orphan from Vietnam, whose wisps of long black hair frame a narrow face with slight, plaintive eyes, was sold by her neighbor for $400 and brought to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to join the teeming number of young girls who work unwillingly in the sex industry.

After being beaten and denied food for three days, Meas gave in to her brothel owner's demands to submit to customers, as many as eight men a day.

Now, however, Meas's life has taken a turn for the better, thanks in part to the Phnom Penh police she had been taught to fear. Meas had been rescued and the brothel owner arrested as part of a crackdown on forced prostitution.

Police sweeps are the way Cambodia's capital city is coping with the growing problem. They are viewed as encouraging by social groups who are fighting to end child trafficking and slavery.

Attitudes in Cambodia toward prostitution differ from those in most Western nations. Sex workers and their clients cannot be arrested for solicitation.

"If they want to be prostitutes, they can do it," says Chhuth Sok, director of the women's section of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association. "But nobody should force them to do it."

With this in mind, Phnom Penh officials resurrected a two-year-old law that makes anything offensive to Cambodian culture illegal. The measure was designed specifically to capture sex traffickers and brothel owners.

"Prostitution leaves a bad image on Cambodian culture and society," says Man Chhoeurn, chief of Phnom Penh's municipal cabinet. "Prostitution is the biggest problem in society, and it's helping the spread of AIDS."

Officials in Phnom Penh would not release current figures, but interviews with police and social organizations indicate they have rescued more than 500 prostitutes and arrested about 20 traffickers since November. This figure does not include the hundreds of sex slaves in provincial towns that police claim to have rescued.

On New Year's Eve, police and human rights workers in the port town of Sihanoukville announced the capture of trafficker Chay Heang. The also rescued 14 Cambodians, many of them children, who officials say Mr. Heang planned to send into sexual servitude in Thailand. Heang is a minor criminal, but police say he is connected to Chea Sarith, an alleged major trafficker, who lives in Koh Kong Province near the Thai border. Police are also investigating two men who may have kidnapped the 14 for Heang.

The police, however, also have allegedly served as a help to traffickers. Prostitutes said brothel owners scare young women into submission with the help of stories about police raping, robbing, and beating captured prostitutes.

"The brothel owner told me to run [from the police] and not get caught," says Chanchanda, a 17-year-old from Cambodia's northern provinces who was rescued eight days after being sold into sexual servitude.

Often, the fears of corruption and brutality are realized. Sex workers and social service groups say police take the more attractive prostitutes, keep them for a week, and sell them back to the brothel owners.

There also are reports of police brutalizing women until they relinquish their life savings.

Meas said the police took her life savings of 30,000 riel, roughly $8.50, when she was captured.

"They need morality training," Chanthol Oun, executive director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, says of the police. Police rarely tell sex workers where they are being taken and rarely let them even gather their belongings, Ms. Oun says. Robbed or not, most rescued prostitutes leave their servitude with no money, she says.

Deputy Police Chief Hor Sokha, who oversees Tuol Kok district, Phnom Penh's most infamous red-light district, says the only time his officers have had to get rough was when prostitutes have tried to flee. Then, policemen only pushed the women into pickup trucks to take them to various social organizations, Deputy Chief Sokha says.

"The accusations of abuse, bribes, and theft are unfounded and not true," Sokha says. "Our policeman have discipline."

While some traffickers, like Heang, are captured, others are protected from on high. The governor of Koh Kong Province recently banned human rights investigators who raided a trafficking ring without his permission. Some 45 kidnapped sex workers were freed. On the same day, members of Cambodia's National Assembly were calling for the governor's resignation and accusing him of supporting the brothel rings there. "There are members of the government who are behind the brothel owners," human rights worker Sok says.

And there are other barriers. Child sex workers are ordered to lie about their age to avoid the special attention underage prostitutes get. Social workers and investigators say Cambodians are apathetic because many of the prostitutes are from Vietnam. Centuries of fighting between the two nations have left each numb to the other's problems.

Also, the sheer number of sex workers in Phnom Penh - estimates range from 10,000 to more than 20,000 in the city of 1 million - makes the problem seem almost insurmountable. Prostitution can be found from the infamous red-light districts to the karaoke bars and 24-hour massage parlors along main streets.

"If they arrested all the prostitutes," social worker Oun says, "we couldn't take them."

Mr. Chhoeurn, the municipal cabinet chief, agrees. "We cannot successfully crack down 100 percent; other countries have a little prostitution" too, he says."But we will try our utmost."

As for Meas, she was taken to a women's crisis center, where she says she will learn a more promising trade - sewing.

* Reporter Van Roeun in Phnom Penh contributed to this story.

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