PHNOM PENH — Police sweeps have had an impact on Phnom Penh's Tuol Kok red-light district, an infamous half-mile strip of pool halls, bars, and brothels.
Before a crackdown on forced prostitution began, observers say prostitutes used to literally drag prospective customers from their motorbikes or grope men where they stood. Now, they stand inside half-closed doorways, calling out or blowing kisses. Many work without their brothel owners, who have since gone to jail.
And they live in fear of being arrested. Doors slam shut as police pass. Sex workers crouch silently inside.
But the problem of child prostitution remains here. A day after two girls forced into sexual slavery were taken away to a shelter to begin a new life, new faces appeared. Sroh, whose lipsticked mouth says "20" when you ask her age but whose childlike mannerisms and cherubic face suggest someone much younger, stands for sale outside a shuttered shack in one of the district's worst-looking brothels.
Once inside, Sroh speaks submissively and silently. She says she was drugged a year ago at her home in Takeo Province near Vietnam and sold into the sex trade for $500. Police have captured her three times, she says, and each time she's been sold back to her owner for $50.
In Tuol Kok, talking too much means trouble. While Sroh tells her story, another prostitute arrives from the back. She grabs Sroh and tells her to come with her. They disappear.