The selling of a virgin girl seems hard to even fathom, but it is very real, and in Cambodia, it is fast becoming one of the most lucrative trades.
A market perpetuated by poverty and gender inequality, women and young girls are seen as commodities and are often trafficked away from their homes for sexual exploitation. Today, the virginity trade is one of the most endemic forms of sexual exploitation sweeping the nation and it is estimated that thousands of girls aged between 13 and 18 are being sold every year.
Svay Pak, a small town to the north of Phnom Penh, has a stark reputation for child prostitution and is at the heart of the virginity trade in Cambodia. As one of the poorest places in the country, most families live on less than one dollar a day. Sickness is rife and predators are all around. Lack of education means that parents sell their daughters' virginity as they have little concept of child rights. Rich and powerful men prey on desperate mothers, pressuring them to sell their daughters virginity. Three-quarters of the population in Cambodia live below or just above the poverty line and women earn an average of 27 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In the end, they feel they have no other option.
Many Asian men over 50 believe that sex with a virgin increases male vigour.
The demand for virgin girls in south-east Asia also thrives on cultural myths and deep-rooted social constructs. There is a belief, commonly upheld by Asian men over 50, that sex with virgins increases male vigour, will bring good health and even cure diseases. A national saying that permeates Cambodia is that men are like gold and women are like cloth. If you drop gold in the dirt, it can be washed clean and still shines. If you drop cloth, the stain never comes out.
The clients seeking to buy these girls' virginity are influential Cambodian men and other members of Asia's elite. They take advantage of the weak and corrupt legal justice system and come from neighbouring countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand. Often travelling on business, they have everything prearranged by “brokers”. They pay between £600 and £3,000 to buy a virgin for up to a week, depending on their budget and the girl's beauty. The age of the girl is insignificant, as long as they are “beautiful” and “pure”.
These girls suffer an inconceivable ordeal and are raped by their buyers for up to a week.
The men demand proof a girl is a virgin through a medical examination with paperwork stating that the girl's hymen is still in place. She is then taken to a hotel and raped repeatedly for days by her buyer.
Not only do these men take the girls’ childhood but they also rob them of their futures. After this harrowing event, girls who are victims of the virginity trade are ostracised by society. They are seen as impure and find it difficult to escape further sexual exploitation. These young girls end up in the prostitution ring and will never marry.
Not a single perpetrator has been convicted of buying a young girl's virginity in Cambodia.
Sex work is criminalised in Cambodia, but these girls are not protected due to the powerful positions and money that these offenders have. They continue to avoid prosecution as arresting perpetrators is blocked by corruption at the very top. To this day, not one man has been convicted of buying a girls virginity in Cambodia.
This heartbreaking and sickening truth is one of the reasons why changing the mindset of men and women is so important. With knowledge and education, these girls have a fighting chance for a better future and breaking the poverty cycle.
At Women Going Beyond, we are working to educate and empower young women in rural areas of Cambodia as well as plant seeds of change in these communities. Join us in our mission to stop young girls facing a lifetime of sexual abuse.