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cambodiangirlA recent feature article in Marie Claire magazine explores Cambodia’s big business of buying and selling a young girl’s virginity. Most frequently, it’s the desperate mother who sells her daughter’s virginity to a rich businessman who requires a doctor’s certification that she is, indeed, a virgin and is free of disease. The businessman typically contracts to keeps the girl for a week, raping her repeatedly “without a condom,” then sending her back to her mother.  The author of the feature, Abigail Haworth, went inside Cambodia’s virgin trade and the Cambodian beer gardens where the girls are paraded for selection.

The stories that Haworth tells about the mothers and daughters are heartrending, because the mothers know they have “done something unspeakable” and the daughters are “terrified.”  For most of the mothers, the decision to sell a daughter’s innocence is a last resort. The upside of the secretive virgin trade is that it is far more upscale than the “rowdy, neon-lit bars and karaoke clubs where foreign tourists and locals can buy sex for $10 or $20.”  Instead, the virgin trade attracts “high-ranking officials” from government, military, law enforcement, and the wealthy elite from around the world. The going rate is between $500 and $5,000.

The virgin trade thrives in Asia largely due to a cultural myth that sex with virgins preserves men’s youth and prevents illness. In addition, the trade depends on the “endless number of destitute families” as well as weak law enforcement and government corruption.  The buyer aspect of the business is aided by underground travel agents who prearrange everything, including the hotel, golf, and providing the virgin child.  In some slum areas of Cambodia, it is well known that “almost every teenage girl is sold for her virginity at some point.”  The “commodity” aspect of the business is aided by brokers (usually former sex trafficking or prostitution victims) within neighborhoods who approach the destitute women and offer to help the mother by arranging the trade of her daughter. About one-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, therefore, receiving $1,500 for a daughter’s week of rape proves irresistible for most. A complicating factor, too, is the prevalence of various addictions — alcohol, drug abuse, and gambling.

Sadly, the buyers are usually so powerful that the trade operates “without fear of repercussions.” In fact, some businessmen will spot an 8- or 9-year-old and “reserve” the child for when she reaches puberty. The practice is so embedded in the culture that many are blasé, viewing it as “not serious” and claiming that “having sex is human nature.”

Most of the prevention is from foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that offer microloans to help families begin a small business (food cart, sell bread, hair dressing, computers, construction, sewing, etc.).   Some NGOs focus on helping to change attitudes, provide skill training, and education. Other NGOs are working to put laws in place and train law enforcement, but Haworth reports, “There is almost zero political will to tackle the problem.”  In fact, the TIP report (2013 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. State Department) cited Cambodia for having “a climate of impunity for trafficking offenders and a denial of justice to victims.”