Svay Pak is an ethnically Vietnamese village located in the Russey Keo District of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Svay Pak is also known as Kilometre 11 or K11. It is an infamous center of child prostitution.
The brothels in Svay Pak are in direct competition with each other and see little advantage in cooperation even when faced with external threats (i.e. police). Sex workers from different brothels do not usually associate with workers from another brothel. This is due to personal differences as well as the competition for clients. Prostitution, particularly acts that involve children, were a cornerstone of the local economy. At any one time it was estimated that over 300 sex workers lived and worked in the Svay Pak area. Virgin children were sold for a very high price ($400–600) which is then continually lowered until they are worth only a few U.S. dollars. Some brothel owners are willing to put their workers under hymen-reconstruction surgery in order to create the appearance that their workers are still virgins.
Brothels were usually run by a couple. The man tends to take care of financial issues and security while the woman interacts with the brothel workers on a daily basis. Some of the female owners were sex workers themselves. Almost all of the owners are Vietnamese and have good connections with the areas from which sex workers are delivered to Svay Pak. The relationship between brothel owners and sex workers is complicated. Most women claim that brothel owners are kind to them but others refuse to speak about their employers for fear of repercussions. Women and children who are forced to work involuntarily are usually beaten and/or given drugs in order to make them compliant if they refuse to be raped by a certain number of clients a day. Some brothel owners refuse to let their workers out when they’re not working while others are laxer in their treatment of brothel workers.
For Vietnamese workers that were sent there by their families or came voluntarily, brothel owners paid each woman’s family or intermediary a sum ranging from $50 to $3000. The women worked off this debt for a period of 6 months and 2 years with an average of 14 clients a week. Currently, Svay Pak suffers from a severe lack of health and social infrastructure. Fee-for-use schools and healthcare facilities make it impossible for the inhabitants to receive a proper education or treatment for illnesses. Partly as a result of a lack of health education programs, it is estimated that the HIV rate among brothel workers is 40%. In addition, some workers are willing to have sex without a condom in order to win over more clients from a competing brothel or to just make more money.
The political situation in Svay Pak is very volatile. Brothel owners suffer from closures, crackdowns, and extortion from armed military and civil police forces operating under loose government control. In addition, sex workers experience raids, arrests, and rapes from the same people. The laws here are very lax with many brothels in a relationship of patronage with the local authorities. Thus child predators and brothel owners are rarely arrested and in the event that one does get charged, many get off all charges if they are able to bribe. The Hun Sen government is partly to blame for the continual growth of the child sex trade here. Pimps have been reported of holding virgin children and then releasing them to a series of bidders such as high-ranking military officers, politicians, businessmen and foreign tourists. Because of how lucrative the trade is much of this industry is controlled by senior military and police officers. It is evident that there is a higher power involved when evidence goes missing, brothels are tipped off before raids, and pimps are able to slip away from their handcuffs.
The international community has been exerting pressure on the Cambodian government to clean up its image as a haven for pedophilia. While the government has conducted raids on Svay Pak with the most recent being in 2005, it is still generally acknowledged that the trade may still be running but under strict secrecy, as opposed to its open display of children for sale a few years earlier. Even though Svay Pak currently has very little evidence in terms of its past, many experts believe that the trade has just dispersed to other parts of Cambodia. The police have admitted that the brothels they shut down in high-profile raids in the past usually reopen a few weeks later. In addition, the arrests and convictions of foreigners are used to make headlines to appease international groups such as ASEAN while the majority of predators—the local people—are rarely prosecuted. Sochua Mu, a politician with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and a former minister for women's affairs stated that, “the government wants to have showcases to make itself look good - that Cambodia is actually taking care of this problem of human trafficking, which is really not the truth.”
Adult sex workers
Most of the sex workers in Svay Pak are not Cambodian but instead are Vietnamese. The young adults that work in Svay Pak came there along established migration routes from southern provinces in Vietnam. Despite tensions between the Vietnamese and Khmer, Vietnamese sex workers are popular in Cambodia because of stereotypes that paint them as sexually adventurous, uninhibited, as well as worthy of less respect than Cambodian women.
Almost all of the Vietnamese sex workers had heard of Svay Pak before their departure from Vietnam. Most received information about Svay Pak from friends, relatives, and other community members and spoke of former sex workers who came back financially successful and resumed a normal life. Going to Svay Pak clearly implied engaging in sex work although most women disguised this fact in order to save their reputation. This allowed them to explore options, discuss work conditions and receive advice from former sex workers without “losing face” in their community. For the most part information passed back to Vietnam from Svay Pak consisted of the positive aspects of working as a sex worker. Some women feel that those descriptions did not accurately reflect the real life of a sex worker in Svay Pak but they too indicate they would paint a rosy picture of Svay Pak in order to appear more successful.
Many Vietnamese workers in Svay Pak shared a background in rural poverty which pressured them to move to Svay Pak for economic reasons. Some women deceive their parents in order to work in the sex trade for fear of parental intervention. Others underwent pressure from family members in severe poverty, which drove them to push their daughters into sex work. Still there are those who were deceived into working at Svay Pak. Women are promised work as a waitress or a maid in Cambodia but are dropped off at a brothel. Upon arrival the women are essentially forced to work as sex workers in order to pay for the transportation costs as well as living costs. After payment of their debts most women decide to return to their families and resume a normal life but there are some who see the work as a path to being financially independent and continue working.
The greatest threat to Svay Pak sex workers were persecution and assault by police. Brothels paid monthly protection fees to the local police but this did not protect them from police harassment, refusal to pay for sex, and rape from roving military police. In addition Phnom Penh police occasionally conducted crackdowns on raids in order to clean up Cambodia’s international reputation. These crackdowns frequently included forced “rescues” organized by local or international NGOs working to “save” sex workers from further exploitation. Although these rescue missions have only recently started targeting establishments with children as sex workers, in the past raids were conducted indiscriminately. This precipitated fear and chaos as workers attempted to avoid arrest. These police raids and NGO “rescue” missions had the added effect of forcing the sex workers to bribe in order to be released from custody thereby increasing their debt. Also the heavy police presence at times scared off customers depriving women of regular work and reducing their weekly incomes.
Svay Pak is internationally infamous for its collection of shanties, brothels, and karaoke bars that exploit young Vietnamese and Cambodian women, and children as young as five. Despite claims that child prostitution had been shut down in Svay Pak, Dateline NBC made several trips there in the 2000s which showed that child prostitution was still rampant in Svay Pak at that time, reports which included footage of alleged child prostitutes. The story resulted in an undercover sting and several arrests, but many pimps did not cooperate with undercover cops and the Svay Pak brothels still exist.
While a majority of adult sex workers came to Svay Pak voluntarily, children make up most of the population of sex workers that came to Svay Pak involuntarily. Sold by families or neighbors in severe poverty, kidnapped off the streets, tricked into working in the sex trade, children are the shame as well as financial pride of Svay Pak. Brothels are able to get away with abusing the children and keeping all of their earnings in order to pay for the cost of taking care of them. Children are serviced out to customers for many days at a time for a fee and are usually not given a choice in regards to safe sex. Some child sex workers have reported being gang-raped and mentally abused at the hands of their clients. Those that are lucky enough to escape are in a limbo about what to do next. Many are too ashamed to return home or cannot return home because they have no evidence of nationality (Vietnamese victims). Others see their salvation in marrying the foreigners they had sex with. They write love letters to their clients in hopes that one day they will return and give them social, economic, and physical security. Through Agape International Missions, Don Brewster runs a rehabilitation home in Svay Pak for formerly prostituted children.
- Busza 2004 p.234
- "'It's like a sweet shop: if this girl's not right, get another'". The Telegraph. September 15, 2002. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
- "Svay Pak Community Center" 2006
- Busza and Schunter 2001 p.76
- Busza 2004 p.234
- "The Younger the Better: 19,250 Children Trapped in Cambodia's Sex Industry" 2003 Archived 2010-03-30 at the Wayback Machine
- "Child sex trade soars in Cambodia" 2008
- Busza 2004 p.234
- Busza 2004 p.236
- reported by NBC and MSNBC
- Sara Sidner (October 24, 2011). "Cambodian village has disturbing reputation for child sex slavery". CNN. Retrieved February 19, 2013.