Cambodia is a land of dreams deferred. The enthusiasm of liberation from France in the 1950s fueled a vibrant cultural renaissance, exemplified in the ‘60s by the heady optimism of the Khmer rock era, a new musical movement. In the ‘70s, Khmer rock was suppressed by the Khmer Rouge, who killed one-fifth of the country’s population and brought the nation to ruin and collapse. It has been 30 years since the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, but the dreams of a prosperous, modern country have still not been fulfilled.
In The Girls of Phnom Penh, director Matthew Watson introduces us to three sets of aspirations deferred. We met three teenage girls — Srey Leak, Me Nea, and Cheata — who have dreams of becoming beauticians and falling in love. But these three girls, chatting by day about music and boys like their 16- and 17-year-old counterparts anywhere in the world, work at night as prostitutes in a karaoke club in Phnom Penh. They work to support their families, who, according to Watson, often depend completely on the money they are earning. For that reason, the girls defer their dreams again and again, night after night.
The poverty of the country falls particularly heavily on the shoulders of young girls. “The daughters aren’t seen in the same way as the sons, very sadly, and it’s almost like it’s the daughter’s responsibility to earn a living for the family, more so than the boys,” said Watson, speaking from London. This is an aspect of Cambodian culture called “chbab srey”, or “the role of women.”
The concept becomes a particular danger to young Cambodian girls on account of another common cultural belief in Cambodia and many other Asian countries. “These men genuinely believe that having sex with a virgin girl gives them special powers, and extra health, and extra luck if they gamble, and might make them live longer,” explained Watson.
Consequently, men save up for months to be able to buy a girl’s virginity, which can fetch as much as $1,200 from an interested buyer. “These girls practically have a bounty on their heads,” said Watson. “If their virginity is worth, say, $700, then, tragically, the temptation is there for the parents to sell the daughters, and often it’s a one-off; they’re not selling their daughters into prostitution.” What is intended as a one-time transaction, however, often serves as a gateway to a life in Cambodia’s massive sex industry.
While Watson’s first film, Cambodia: The Virginity Trade (2009), was an informative documentary on the Cambodian sex trade, The Girls of Phnom Penh is a beautiful and intimate portrait of the girls trapped by the system. “I really wanted to just show people how these girls live, and how they’re basically ordinary girls,” he said. “They’re quite normal girls, but in quite awful situations.”
Sadly, the awful situation in which the girls are ensnared is all too normal in Cambodia. Culturally, women who are not engaged in the sex trade in one form or another are not expected to be out at night; a woman encountered during a night on the town, whether she is ostensibly a waitress, a karaoke singer, or anything else, is almost unavoidably also engaged in prostitution of some kind.
“When men go out at night, they’re basically surrounded by these girls who are all working in the sex industry, and it just, sort of, feeds on itself. It’s perfectly normal for a man to go out with his friends any night of the week, have a few drinks, and then sleep with a prostitute.”
Watson becomes agitated thinking about his filming experience. “My crew slept with prostitutes all the time, that just shows how — and this really, really upset me — but it’s just so normal for men, for all men out there, to sleep with sex workers,” he said. “It shouldn’t be as normal as it is.”
After filming, Watson and his colleagues were able to raise the money to help Srey Leak, Cheata, and Me Nea out of their debts, and send them to a school where they are now studying to become beauticians. A special charitable fund, called the Cambodia Fund, has been set up to help girls in the same circumstances, and is now officially registered as a British charity.
Originally published in The Concordian.