Prostitution in Cambodia is illegal, but prevalent. A 2008 Cambodian Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation[1] has proven controversial, with international concerns regarding human rights abuses resulting from it, such as outlined in the 2010 Human Rights Watch report.[2][3]

The comprehensive Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation[1] was enacted in 2008. It punishes the trafficking of people, the managing of prostitutes and the maintaining of a brothel, as well as soliciting in public and distributing pornography. The mere act of exchanging sex for money is not outlawed.

The Women’s Network for Unity is a Cambodian sex worker organization which was established in 2000. It lobbies for legal and human rights and better working conditions for sex workers and aims to amend the 2008 law.[4]

In 2016 UNAIDS estimated there to be 34,000 prostitutes in the country,[5] many from Vietnam.[6][7][8]


Sexual exchange has existed in Cambodia for centuries, but the events of the 20th century created a very unstable situation. During the Khmer Rouge years (1975–1979) prostitution was completely banned and punishable by death resulting in its virtual elimination in a highly totalitarian social system. Under the new State of Cambodia (1979–1993) commercial sex started to re-emerge.[9]

After the dismantlement of the State of Cambodia, about 20,000 male troops and civilian personnel of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) (1992–1993) arrived in Cambodia together with many NGOs and business interests from abroad, creating a new market for sexual services in a very poor country. UNTAC did little to stem the growth of prostitution in the country. Norodom Sihanouk had many reservations about the whole UNTAC operation, for the massive presence of UN foreign troops led in his eyes to the abuse and dishonor of Cambodian women.[9]

Following UNTAC withdrawal in August 1993, demand was reduced, and a drop in the number of commercial sex establishments and sex workers was apparent. By mid-1994 the numbers started to increase again in a period of political instability. By the mid-1990s police were harassing sex workers, but also owned many of the brothels, which were divided into Vietnamese or Khmer. Workers between 15 and 18 were not uncommon, but some establishments, such as those in Toul Kork and Svay Pak, specialised in providing younger workers.[3][10]

NGOs became alarmed by the growth of child prostitution along with number of women and children abducted sold for prostitution. By 1995 it appeared that women from some surrounding countries were entering Cambodia. International concern was raised and some raids were carried out including one by the International Justice Mission (2004). This had the effect of displacing the workers.[3][10]

The number of prostitutes in Cambodia rose from about 6,000 at the time of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, to over 20,000 after the arrival of UNTAC personnel in 1992, and declined to between 4,000 and 10,000 following their withdrawal.[10][11][12]

Child sex tourism

Cambodia has child sex tourism present.[13][14][15][16] Some children are sold by their own parents, others are lured by what they think are legitimate job offers like waitressing. Pimps are reported to imprison young children who are virgins, not putting them to work until they have been presented to a series of bidders such as high-ranking military officers, politicians, businessmen and foreign tourists. Young girls working in brothels are in effect sex slaves. They receive no money, only food, and there are armed guards to stop them from running away.[17]

Children are often held captive, beaten, and starved to force them into prostitution.[15] The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency has extradited American sex tourists back home for prosecution.[18] Vietnamese child prostitutes make up one third of child prostitutes in Cambodia,[19] and Cambodian brothels employ girls and women from Vietnam.[20]

Foreign prostitutes in Cambodia

Unofficial estimates in 2005 suggest there are as many as 15,000 prostitutes in Phnom Penh, and that up to 35% of them have been smuggled into Cambodia from China or Vietnam, mostly from the southwestern provinces of Vietnam (Long An, An Giang, Song Be, Kien Giang, Dong Thap, Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City).[21]

Violence against prostitutes

Violence against prostitutes, especially gang rape, called bauk in Cambodian,[22] is common.[23] Perpetrators include customers and police officers. According to some sources, such assaults are not condemned by society due to the stigmatization of prostitutes[24] – a survey on opinions on bauk showed that only 13 percent of the males and 13 percent of the females interviewed considered that sex forced by a group of men on a prostitute was rape. The most common response – 33.4 percent of males and 40.7 percent of females – was that bauk was dangerous because of the potential transmission of sexually transmitted diseases; 12.5 percent of males and 8.1 percent of females said that gang rape against prostitutes didn't hurt anyone because the women were prostitutes and saw many men anyway; while 12.7 percent of males and 16.7 percent of females said it was better that this happened to prostitutes than to other women.[25]

Despite the social stigma cast on prostitutes, paying for sex is very common among men in Cambodia – while Khmer culture demands female virginity, it links masculinity to sexual activity, and as a result, prostitutes are the object of most young men's sexual encounters throughout their youth and early adulthood.[26] Sexual violence against prostitutes was also described in a 2010 Amnesty International report, called Breaking the Silence – Sexual Violence in Cambodia.[27]

Sexual health

Main article: HIV/AIDS in Cambodia

Cambodia has a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS, being one of the worst affected countries in Asia. By 1995 there were between 50,000 and 90,000 Cambodians affected by AIDS, according to a WHO estimate. Transmission is mainly through heterosexual contact. Factors contributing to this include poverty, the presence of other STIs which facilitate HIV transmission, and a highly mobile workforce.[citation needed] This pattern is also seen in the sex worker population. Improvement has been seen in the last decade[when?] with condom promotion. Since 2001, there has been a "100% condom program" in place, which promoted safe sex.[28]

Opposition to sex trade

The U.S. State Department frequently condemns Cambodia for its sex trade, and downgraded their categorisation of the country in 2004.[29][30][31][32]

Somaly Mam has fabricated a number of anti-trafficking stories to attract foreign aid donations.[33][34] Mam ran the foundation AFESIP, which has been influential in helping the police raid hotels and kidnap their employees.[32][35][36]

Some international commentators have noted that the garment industry in Cambodia is abusive,[37] and efforts to remove sex workers from brothels and give them jobs making clothes can backfire if some return to the brothels.[38][39]

Sex trafficking

Main article: Sex trafficking in Cambodia

Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Cambodian adults and children migrate to other countries within the region and increasingly to the Middle East for work; many are subjected sex trafficking. Migrants using irregular migration channels, predominantly with the assistance of unlicensed brokers, are at an increased risk of trafficking, but those using licensed recruiting agents also become victims of sex trafficking. A significant number of women from rural areas are recruited under false pretences to travel to China to enter into marriages with Chinese men, who often incur as much as $20,000 in debt to brokers facilitating the transaction; some of these women are then subjected to forced prostitution as a result of this debt.[40]

All of Cambodia’s 25 provinces are sources for human trafficking. Sex trafficking is largely clandestine; Cambodian and ethnic Vietnamese women and girls move from rural areas to cities and tourist destinations, where they are subjected to sex trafficking in brothels and, more frequently, such “indirect” sex establishments as beer gardens, massage parlors, salons, karaoke bars, retail spaces, and non-commercial sites. Cambodian men form the largest source of demand for children exploited in prostitution; however, men from elsewhere in Asia and Europe, the United States, Australia, and South Africa travel to Cambodia to engage in child sex tourism.[40]

Vietnamese women and children, many of whom are victims of debt bondage, travel to Cambodia and are subjected to sex trafficking. NGOs report criminal gangs transport some Vietnamese victims through Cambodia before they are exploited in Thailand and Malaysia. Traffickers in Cambodia are most commonly family or community members or small networks of independent brokers. Endemic corruption aids and abets trafficking crimes. Some police reportedly solicit commercial sex with children. Corrupt officials facilitate cross-border trafficking, thwart progress on investigations and prosecutions, and in some cases profit directly from establishments suspected of trafficking.[40]

The United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons ranks Cambodia as a 'Tier 2' country.[40]

See also



  1. ^ a b "Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation". Scribd. 15 February 2008.
  2. ^ "Cambodia: Sex Workers Face Unlawful Arrests and Detention". Human Rights Watch. 21 July 2010. Archived from the original on 4 July 2011. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia (PDF). Human Rights Watch (Report). July 2010.
  4. ^ Paula Stromberg (4 March 2012). "Sex work in Cambodia". DailyXtra.
  5. ^ "Sex workers: Population size estimate - Number, 2016". UNAIDS. Archived from the original on 4 April 2019. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  6. ^ Vu, J.B. (3 November 2010). "Thousands of Vietnamese women and children sold as "sex slaves"". AsiaNews.
  7. ^ "Human Trafficking & Modern-day Slavery Socialist Republic of Vietnam". Human Trafficking, Modern-day Slavery, Forced Labor & Debt... GVnet.
  8. ^ Nguyen Dinh Thang; Vu Quoc Dung; Pastor Truong Tri Hien; Nguyen Cao Quyen; Nguyen Quoc Khai; Ngo Thi Hie (May 2008). Vietnam Country Report Background Information and Recommendations (PDF) (Report). Vietnam Study Group. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 September 2011.
  9. ^ a b Milton Osborne, Sihanouk, Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness. Silkworm 1994
  10. ^ a b c "CAMBODIA: prostitution and sex trafficking: a growing threat to the human rights of women and children in Cambodia". Human Rights Solidarity (Vol. 12). 6 (4). 4 November 1996. Archived from the original on 18 September 2008.
  11. ^ Soizick Crochet, Le Cambodge, Karthala, Paris 1997, ISBN 2-86537-722-9
  12. ^ Ditmore, Melissa Hope (2006). Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313329708 – via
  13. ^ Gittings, John (16 November 2000). "The tragic tale of the Cambodian child prostitutes". Guardian. London. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  14. ^ Harding, Andrew (11 June 2005). "Trapping Cambodia's sex tourists". BBC. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  15. ^ a b "Dateline goes undercover with a human rights group to expose sex trafficking in Cambodia". NBC News. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  16. ^ "Cambodia gets tough on child sex trade". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  17. ^ "Asian Child Rights". Asian Human Rights Commission. Archived from the original on 30 March 2010. Retrieved 18 May 2010.
  18. ^ "The US agents tracking down sex tourists in Cambodia". BBC News. 30 January 2011.
  19. ^ Busuttil, Fanny (15 March 2012). "Children of Viet Nam". Humanium.
  20. ^ "Trafficking of Vietnamese Women Expands Across Region". Bangkok: Reuters. 18 May 2016.
  21. ^ Illicit trafficking : a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. 2005. p. 148. ISBN 1-57607-915-5.
  22. ^ Wood, Richard; Sam, Rith (30 July 2004). "Study looks at 'bauk' - gang-rape of prostitutes". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  23. ^ Aglionby, John (26 July 2003). "Sex workers helpless as young men 'bond' in gang rape outings". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  24. ^ Ditmore, Melissa Hope (11 March 2014). ""Caught Between the Tiger and the Crocodile": Cambodian Sex Workers' Experiences of Structural and Physical Violence". Studies in Gender and Sexuality. 15: 22–31. doi:10.1080/15240657.2014.877726. S2CID 144716733.
  25. ^ "Gang Rape Has Become the Sport of the Young generation". Archived from the original on 2 March 2011. Retrieved 16 February 2011.
  26. ^ Hoenig, Henry (26 October 2003). "France cracking the whip on sex / Liberated nation turns moralistic". The San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011.
  27. ^ "Document". Retrieved 31 December 2010.
  28. ^ Couture, Marie-Claude; Sansothy, Neth; Sapphon, Vonthanak; Phal, Serey; Sichan, Keo; Stein, Ellen; Evans, Jennifer; Maher, Lisa; Kaldor, John; Vun, Mean Chhi; Page, Kimberly (January 2011). "Couture et al. Young women engaged in sex work in Phnom Penh, HIV, STI, stimulants. Challenges to HIV prevention and risk. STD 2011". Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 38 (1): 33–9. doi:10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3182000e47. PMC 3729941. PMID 21085056.
  29. ^ " - U.S. raps Cambodia over sex trade". CNN. 14 December 2004.
  30. ^ "Cambodian Girls Driven to Prostitution". Radio Free Asia.
  31. ^ "Cambodia". U.S. Department of State.
  32. ^ a b Willem van Schendel; Lenore Lyons; Michele Ford (2012). Labour Migration and Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia: Critical Perspectives. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-66563-6.
  33. ^ Daniel Pye. "US was on to Somaly Mam". The Phnom Penh Post.
  34. ^ "Officials Hand Donations to Somaly Mam's NGO". The Cambodia Daily. 31 December 2014. Archived from the original on 13 December 2018. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
  35. ^ Larissa Sandy (27 August 2014). Women and Sex Work in Cambodia: Blood, Sweat and Tears. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-64930-4.
  36. ^ Adam Taylor (29 May 2014). "Why would Somaly Mam quit her own sex-trafficking foundation?". Washington Post.
  37. ^ "Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?". Slate Magazine. 19 May 2011.
  38. ^ "The High Cost of Cheap Clothes". VICE. 17 October 2014.
  39. ^ "The Walkabout Is Cambodia's Sleaziest Bar". Vice. 25 December 2014. There are the geriatric sex tourists in white socks and sandals whose rheumy eyes go laser sharp when they hone in [sic] on the desperate, teenage hookers whose only other option is working in a sweatshop for $2.50 a day.
  40. ^ a b c d "Cambodia 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report". U.S. Department of State. Archived from the original on 26 July 2018. Retrieved 26 July 2018.Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.

Further reading